The much awaited three-year journey for the lucky 32 aiming to participate in the 2014 FIFA World Cup – hosted by Brazil – begins its Asian leg from 29th June, 2011. Forty-two members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will be competing for the 4.5 spots (4 direct qualifiers and 1 inter-continental playoff spot), with qualifiers spread out over a total of 5 rounds.
For the 1st round of the World Cup qualifiers for the AFC members, 16 lowest-ranked teams – based on their performance in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers held exactly four years ago – will face each other in home-away matches on 29 June and 3 July to qualify for the 2nd round and join the higher ranked teams.
Pakistan will face South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) rivals Bangladesh in the 1st round. The first leg will be hosted by Dhaka at the Bangabadhu National Stadium on 29 June (5 PM PST Kick-Off). Lahore’s rather humble Punjab Stadium will host the second leg on 3 July (8:30 PM PST Kick-Off). The winner of the two-legged tie would then face Lebanon in the 2nd Round in late July 2011.
Initially, the draw seemed ideal for Pakistan given it avoided the more difficult first round sides in ASEAN favourites Malaysia and Vietnam. The 2-0 master-class shown by Malaysia’s U21 side against Pakistan in the Olympic qualifiers back in February-March 2011 was evidence enough of the divide between these sides.
Pakistan’s chances of going through to the 2nd round have been hampered because of a lack of genuine preparation for the national team under head coach Tariq Lutfi.
Pakistan’s much anticipated visit to Palestine for two international friendly games in May this year failed to materialise due to travel issues. The cancellation of the team’s planned training camps in Qatar and UAE meant the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) fell short of its anticipated targets to give the team ample preparation and conditioning for these grueling encounters. To add insult to injury, an emergency plan put up by PFF to visit Nepal for a friendly series was turned down by the Nepalese football authorities.
This meant that Pakistan was forced to move camp to Jinnah Sports Complex in Islamabad, and played a few practice games against department sides gearing up for the upcoming 2011 Pakistan Premier Football League season starting in early July.
Far from an ideal run up to the qualifiers, Pakistan also faced the prospect of having the return leg in Lahore moved to Bangladesh. However, FIFA stepped in to allay the security concerns of the Bangladesh Football Federation and backed Pakistan to successfully stage the match.
As far as the composition of the team is concerned, the Wapda/KRL dominated national squad itself is in disarray of sorts due to the unavailability/omission of several players (local and expatriate). Promising Denmark-based talents Hassan Bashir (HIK) and Nabil Aslam (AC Horsens) have been omitted over still-pending eligibility issues. Long-term injuries to defenders Amjad Iqbal (AFC Farsley), Shabir Khan (Worcester City), midfielder Muhammad Touseef (WAPDA), goalkeepers Muhammad Omer and Amir Gul (NBP) mean Pakistan may be weak in defense. An injury scare to Wapda striker Arif Mehmood in the training camp, the dropping of the much-loved KRL striker M Rizwan Asif will also affect the team as will the omission of young goalkeeper Yousuf Ejaz Butt over dubious reasons.
However, the return of Jaffar Khan (Pakistan Army) as the first-choice goalkeeper and captain, and KESC striker Muhammad Rasool after a string of impressive performances for their teams in the 2011 National Football Challenge Cup held in Faisalabad back in April has given a much needed boost to the national team. The inclusion of the promising Sydney-based winger Ahmed Akber Khan has given the team some teeth in attack. The availability of former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman (Muangthong United, Thailand), midfielder Adnan Ahmed, and Atif Bashir (Barry Town FC, Wales) will give Pakistan some much needed composure in the face of some nervy battles in midfield and defence against the Tigers.
The Tigers’ squad is free from any injury concerns and the inclusion of Denmark-based player Jamal Bhuyan, incidentally Hassan Bashir’s team mate in HIK, will boost their morale in the coming matches.
The Bangladeshi team did, however, face some jitters in its own preparations. Their Croatian coach Robert Rubcic quit at the start of June because he refused to travel to Pakistan due to security reasons and Rubcic’s replacement, Gjore Jovanovski from Macedonia, was sacked days later for the same reasons. The BFF finally managed to land another Macedonian Nikola Ilievski to head the team.
Bangladesh’s coach Nikola Ilievski aims to play aggressive, attacking football and is confident of progression to the next round. At the same time Pakistan head coach Lutfi has declared his faith in his boys who are ready, according to him, to ‘shock’ the Dhaka crowd with a resilient performance on the pitch.
For Lutfi, the result of two-legged tie could affect his tenure as head coach after a disappointing year in which Pakistan failed to progress in the Olympic qualifiers and the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. But that has not stopped the former PIA legend and current KRL supremo of being confident of his side’s chances, despite the selection and training problems that could be the team’s bane.
That being said, Bangladesh will start the tie as obvious favourites and expect a full-house in their 36,000 capacity Bangabandhu National Stadium. Egged on by the loud crowd, Bangladesh will look to intimidate the Pakistan side. The key would be how well the Pakistan defence and midfield can hold itself together and keep Jaffar Khan’s goal safe.
For Pakistan, getting a decisive away-goal in Dhaka would be a big result and morale booster before the return leg in Lahore. The inclusion of Muhammad Rasool up front could be a decisive factor.
The last time Pakistan played in the Bangabandhu Stadium was during the disappointing 2009 SAFF Cup campaign that saw Bangladesh held to a 0-0 draw by George Kottan’s Pakistan, whose well-organised defensive and midfield tactics denied the host nation. Poor finishing by Pakistan and questionable refereeing in the face of intense crowd pressure denied them a few sure shot goals. But arguably, that was a much better and experienced Pakistan side.
It is hoped that despite the uphill task in Dhaka, this Pakistan side will be determined and focused enough to take the fight to the hosts and pull off a few much-needed surprises to salvage what has been another disappointing year for the country on the international scene.
The writer is the chief editor, Pakistan correspondent and forum administrator of footballpakistan.com