by Mir Shabbar Ali
PAKISTAN’S 3-1 loss to India in Wednesday’s SAFF Cup semi-final early this week has been heartbreaking for Pakistani football fans who finally felt connected to the national side and were eagerly looking forward to a historic win against the arch-rivals.
However, the loss was followed up by social media posts in support for the Pakistan side by influential commentators and narratives drawn from the defeat were that Pakistan did well against an Indian side who are ranked 96th in the world and we should back the team which is playing international football after a gap of three years. Some also said that 3-1 is a very good result against India.
Such remarks make one wonder whether the people making them have any idea about the recent developments in Pakistan football and also make one doubt their credibility.
So here’s a reality check and an effort to make the picture clearer to the fans who were misled on Wednesday evening. The 22-man India squad was selected on July 28 this year and was put through a training camp that ended on August 16.
Nine of the 22 players called up by Indian coach Stephen Constantine were uncapped players, picked directly from the local first division I-League. The player with the highest number of caps in the squad had seven to his name.
They came to the SAFF Cup after a tour of Australia where their scheduled match against the hosts’ Under-23 team was cancelled. But they lost 3-0 to A-League side Sydney FC in one of their three games.
Technically, the Indian team, which scored three goals against Pakistan was an unranked one. It was hardly a group of players which was expected to deliver trophies. Therefore, it was not even sent to Indonesia to compete in the recently concluded Asian Games in which only under-23 teams could participate. This lack of expectation made India, who are the giants of South Asian football, opt out of the Games.
India were faced with a crisis upon landing in Australia but their management worked a way to provide their young team with key practice games.
On the other hand, Pakistan went in with an almost full-strength side. It is true that the footballing activity in Pakistan resumed after three-years of political turmoil — thanks to the incumbent Pakistan Football Federation officials — but the national squad, unlike India’s, was a senior one.
Five players who starred in the semi-final for Pakistan — namely goalkeeper Yousuf Butt (Greve Fodbold, Denmark 2nd tier), Zesh Rehman (Southern District FC, Hong Kong Premier League), Abdullah Qazy (La Máquina FC, United Premier Soccer League USA), Mohammad Ali (Boldklubben AF 1893, Danish 2nd division) and Hassan Bashir (BK Søllerød-Vedbæk, Danish 2nd Division) — play professional football abroad apart from Qazy, who plays for an amateur club.
Pakistan captain Saddam Hussain, winger Mohammad Adil, midfielder Saadullah are three home-grown players who also play abroad. Therefore, the argument that these players lacked match practice in the past three years does not make sense.
Players all over the world come to the national team during the international break. Yes they hadn’t played for the national team but they were still playing for their clubs. Zesh, who didn’t even attend the national camp in the country, couldn’t handle the Indian attackers. He’s aged and doesn’t have the legs to withstand quality opposition. That gives rise to the debate that if Zesh could just walk into the side like that, why couldn’t Pakistan’s biggest football star Kaleemullah find a place in the team.
Ali and Hassan had difficulty going past the Indian defence and here too, the critics were quick to point out as to why Pakistan’s Brazil-born Coach Nogueira not pick Murtuza Hussain, the top striker in the country for the last few years.
The midfield was virtually non-existent. Qazy did nothing than give away fouls. After Coach Nogueira was appointed in April, he brought with him fitness coach Jose Portella but the players surely did not seem to have benefitted from his expertise, especially if one considers the fact that he has been working with them for so long.
Pakistan’s training camp, which included 59 players, kicked off in Lahore on May 25. The camp was followed by the team’s departure to Bahrain where they played practice matches against the country’s professional club sides.
The Pakistan U-23 then took part in the Asian Games before senior players were called up and flown to Bangladesh for the SAFF Cup. Ironically, though, while the U-23 side were in Jakarta, neither Nogueira nor technical director Shahzad Anwar was working with the senior team players.
Prior to the SAFF Cup, Shahzad spoke about a tour to Qatar being finalised. Yet there was none. Pakistan have nothing lined up in the next two international breaks either. Then the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) will be in full flow. So much for giving exposure to the team.
Starting from the Asian Games till the SAFF Cup semi-final against India, there’s been no real game-play or philosophy in Pakistan’s performances.
Pakistan struggled to keep the ball against Nepal in the opening SAFF Cup match but were lucky to win 2-1 following their opponents’ lack of precision in the final third.
The Greenshirts’ repeated their performance in the second match against Bangladesh and this time they weren’t as lucky, losing after conceding a goal following a throw in.
Against Bhutan, Pakistan looked better. But again, Bhutan struggled throughout the tournament and were extremely disjointed and poor. Bhutan had quality thrown at them.
In the semi-final against India, Pakistan could hardly complete a pass. There was no possession play and the ball was lost repeatedly due to long-passes being played with no real target.
Talking about passing, let’s come back to Qazy who started in the all-important midfield role along with Saddam. The latter is known for his physical presence and defensive play in the middle of the park. This makes Qazy the man who had to do the creative work to free up more attack-minded players in Mahmood Khan and Mohammad Riaz.
Qazy is also a curious case. The midfielder plays in an amateur league in the United States and was given the Pakistan cap despite not having any history of Pakistan football.
On the other hand, Kaleem was dropped since PFF chief Faisal Saleh Hayat claimed he “played for an amateur side in Turkey”. The player was blamed for “having no respect for the country” by Hayat.
The players did their best for sure. Their intentions are not to be blamed. But the high-profile appointments by the PFF and so much money being spent for camps abroad should come under the scanners.
People should not be thinking that Pakistan’s effort was appreciable just because they played after three years.
And commentators, who have a huge responsibility of enlightening the fans, should not be giving sweeping statements. The fans do not deserve to be misled.