2011: The year that decides the future of Pakistani football? Part 1

2011: The year that decides the future of Pakistani football?

Part 1 – International Promise

Ali Ahsan

Chief Editor, Forum Administrator, Pakistan Correspondent – FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC)

Over the last few years, Pakistani football has garnered an unprecedented increase in awareness and accreditation at both home and abroad despite not achieving anything substantial at all! The internet has become a blessing for Pakistani football as it has found an increasingly pro-active and vocal audience, eager to follow national team results and hoping for change in the way football is, quite frankly, poorly run in Pakistan a-la Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).

Despite reasonable progress being made between the lines, football in Pakistan is far from perfect. From domestic structure, to administration, to marketing, and coverage, the beautiful game still seems lost and unnoticeable even after all these years of rosy reports and self-praise emanating from the PFF Media Cell (still remains Pak football’s lone news source on the ground for better or for worse!).

Pak football lacks the consistency, dedication, selflessness, honesty, transparency and urgency that can make the national football team potentially set the whole AFC region ablaze in its path to success in less than half a decade!

After many false-starts, hiccups, bad decision making, lost opportunities, and frustration since the mid-2000s, the year 2011 comes across as the most important year for the immediate future of Pakistani football, both domestically and internationally. In this part I shall discuss the importance of 2011 for Pakistani football vis-a-vis the Pakistan national football team!

Follow The Leader!

As of 19th Dec 2010, there is still no clue whether or not former Tottenham Hotspur legend Graham Roberts will be formally appointed by PFF as national team head coach. Amid silence from PFF corridors where nothing has been confirmed, or even talked about, by the relevant officials in press (apart from the usual self-praise distractions of course!) the future of the national team hangs in a very uncomfortable balance.

PFF simply cannot waste this opportunity and shy away from putting someone in charge of an eager and potential-filled football team that can reach new heights within 1-2 years like never before! Credit to Graham for being a patient and honest man, as his 8 week ‘coaching consultant’ role in 2010 Asian Games was restricted to sitting on the bench with no real say in team making and seeing Akhtar Mohiuddin’s tactics and decisions self-implode – nothing new about that, unfortunately, as Akhtar’s 2007-08 stint showed previously, with embarrassing exits in World Cup Qualifiers, Challenge Cup qualifiers, and SAFF Championship! Sounds familiar?

A hint over lack of finances and money in PFF coffers to pay Graham’s proposed 2 year stint as coach seems mysterious (and outrageous) given how much PFF receives from the Pakistani government budget, AFC/FIFA grants, and the mysterious money that was used to send the entire Asian Games football squad on PFF expenses after the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) had refused to include football initially for the Asiad event!

As experience has taught, football in countries where coaching standards and selection are poor and often non-merit, local coaches have their own biases and favourite players to include in their sides regardless of merit, whilst being content with achieving nothing abroad and earning a few extra dollars as TA/DA. Pakistan is no exception to this ‘home-grown’ mentality.

The insistence on not making a local coach in charge of national side and keeping local coaches at a distance from even being part of the team staff, complete with level-headed foreigners is vital for the proper progression of our national team. A foreign coach brings a whole new perspective to the table as merit, insight, knowledge, and a global outlook guides his vision to include the best players and best tactics for his team. Ignoring someone of Graham’s experience, insight and expertise as head coach would leave a shameful and disgraceful mark on PFF while only thing suffering would be Pakistani football!

One needs to look at the stint of the Bahraini coach Salman Ahmed Sharida from late 2005 until end of 2006 where Pakistan played in many competitions and ended up competing in a staggering total of 30 games in 14 months (incl. Internationals, qualifiers, and unofficial practice games etc). By the time he left, he had managed to shake-up the structure and mentality of the national team to become a more cohesive unit, even if only temporarily.


When he left, Pakistan had to wait as much as 9 months for senior team action until Akhtar Mohiuddin took over in late 2007 and all that effort and hard work by Sharida had more or less evaporated in the lull period that year.

George Kottan of Hungary tried to emulate Sharida when appointed in 2009 but unfortunately luck was not on his side as his tenure finished after just one year following the frustrating early exit in 2009 SAFF Championship. To be fair, the old Hungarian was just getting the right team mix going but he was desperately short of options that could have been decisive in taking this team forward. One more year under George would have surely made the team of Sharida proud of what they could have achieved. But that was not to be.

Consistency and continuity is the key. The PFF must realise that they cannot make the national team post become a musical chair comedy where a foreign coach comes and goes and a blinkered local coach essentially ruins everything because of no ambition or vision or even global understanding beyond his department team and favourite city boys to choose! If PFF stick with another local coach for 2011 just to ‘save money’, then one can say goodbye to achieving anything with the national side once again, year after year! One then wonders where all the money PFF gets each year from various grants and budget allocations go if they claim lack of finances for appointing a foreign coach.

