So the miracle of Lahore never came to pass. It was always a long shot, coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the first leg but it was something of a disappointment that Pakistan were unable to at least win the return match against Bangladesh. As always, the 180 minutes of football have produced debates that will last a lot longer. Namely, where does the national team go from here?
As I wrote last time, blaming others only goes so far without any solutions offered. Former captain Mohammed Essa was blunt in his assessment of the team’s foreign-based stars after the first leg loss in Dhaka. “Tell me where we have performed with these players,” he asked.
“The main problem with them is that being professional players and most loyal to their clubs they normally don’t play with the type of courage and commitment our own boys play with while representing Pakistan in international competitions. They try to protect themselves from injuries. And if a player does not offer his hundred percent it normally affects the performance of the whole team.”
Essa seems to be saying that professional players loyal to their clubs don’t care so much about international football. But this is simply not true even when you look at players on the books of the biggest clubs such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid. These teams are full of top players fully committed to their countries. If Pakistan is different, then the question has to be ‘why?’
Is the Pakistan national team giving the overseas stars the platform to actually play well when they return? It doesn’t matter if you are an Essa or a Messi; it is not just a case of turning up and then dazzling opponents with your talent. The conditions must be in place for all players to be able to give their best. And given the chaos that engulfed preparations for the Bangladesh game with no warm-up match of any note, it is hard to say that such conditions were in place. Work needs to be done to ensure that a team is produced.
In many Asian countries, there is an idea that foreign equals better when it comes to football. The media and perhaps the fans expect a little more of the Europe-based players, understandably so but it is more difficult for them to play to their best. They face lengthy trips to play in almost every game and as well as jetlag there is the fact that they have little time to get to fit in and get accustomed to the playing style that the coach wants.
For a team that has never really had an overseas contingent to speak of, this fairly rapid emergence of a foreign legion can present some challenges for players –both the ones who are based at home and the ones coming from abroad - and coaching staff. It takes time to get accustomed to which is all the more reason why the preparations should be as smooth as possible to give all players and coaching staff the freedom to focus just on the football.
Perhaps it is time to look east for inspiration. In the past few years both Japan and South Korea have increasingly had their teams dominated by foreign-based players. At the time of the 2002 World Cup, each team had a couple of players in Europe but over the years this has steadily grown to the extent that both, especially Japan, could field an international line-up made up of players based in Europe. As we saw in the 2011 Asian Cup, this hasn’t done them any harm.
It has helped that it has been an evolutionary process and not a revolutionary one. It happened slowly and most of the players who have gone played a number of years in the J-League or K-League. These players saw the likes of Park Ji-sung and Shunsuke Nakamura go west and become huge stars and return home as heroes.
It is not an easy thing to have a sizeable portion of your squad based 10,000 kilometers away. What most coaches have found over the years is that if you are going to deal with this then you have to have a long-term strategy. The fact that European clubs are only forced to release their players on official FIFA match days means that the likes of Korea and Japan are accustomed to playing many friendly games (indeed, the two rivals play each other on August 12 in Sapporo in a game and will be fielding teams made up of domestic-based players) and even some Asian Cup qualifiers without their stars.
What a succession of coaches has done is worked with the players that are always available to create a strong and stable framework. Through repeated training and games, the domestic-based stars are able to create the playing style that the coach wants. If you have, like Pakistan have, three or four foreign-based stars, these means that they can arrive a few days before the game, and be greeted with a team full of players who all know what jobs they have to do on the pitch and know what everyone else is doing at the same time. In this situation, it is relatively easy for the overseas stars, especially those with the experience of a player such as Zeeshan Rehman, to slot in to the team smoothly.
Organisation – both on and off the pitch – is vital.
The debate shouldn’t be if foreign players are a good or a bad thing for Pakistan football but it should be whether they have the opportunity to show what they can do. The Japanese and Korean players return home, know the system, know the facilities and know what is expected. All they need to do is overcome jetlag. Can Pakistan’s foreign players say the same? It is doubtful.
If what Essa says is true, then there can be no question that those who give less than 100% should not be selected but when you look at the build-up to the Bangladesh match, a World Cup qualifier no less, then any player arriving a few days ahead of the match would shake their head at the chaotic preparations – and to be honest, the domestic-based players should have done the same. Roy Keane, used to the best at Manchester United, famously despaired of what Ireland players had to put up with.
An environment has to be created where any player can feel comfortable and settled and focused on giving their best performance. If Pakistan can’t do that there are always going to be problems.
John Duerden is from England but has lived in Asia for over a decade. He writes about Asian football for The Guardian, ESPN, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, AP and many other publications.