The terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Liberty Chowk, Lahore on March 3, 2009, devastated the whole nation and put the future of international sports in Pakistan under the shroud of uncertainty. Two years went by with little or no international sporting activity in the country, certainly none that could pull large crowds.
However, Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) managed to create waves this year by hosting the Palestine national team for the recently concluded two-game friendly match series in the first week of March. The series was planned to give both teams optimum preparation opportunities for the Asian Olympic Qualifiers Preliminary Round and the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers.
Lahore’s Punjab Stadium, right next to the now largely-empty and controversial Gaddafi Stadium, and Karachi’s Peoples Stadium in Lyari were chosen as host venues for the games. In return, Palestine agreed to host the Pakistan team in May for 2 matches, giving Pakistan the chance to become only a few select countries that have played international football matches in that part of the world.
Such a series brought some desperately needed positive attention towards Pakistan’s ability to once again host international teams in a secure and friendly environment, as well as giving our footballers and fans some much needed action to relish at home. Boosting bilateral relations between the Pakistani and Palestinian officials and people, the series promised to be an amazing spectacle.
A media blitz staged by local football organizers, officials, promoters, and enthusiasts brought a lot of attention to the matches with the internet and social networking websites raising some much needed noise from the public in anticipation of the Pakistan-Palestine series.
Pakistan head coach Tariq Lutfi decided to field his 2012 Olympic football qualifiers team against the Palestine senior side, amid concerns that FIFA may not regard the games as full ‘A’ international matches. Led by Afghan FC Chaman and WAPDA hero, Jadeed Khan Pathan, the current Pakistan team is hailed as the new generation ready to test uncharted waters and bring home some much needed glory. The side also included the ever reliable Muhammad Rizwan Asif (KRL, vice-captain of Olympic team) as well the fast improving WAPDA midfielder Muhammad Tauseef.
The Palestine team itself fielded its new-look side that had a mixture of experience and youth. Despite the lack of a genuine and consistent league structure in Palestine because of political and social constraints, many of its players are based in Europe and other Arab countries plying their trade in clubs over there.
The series promised a lot of action for both sides.
The timing of the tour was a tad unfortunate. With much of the nation’s anticipation and eyes towards our impressive start in the 2011 cricket World Cup being staged in neighbouring India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, football unfortunately took a back seat once again as local TV channels could not air these two games live across the world.
Instead, the national broadcaster PTV was given the charge to air the games but with a delay because of schedule clashes with the cricket matches. Much of the live action for both games eventually had to be relayed through live text updates done online in order to keep followers as close to the action as possible.
Also, the run-up to the series did not begin in the best of fashion. Because of the 0-2 loss at the hands of hosts Malaysia in the first leg of the Olympic football qualifiers, the squad was chopped and changed in preparation for the Palestine series. Expatriate players in midfielder Irfan Khan (Bradford Park Avenue AFC, England) and Yousuf Ejaz Butt (Birkerød IF Skojd, Denmark) were released from the squad and allowed to go home. Reasons for their release as cited by the coaching staff were the players’ perceived lack of commitment. The said players, in turn, hotly disputed the charge and expressed disappointment with their treatment during their lengthy stay with the team in preparation for the Malaysia leg as well the subsequent loss to the reigning ASEAN football champions.
Eventually, the Palestinian team was greeted in Lahore by the PFF and the honorary dinner by the hosts saw both sets of players bond really well as friends and brothers from far off lands, brought together by the beautiful game.
PALESTINE GAIN FOOTHOLD IN LAHORE
The floodlit encounter at Punjab Stadium on 1st March saw around 3,000 Lahoris as well as large number of boisterous Palestinian students residing in the city, come and watch the spectacle. Both sets of fans mixed freely with each other and both chanted ‘Palestine Zindabad, Pakistan Zindabad’ in unison in a spectacular display of friendship and camaraderie. After a strong beginning by a determined Pakistan side, it was the visitors who got hold of the game early on as they scored twice in the 1st half to take an imposing lead. Pakistan’s questionable ball retention put them under pressure in midfield as the Palestine side pressed forward for goal.
A goal in the 38th minute by Pakistan was not enough as Palestine held on for a historic 2-1 win in Lahore much to the delight of their fans. The entire stadium gave both sets of players a tremendous round of applause at the Punjab Stadium. Despite the loss, this truly was history in the making for football in Pakistan. This was, however, a game to forget for captain Jadeed Khan as he struggled to command influence on the pitch and rally his boys forward. The impressive Rizwan Asif though never gave up the entire time.
