Bangladesh scored against Pakistan just 36 seconds after the referee signaled the start of their 2014 World Cup qualifier in Dhaka on Wednesday. It didn’t take much longer after the final whistle sounded and confirmed a 3-0 first leg win for the hosts, for the knives to come out.
With the tie still effectively at the half-time stage, it was especially disappointing to see the comments from former captain Mohammad Essa who attributed much of the blame for the loss on the team’s foreign-based contingent.
“Tell me where we have performed with these players,” said the nation’s best-known player of recent years.
“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.”
Even if what Essa says is true, and there can be much debate about that, now is not the time for such talk. There are still 90 minutes of football to be played in the second leg in Lahore. As a former captain, Essa knows better than anyone that now is the time to pull together and you can’t do that if you are pointing fingers of blame in each other’s faces.
What would have happened in the 2005 European Cup final between Liverpool and AC Milan, if the players had started blaming each other at half-time and there were sniping from the sidelines? The sensational six-minute fightback from the Reds would have been wiped from history. Pakistan’s position after losing the first leg of their first round 2014 World Cup qualifier in Bangladesh is dire but is still better than Liverpool’s at half-time. Liverpool had 45 minutes to comeback at a neutral venue. Pakistan have 90 to do the same in front of their own fans on Sunday.
The players should be grateful there is another leg for another reason – they have been given a swift opportunity to redeem themselves and bring some pride back to the green shirt after the events in Dhaka.
It is true that the game shouldn’t really have gone ahead but it takes more than a monsoon deluge to get FIFA or the AFC to postpone a competitive match. Official complaints about the conditions may make people feel better but they are not going to change the fact that Bangladesh can afford to lose 2-0 and still progress to the next round. Considering that they have won their previous two games on Pakistan soil, a tough night is in store in Lahore.
Unlike the hosts, Bangladesh arrive full of purpose and with a clear message. The strategy is also apparent. Striker Mithun Chowdhury said: “Pakistan will be under pressure for a win and we will avail chances on the counter attack.”
It is simple, stop the home team from scoring and then look to grab the all important goal on the break.
For Pakistan that is the last thing they need. On Sunday, there are three things that need to happen in Lahore if there is to be any chance of a comeback.
Firstly, the fans have to come out in force and get behind the team. Even before half-time in Dhaka, the recriminations and accusations were flying on the internet. Once again, the Pakistani Football Federation (PFF) was on the receiving end of much of it. It may be deserved. Preparation was poor with tours and friendlies against other national teams cancelled. You really don’t want to be getting ready for a World Cup qualifier against a regional rival by playing club teams from your own league.
Just as in the case of Essa, however, that debate has to wait. Now is not the time for infighting but it is the time for Bangladesh to be greeted by a wall of noise and passion when they arrive. It is time for Pakistan football fans to do their part as much as possible.
In Istanbul in 2005, Milan scored a third just before the break. It looked all over. The Italian fans were ecstatic while the Liverpool supporters could not believe what they had just witnessed. The stunned silence didn’t last long as a rousing rendition of the club’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” drowned out their Italian counterparts and soon filled the Turkish evening. The players said they heard it in the dressing room. It was a message to them and their Milan counterparts that this was a proud club and a proud team that would not give up without a fight. And so it proved.
Secondly, don’t get frustrated if the goal doesn’t come early. Of course, an early goal is ideal. It immediately puts the men from Dhaka on the back foot and means that passion and belief start to replace simmering anger and doubt in the stadium. If the players feel the fans’ frustration then Bangladesh’s job is virtually done.
But even so, the Greenshirts should be happy with a goal in anytime in the first half. That would be enough to ensure that the outcome remains in doubt until the end.
Thirdly, Pakistan need to use the width of the pitch. That is where Bangladesh are susceptible and that is where the Pakistan team can cause problems. There were glimpses of this in Dhaka but not enough to put the opposition under serious and sustained pressure. In the drier surroundings of Lahore, the pace of the hosts can get behind the visitors, turn the defence around and perhaps, who knows, turn the tie around.
First though, everyone has to be united- just like Liverpool.
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.