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Pakistan face uphill battle

December 02, 2011

South Asian Football Federation cup team representatives, from left, Hussan Adham of Maldives, Chimi Dorji of Bhutan, Sujal Shrestha of Nepal, Rohana Ruwanthilaka of Sri Lanka, Arif Ul Islam of Bangladesh, Climax Lawrence of India, and Naveed Ahmed of Pakistan pose in front of the landmark India Gate in New Delhi, India. -Photo by AP

Defending champions and hosts India are drawn into a relatively easy group featuring Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Pakistan will begin a tough South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) campaign against Bangladesh today, a side that rolled over the greenshirts during the World Cup qualification in summer this year.

The tournament, being played at the brand new Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, India, will be the last international action the Pakistan football team faces in 2011; a year that it would rather forget given continued disappointments in World Cup, Olympic, and AFC Challenge Cup qualification campaigns under previous coach Tariq Lutfi. It will also be the debut of Pakistan’s newly appointed Serbian coach Zaviša Milosavljevi?.

Defending champions and hosts India are drawn into a relatively easy group featuring Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, have a much more difficult task at hand as it handles 2008 champions Maldives, Nepal, beside Bangladesh.

Milosavljevic, the former Serbia youth team and Lesotho national team coach was recently appointed by the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) to head the national team for the next two years. Since his unveiling, the coach has shied away from speaking with the media in the run-up to the SAFF Championship, solely focusing on team affairs.

Milosavljevic will have his hands full for the event. He inherited a cobbled up group of inexperienced young players called up by Tariq Lutfi that have seemingly been hit-and-miss talents this past year.

Lutfi, who also has the head coach post at Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) leaders Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), showed tunnel vision in selecting this squad as part of a “new generation policy”. These under-prepared boys have been nothing but cannon fodder for opposition sides.

Rather than ease out the older players by mixing them with fresh blood, Lutfi’s squad selection more or less decided Pakistan’s chances in the event beforehand. This was especially the case when it came to dealing with expatriate players and how much he liked their ‘commitment’ (a term he has yet to explain and clarify) in attending the pointlessly long training camps at Punjab Stadium, Lahore, without any competitive action.

Milosavljevic came and changed that, as he released a number of unimpressive players Lutfi used from the squad and sought out to reinforce the team with quick additions from on-going PPFL action as well as experienced expatriate talent. But because of the coach’s rather late appointment with less than a month before the SAFF Championship, only a few modifications could be made. Milosavljevic appears to be more or less stuck with much of the same squad

That being said, his appointment and coaching have immediately had an impact on the squad with many players expressing their delight with working with someone as insightful and ambitious as Milosavljevic. The new training regimes and tactical training for the team has impressed the players and they have shown renewed optimism with what they can accomplish under the Serb.

However, the preparations of this squad have been less than satisfactory. PFF had announced that Pakistan will attempt a brief tour of Thailand and perhaps Indonesia a week or so before heading to New Delhi. However, severe flooding in Thailand caused a cancellation of this tour and the Indonesia trip did not materialize either.

Any plans for touring Gulf countries appeared to be casual thoughts from PFF corridors too as its non-existent ‘marketing department’ failed to do anything in hindsight to help the team prepare.

Compare that with India, who played Malaysia for two friendlies recently, with Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal also going to ASEAN region for preparation. It appears Pakistan will be at a severe disadvantage going into the New Delhi event, a trend the team has experienced before several tournaments.

The SAFF Championship, despite being merely a regional event, remains the elusive Holy Grail for Pakistan football. Pakistan has four gold medal wins in South Asian Games football, but as a U23 event it does not hold the same prestige as the SAFF Championship.

In 18 years of the event’s history, Pakistan has yet to even reach the final of the event. Last two SAFF Championships of 2008 and 2009 have been forgettable stints. In 2008, under Akhtar Mohiuddin, Pakistan crashed out in miserable fashion after losing all of its group matches to co-hosts and eventual winners Maldives, finalists India, and Nepal. In 2009, a much improved Pakistan side under Austrian coach George Kottan, again fell in group stages. A narrow 0-1 defeat to Sri Lanka and a 0-0 draw with hosts Bangladesh as a result of poor finishing by proved costly for the side. Even the 7-0 drubbing of minnows Bhutan could not salvage team chances for a next round appearance two years back.

It is fair to say, given the group and lack of preparation, that Pakistan will not and should not be considered favourites for this event.

It is hoped that whatever new Milosavljevic  has to offer will show in the face of strong opposition. Had the coach been appointed earlier in mid-October and had had enough time to prepare and plan for the side, one would have hoped the Pakistan team would have attempted to undo the disappointments of the past.

However, as is often the case, the issue should not be short term thinking but rather long term planning. Milosavljevic has come to Pakistan with a plan to change things and the SAFF Championship will be a tough, yet welcome, start to see how his new side compares with other South Asian rivals. The year 2012 is one that sees no international action for Pakistan, but under the new coach it can be used to arrange friendlies and tours to prepare for the upcoming challenges.

Fans should not be too optimistic about Pakistan’s prospects at the SAFF Championship.

Hopefully, however, under coach Zavisa, progress will be seen as the months pass.

The write is Chief Editor, Forum Administrator, and Pakistan Correspondent at FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC)