While the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in recent years has been hiring and firing coaches, lack of vision and ambition has played a key role in not developing the national team up to a competitive level, which is evident by the tick box exercises of the federation that at times see even a year pass by without the playing of any matches unless there are any compulsory tournaments to feature in.
Just to compare another minnow team from Asia, Philippines have managed to play 20 matches (competitive and friendly) in 2012 compared to Pakistan’s one match which, too, came in November against Singapore. The four friendlies, double headers, against Maldives and Nepal this month, nonetheless, showed progress but more should have been done the year before so that the coach could try out more players in order to form a solid unit.
The foreign coaches appointed by the PFF have always leaned towards including overseas players because they are too familiar with the local standards and quality of the players here. They know they won’t have any chance of winning something during their contract period with domestic players. Agreed, Xiao He and Salman Sharida won the 2004 and 2006 SAF Games football event with a team of domestic players but for that some credit must also be given to their predecessors Dave Burn, John Layton and Joseph Herel, who had worked with those very domestic players from a young age.
But post-2006 brought the influx of overseas players in the national team, though there has never been a huge number. There are only a couple of regular ones like Adnan Ahmed and Atif Bashir. The most Pakistan had were five overseas players in the 2009 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup squad. Pakistan narrowly missed out on reaching the semis due to misfortune and poor finishing from its local striking options but was widely regarded as the best team at the event by the opponents.
The failure at SAFF Cup in 2009 cost the Austrian coach George Kottan his job and brought Pakistan football again to a standstill with 2010 going by without any senior team matches other than the 2010 Asian Games for which the local coach Akhtar Mohiuddin got appointed again. The result was a typical Akhtar failure like the 0-7 drubbing at the hands of Iraq in 2007 for the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and the miserable 2008 SAFF Cup campaign.
Having failed to sign Englishman Graham Roberts as coach, the PFF went to a different local option, Tariq Lutfi, otherwise known as the ‘Godfather’ of local football. His reign proved to be another disaster. He was also not very open to the idea of having overseas players in his team. Still he couldn’t drop the established overseas players such as Atif Bashir, Adnan Ahmed, and the returning Zesh Rehman.
Injuries to some of the key overseas players and lack of willpower to recruit new overseas players such as Nabil Aslam (AC Horsens, Denmark SuperLiga) and Luke Dean (formerly of League Two club Bradford City) coupled with poor team selection resulted in utter failure.
Lutfi only managed to win one out of nine games and Pakistan exited from the 2012 Olympic qualififiers, the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup and 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification. A year that was described as the best chance for Pakistani football to progress went down the drain. Mr Lutfi left the job in November 2011, weeks before the SAFF Cup but he had left his mark on that too, including just two overseas players, Adnan and Atif, while ignoring the others. This left the new coach, Zavisa Milosavljevic, with a lot to do. He managed to save face with three draws in the groups as the team exited once again from the regional event in which they had the potential to go further just like 2009.
PFF must listen to Zavisa and speed up the process of bringing in overseas players such as Nabil Aslam and Luke Dean as well as latest recruits from Denmark who made their debut against Singapore. Ranked 180 it is going to be difficult to convince other big talents such as Etzaz Hussain, who plays for Norway U-21, Adil Nabi who plays for West Bromwich Albion U-21 and recently featured for England U-17, as well as the young 17-year-old Sami Malik, who plays for Eintracht Braunschweig and last season won the U-17 Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin.
But if Pakistan can really include the overseas players and they deliver on the pitch it could turn around the fortunes for the national team. Long-term investment and vision is required and investment will only come if the team is winning matches. The AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers are coming up in March and now is the time for finding the best combination for the Pakistan football team.
PFF must give Zavisa the opportunity to spend more time with his overseas players and play more matches with them in the team so he can form a solid unit. There is also the option for the federation to give up this concept altogether and focus on the domestic players again. But that has hardly delivered anything in the last five to six years either due to zero professionalisation and reform of local football and will always be a lose-lose situation for Pakistan’s football progress.
The writer is chief editor of FootballPakistan.Com