The second game at Peoples Stadium in Karachi’s football hot-bed Lyari Town promised a tremendous attendance for the game a few days later on March 4. However, an unexpected transporters strike had paralysed the entire city on the same day, and only 3000-4000 fans witnessed the game instead of the much anticipated 10,000 spectators the PFF and game organisers were expecting.
But that did not dampen the mood in the stands nor on the pitch. However, some clumsy play by both sides in 1st half saw the score remain goal-less at the break, with Palestine comfortably keeping the ball, only the Alamgir-Manzoor-Omer partnership in the back for Pakistan stopping them from scoring. The main incident in half was the unfortunate injury to Muhammad Tauseef after an awkward collision with a Palestinian player. This forced Tariq Lutfi to bring on Tauseef’s WAPDA team mate, the youthful Syed Arif Hussain from Quetta in midfield as substitute.
The details of the injury are still not certain but Tauseef’s recovery in time for the 2nd leg of Olympic Qualifier Preliminary round game against Malaysia on March 9 remains doubtful. His absence will be a big blow to Pakistan which relies on his ability in the centre to control the midfield and push forward.
It was a great game for Karachi-native and crowd favourite Muhammad Omer who pulled off a string of fine saves in goal, denying the Palestinians chance after chance. The Palestinian keeper too managed to keep out some good strikes from Rizwan Asif, the impressive Arif Hussain and Mehmood Khan.
The back and forth action kept the fans on their seats but the lack of goals meant that eventually the game finished as a fair 0-0 draw with a nail-biting finish that saw the home team pressing for victory in the dying seconds of game. However, at the end of the game the result mattered little as the crowd really appreciated the effort once again by both sides.
First of all, such a series in Pakistan will go a long way in truly raising the profile of football here. Despite the intense attention towards Pakistan’s cricketing fortunes in the World Cup next door, football has what it takes to capture the imagination of the people. The fairly modest crowds for the games in Lahore and Karachi, coupled with the accelerating following of the sport across the country, have potential of reeling in tremendous crowds, fan following, and eventually corporate support to boost the chances of football’s long journey of progress in Pakistan.
As far as the performance on the pitch in concerned, Palestine will be quite pleased with the result given their ambition to qualify from their AFC Challenge Cup group for the final tournament scheduled in 2012, as well as their return game against Thailand in Olympic qualifiers preliminary round this coming week. It was a good experience for their fans, which often face tremendous difficulties to see their team play because of problems at home vis-a-vis Israel.
Pakistan’s players, coaches, officials, and fans will truly cherish what will hopefully be the start of greater and better things. Sure, defeat is part and parcel of the game but the positives from these two games cannot be ignored. The experience gained by the boys is tremendous, as it will really boost their confidence in the coming games against Malaysia as well as the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers – featuring the return of senior players from home and abroad – at the end of March.
In reality, overcoming the 2-0 1st leg deficit against the slick Malaysians will be a difficult task, but hopefully with a bigger crowd in Lahore to motivate the players, and a sense of redemption among the players will make Pakistan put up a brave show on the pitch. The bright spots have definitely been the improved partnership of Alamgir and Manzoor in defence, the impressive displays of goalkeeper Muhammad Omer (still a raw talent but can blossom with dedicated coaching), Tauseef in midfield and Rizwan Asif up top.
However, the lack of stability in midfield, injury to Muhammad Tauseef, poor conversion of chances, and lacking a cutting edge in class and skill is obvious. So far, our defence has slowly managed to improve itself under pressure but the team still struggles to keep possession for a substantial period. That and the indifferent form of KRL star Kaleem Ullah up front with PIA’s Saddam Hussain and Jadeed Khan Pathan needs a lot of work.
The team is full of budding talent which should not be wasted. If this is the team for the future, then it must be handled with care by their departments, officials, coaches, and by the players themselves. Football is ever changing, ever evolving, ever improving. The need to be in stride with the times and pursue quality wherever it can be found and keen mentorship based less on department affiliations and preferences, but more on the need for merit, knowledge, understanding, and appreciation is vital.
While it is too early and premature to expect this team to conquer all, it should not dampen the support at home to recognise, celebrate, and encourage the boys forward.
Onwards, Pakistan! The Beautiful Game calls! The writer is the Chief Editor, Forum Administrator, Pakistan Correspondent for FootballPakistan.Com