What next for Pakistan?

Shahrukh Sohail Shahrukh Sohail

Shahrukh Sohail looks at the problems ailing the Pakistan national football team.

It’s been 3 years since the Pak Shaheens last took to the field in the now dreaded 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen.

A lot has changed since then. An entire crop of both talented youngsters and senior stalwarts have been wasted, precious international experience in the form of the SAFF Championship, AFC U-22 Qualifiers, FIFA friendly dates, not to mention all the work done over the last decade, has been practically been eroded.

Pakistani football must start from scratch and a charged effort unlike never before needs to be undertaken. The reinstated Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has taken a step in the right direction with the appointment of Shahzad Anwar as the Technical Director, who is the country’s only AFC Pro Licensed coach.

The need of the hour is a technical plan and establishing of a vision of where Pakistani football needs to be headed. Under Rob Baan, India pioneered the ‘Lakhshya’ Plan, which highlighted an interesting problem; Indian Football Teams across all youth groups were each playing a different brand of football and making progression across each rank quite difficult.

Although, a glaring lack of infrastructure, footballing culture and professionalism in the game plagued India as well, in recent times, the Blue Tigers have done well to address those concerns. Initiatives such as the Indian Super League and advent of uber professional clubs such as Bengaluru FC stand out as highlights.

Bengaluru FC are an example to Pakistan of what can be achieved.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has multiple pitfalls. The first of which is getting the Pakistan National Team back on track as soon as possible. With a practical halt in the last three years, most players in the domestic circuit have not seen any international action and will require extensive exposure before they can be deemed match ready for the upcoming Asian Games and SAFF Championship in September.

Getting players from abroad may also be on the agenda of the federation, as a burgeoning crop of players ranging from Ghayas Zahid (APOEL) to Adil Nabi (Peterborough United) may make appearances for the Pak Shaheens this year.

Another predicament that curtailed Pakistan’s chances in the past has been the absence of a coach that can build a team capable of winning games. Zaviša Milosavljević seemed to have the right answers during his stint from 2011 to 2013 but the Serb was sacked before the penultimate display of his performance in the 2013 edition of the SAFF Cup.

His successor Mohammad Al-Shamlan of Bahrain made headlines for his refusal to include Pakistan’s foreign-based talent and instead opted to showcase a national team built mostly on U-22 players that lacked the coherence or the experience to win games. Shamlan’s philosophy cost Pakistan the FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen and only serves to highlight the point that without a visionary in the dressing room, the Shaheens simply won’t fly.

Considering how things have only begun to take shape, the national team will not be in action in the next month or so at least, and the federation has already announced the Challenge Cup to reinvigorate teams in the early stages of May this year. But with holy month of Ramadan and FIFA World Cup following shortly after, there will be a short gap before the team departs for the Asian Games in Indonesia and an even shorter one before the SAFF Championship comes calling.

An extended training camp looks the most likely bet but even with that the federation must set their sights on a bigger prize; the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022 – which are again likely to be joint 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers as they were for 2018/2019 – start next year and stand out as a chance of redemption for the Pakistan Football Federation, who have yet to see the Pak Shaheens win a qualifying game for the World Cup despite trying since 1990.

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