In an unprecedented turn of events, Pakistan’s football team will have a former English football star at their helm when they participate in the Asian Games next month. Graham Roberts, a former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur defender, has joined the Pakistan Football Federation as a coaching consultant for a two-month stint. In this exclusive interview with Dawn.com, Roberts reveals the details of his ‘signing’, his initial impression of the Pakistan football set-up and his plans for the improvement of the game in a cricket-mad country. Dawn.com: How did the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) get in touch with you and why did you take up this coaching job? Graham Roberts: There is a UK-based sports company called TouchSky Sports, who have been working in an association with the PFF. They put a deal together and asked me if I would be interested in coming to Pakistan to coach and help the national team before they go to China (for the Asian Games).
Dawn.com: Did you ever follow Pakistan football before? Why were you interested in this job? GR: I like challenges in my life and this was a big challenge, especially since it is with the national team. I have been given me the opportunity to come to Pakistan and improve the game here. I have coached and played in England so I look at this job as an opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience to the Pakistani players.
Dawn.com: How much of a difference do you think you will be able to make in two months? GR: Obviously, I will not be able to make a lot of difference overnight but I have met with the players and they are enjoying current coaching regimen. I will be going to the games and will pass on my advice to the players, as well as the coaches.
Dawn.com: Were you concerned about the security situation in the country? GR: Ever since my arrival, I have been around to a few places, like the football stadium, Fifa House and there have been no security issues at all.
Dawn.com: In a previous interview, you said you had two coaching offers from England. Why did you turn them down and chose to come to Pakistan instead? GR: I like new challenges in my life. Sometimes when you coach in England, things get a little stale. I had two interviews over there but I wanted to take this opportunity to come to Pakistan. I have played for England and I have played for big clubs like Tottenham, Chelsea and Rangers, so I think the players in the national team can learn a lot from what I have experienced.
Dawn.com: Pakistan is currently ranked 162nd in the Fifa world rankings. How do you plan on improving that? GR: A change in rankings cannot come overnight. I am currently looking at the Under-23 players and there are some really good, talented boys there. I think the main reason they are ranked at 162 is because they have not played many games. Pakistan’s ranking will go up to about 125 within a year if they play more games because that is where you get the rankings from. We will play in the Asian Games, then there is the President’s Cup and if we do well in these matches, the rankings will improve automatically. Once the ranking improves to 120 or 130, people will take notice and want to play for Pakistan, which will make a big difference.
Dawn.com: After meeting with the players and having a look at the facilities, what kind of potential do you see in the Pakistan football team? GR: The facilities are good and the players are talented but we have to take it to the next level. The bottom line is you can stay where you are and you will be 162 in the world. I have ambitions and because I have taken this job, I am going to do the best I can with it.
The federation has big goals for the improvement football in Pakistan as well. We want to improve the infrastructure and focus on the younger players and turn them into global football players. After all, football is the biggest sport in the world.
Dawn.com: How are you planning on improving the training and preparations of the team for the Asian Games? GR: The training is fine at the moment. What we have to do is get them into a system. When we play the likes of Thailand and Oman we know it is going to be difficult but we go there with determination to win and the belief that we can beat them.
Dawn.com: Speaking of Thailand, you will be facing your former England teammate Bryan Robson who is managing Thailand. What are your sentiments regarding that? GR: I sent him a text the other day saying that I am looking forward to seeing him on the halfway line. It will be good to meet Bryan, he has done a fantastic job at Thailand and he will come there and he will want to win that tournament. It will be a difficult game but if we are well-organized, we can give them a game.
Dawn.com: What major changes do you want to see in the structure of football in Pakistan? GR: There are going to be a couple of professional leagues by next year, which will help the national team. It is all about funds and sponsors – if they can get on board, it will improve the infrastructure greatly. Sponsors need to put money into football like they do in cricket, which will make people come and watch the matches. It will also produce better players; provide better facilities and equipment; which will improve the overall situation for football in Pakistan. In England, the good teams have the best facilities. If you look at the first and second division leagues in England, the facilities are probably not as good as those of Manchester United, Chelsea or Tottenham.
Dawn.com: This is your first time in Pakistan. What do you think about the culture and the people you have come across so far? GR: I just came back from a restaurant and it was lovely. The people are fantastic and very friendly. I am looking forward to meeting a lot of people and the culture is not a problem for me, I mix with everyone.
Dawn.com: Being a former Tottenham, Chelsea and West Brom player, your arrival has caused a lot of excitement among the football fans. What do you have to say about that? GR: I am excited to be here. I have been reading the papers and I basically just want to help Pakistan football and put it on the map. I want it to be a force in the football world. I am not saying we are going to get into the World Cup finals right now, but our main aim is to put things together in the long run.
Dawn.com: Cricket is very popular in Pakistan. How do you think you can make football emerge here? GR: Cricket has a huge following in Pakistan. But the thing is that if someone is interested in cricket, why wouldn’t they be interested in football? What people look for is success rate. If you give them a winning team, they will watch football and support it. It might be three or four thousand in the beginning and then it will go up and if you keep winning, people will watch the team and support it. Football is a global sport and people in Pakistan watch the Premiership (English Premier League) so they will definitely watch the national team if they have a chance. They will come and watch if they have a winning team to cheer for. We have to make sure that the structure is right and that it is set up properly all over the country. Not just in the major cities.
Dawn.com: Will you have any say in team selection or will you be playing with the players you already have at your disposal? GR: No. The team is set up for now, for the Asian Games. I am just here to offer my expertise and help the team that is already there. I am only here for two months at the moment and we are working on a possible contract extension and I would love to stay. I think I have a lot of things to offer but it is down to the PFF. After the Asian Games, there is the President’s Cup and I would ideally like to be in charge for that.
Dawn.com: There are some players who play for international clubs. How will their inclusion affect the team? GR: First, we have to get the infrastructure right so that they want to come and play for Pakistan. You want your best players to play for the national team and you have to strike a balance. The Under-23 team is a talented lot and they have great potential the way I see it. So you do not want to push them out because if they are built up properly, in four or five years, they will be a winning team but it will be good to have some experienced players.
Dawn.com: Being coached by an FA Cup and Uefa Cup winner is definitely going to boost the team’s morale. What do you have to say about that? GR: I see some really good potential in the team. They know what I have to offer and I know what they have to offer. The bottom line is that you have to give them confidence and build them up and give them a winning mentality. You have to get into their minds and tell them they are good players and they can win. In training the players have been absolutely fantastic. What we spoke about in the meeting yesterday, they actually showed it in training today and that is going to improve their game.
Dawn.com: The infrastructure of football in Pakistan is not set up properly and the entire system is very scattered. Can you make any suggestions about that? GR: There is going to be a proper professional league by next year and the PFF is going to set that up with the help of Fifa but it is all down to sponsorships. England for example, has different sponsors for football, for cricket and various other sports. We have to get people to sponsor the football and it can become massive in Pakistan. All the people who live in Pakistan like sports and what you have to do is bring them out to watch it.
Dawn.com: Do you have a message for your fans? GR: Yes. I would like to tell them to come out and support the national team. I don’t know if people will actually go to China to watch the team but they should support the team because they will see a very talented side coming through – a team that wants to put their shirts on and play for the country. The boys are quite keyed up for the tournament and are looking forward to the fans coming out and supporting the team. We are very approachable, they can come and meet the team and that is what we want.