Pakistan football is undergoing a style change and it offers hope for future

Updated April 25, 2018

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KARACHI: A K-Electric defender plays out from the back during the National Challenge Cup match against Sui Northern Gas Pipelines at the KPT Football Stadium on Tuesday.—Mir Shabbar Ali
KARACHI: A K-Electric defender plays out from the back during the National Challenge Cup match against Sui Northern Gas Pipelines at the KPT Football Stadium on Tuesday.—Mir Shabbar Ali

KARACHI: There was something striking about Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited’s (SNGPL) stunning victory over highly-fancied K-Electric in the National Challenge Cup on Tuesday. It was the style and composure of SNGPL players in the 1-0 victory which kept the crowd here at the KPT Stadium engaged for the 90 minutes.

It’s something that their coach Khalid Khan has been working on for the last four years, since he took over at the second-division club. Yet it wasn’t close to the perfection Khalid was looking to achieve.

“We were composed in defence and midfield but not in front of goal,” he told Dawn after the Group ‘H’ game that put his side in pole position to advance to the quarter-finals.

SNGPL players not only were good at holding the ball but even in tight situations their defenders and midfielders preferred to pass their way out instead of booting the ball away.

“I liked the build-up play but not how we kept missing chances after doing the hard work,” added Khalid.

It is the build-up play of not only SNGPL but also of the other teams that has caught the eye during the first round of matches of the Challenge Cup. And it points towards Pakistan football undergoing a style change.

Local teams have begun realising the importance of modern methods: ball possession, tactical pressing, passing and movement and more significantly keeping the ball on the ground.

Even four-time national champions Wapda, the team famous for their ‘Faisalabad style’ of play, have stopped hoofing the ball upfield from the back. They went back to their roots once Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) came desperately in search of a equaliser during their Group ‘F’ match last week which Wapda won 1-0. But thankfully it was short-lived.

“It’s difficult to change the whole style so quickly but we’re working towards that and trying to play better football,” Wapda coach Mohammad Habib, who took over the side last year, told Dawn after his team’s constant press and quick passing denied SSGC, a team laden with several Pakistan internationals, the space and time to play.

To maintain that consistent press, the teams have preferred fielding younger players. Pakistan Army, like Wapda, are also turning towards youth and it showed in their 1-0 triumph over Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) in Group ‘G’ on Monday.

“Younger players have more desire, more energy and they are essential for keeping the same level at all times,” Habib added.

The danger with that high press though is that one well-directed long-ball can catch the team out. But local sides are getting braver and what helped Wapda was that SSGC is a team that doesn’t take the aerial route too often.

“Our focus is to play good football,” SSGC coach Tariq Lutfi told Dawn. “We aren’t used to playing the long ball and therefore we couldn’t really get past the Wapda backline.”

SLICKEST TEAM

The slickest team on the ground in Pakistan remains Karachi Port Trust (KPT). The short passing and movement was evident in their 4-1 thumping of Public Works Department (PWD) in their opening Group ‘D’ fixture on Sunday and was evidence why it enjoys huge support from football enthusiasts in the country’s biggest city.

Yet KPT’s style of play has seen them come up short in the past when faced with opposition from Punjab which plays in the ‘Faisalabad style’.

Many argue that presence of ball-playing and more physical defenders could’ve served KPT well over the years but the side has stuck to their policy of only signing players who can ensure quick passing and movement.

“We’d lose our identity really if we were to do that,” KPT’s star striker Mohammad Bin Younis told Dawn earlier this year.

What’s refreshing though is that the teams are now focusing on keeping the ball low. And that offers hope for the future — especially that of the Pakistan national team.

“It will definitely help the national team if the teams adopt a better style of play,” Khalid said. “But for that, the teams need to play more often.”

Pakistan football has been mired in crisis and controversy over the last three years with issues off the field almost bringing the game to a halt. FIFA also suspended the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) for ‘third-party interference’ with the six-month ban being lifted last month after Faisal Saleh Hayat was reinstated as president.

Pakistan football still remains in a state of flux with the Supreme Court having ordered fresh elections of the PFF and campaigning going on vociferously.

The PFF of Hayat has appointed Shehzad Anwar as the technical director but it’s unfortunate that over the last three years no work has been done by them on creating an identity for how they want football to be played in Pakistan.

“We’ve just come in and we haven’t really made a plan,” Shehzad told Dawn on Tuesday when asked if SNGPL’s style of play, and of the other teams during the Challenge Cup, had offered him hints on how to forge an identity for Pakistan football — a style of play that could be used across all age-groups.

The PFF has also appointed Brazilian Jose Antonio Nogueira as the national team coach on a three-year term and he arrives here on Wednesday to witness the Challenge Cup match between National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) and Falcon FC.

For now Nogueira and Shehzad are the two men who will are tasked with creating an identity for the national team but they might not be in the job if Hayat were to lose the PFF election and a new setup comes in.

But regardless of whoever comes in, there is hope. Pakistan’s domestic teams have started keeping the ball on the ground and started playing the game the way it should be played.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2018