So hopefully Graham Roberts will indeed get a 2 year job as our team leader as 2011 rolls in! Only a long term appointment of foreign and ambitious coaches consistently will see Pakistan realise the potential it has been desperately craving for.

Pak Football’s Growing Foreign Legion. Plus a source of inspiration from another PFF!

When it comes to football talent with Pakistani blood, our national side is truly blessed with a diverse blend of talent worldwide; the kind of talent capable of making waves across Asia under the right coaching and setup. And yet this is a resource which has yet to be properly used at all since the discoveries and subsequent debuts of Usman Gondal and Zesh Rehman in 2005.

Usually it is common place for players from a particular country to work hard, get noticed by scouts and agents, then travel to the bigger leagues in Europe to play and stake a claim for their home national team in international competitions. Pakistan has the opposite case! It has a growing number of well-established players of Pakistani ancestry already playing in various levels across UK and rest of Europe. All they need is to prove their heritage to the Pak embassies and consulates, apply for passport and ID card in order to become eligible for the national team!

Goalkeeper Yousuf Butt (left) & defender Yaqoob Butt (right)

Zesh Rehman (whenever he decides to end his international self-exile since 2008!), Adnan Ahmed (FC Aboomoslem), Atif Bashir (Barry Town FC), Amjad Iqbal (AFC Farsley), and Shabir Khan (Worcester City FC) have already established themselves as favourites for their respective places in the national side. But they aren’t the only ones in the line. The discoveries of solid youngsters like goalkeeper Yousuf Butt (Birkerød, Denmark), his brother & defender Yaqoob Butt (Jægersborg, Denmark), and midfielders Luke Dean (Bradford City) and Waleed Nadeem (Queen’s Park FC, Scotland) really add the numbers to our ranks.

Such inclusion of a solid core of foreign talent is needed for long term stability, quality in vital departments, and consistency under the right coaching to take this team and its players – both domestic and foreign – forward starting from 2011!

Before any eyebrows are raised over such influx of foreigners, let me be very clear that this is nothing new. Inclusion of foreign players in national teams based on heritage and ancestry has been a standard practice of international football since the early 1900s!

You have the likes of Italy winning the 1934 and 1938 FIFA World Cups under legendary coach Vittorio Pozzo using a mix of local talent and Italian immigrants from South America (known as ‘Oriundi’) who chose to represent their ancestral countries at the highest stage! Republic of Ireland has been using players based in England and Scotland for decades just because they had an Irish grandparent and had not yet been called up by their ‘home’ national teams! Africa is no different with Algeria using French-Algerians to boost their ranks for many years (one exception being Zinedine Zidane) and the recent rise of Equatorial Guinea using Spanish-born players for their national side as well.

Asia has also seen foreign born players representing their ancestral countries throughout the previous century, albeit sparingly. Pakistan is no exception in this regard with Iran, Singapore, North Korea, and Philippines also taking foreign-born players into their national teams in recent years. Philippines has recently taken the ASEAN region by surprise in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2010 using a 32-year old semi-pro English coach with a core of foreign born players from English non-League teams, American college soccer sides, as well as from Iceland and Holland! The perennial whipping boys of South East Asia reached the semi-finals having shocked former champions Vietnam and Singapore on the way before losing to heavyweights Indonesia 2-0 on aggregate in Jakarta!

The Philippines, a country that does not even have a national league or even a dedicated football stadium, is something Pakistan can and should strive to emulate. Pakistan has all the resources to take our national team much further and higher due to the quality and sheer number of players from professional and semi-pro backgrounds waiting in line to represent their ancestral home countries.

Can our PFF learn from their fellow namesakes in the Philippines Football Federation?

Path of Potentially Persistent Progress:

As it has been announced on our website and news outlets across Pakistan, the national football team will be taking part in a series of some very important international football events throughout 2011. Our performance and results in this coming year, will decide the popularity and media awareness of our football team.

Unlike most countries, we actually have the potential of becoming a successful and challenging team to beat as far as most of Asia goes! Everyone loves a winner and its all about the right steps to make our boys victors starting from 2011!

This includes the 2012 London Olympics football tournament Asian qualifiers from Feb/March 2011, the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers at the end of March 2011, 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers from (still unconfirmed) June-July 2011, and lastly the 2011 SAFF Championship to be hosted by India at the end of the year.

The Olympic football qualifiers are very important given the event is essentially U23 + 3 over-age competition for teams around the world. That means, as far as qualification rounds go, players born on or after 01.01.1989 are eligible to participate for 2012 Olympic spots. Pakistan is scheduled to face Malaysia in home-away preliminary ties on 23 Feb and 9 March 2011. Back in Feb 2007, Pakistan stunningly beat Singapore 5-3 on aggregate in the preliminaries to qualify for second round in Asian Pre-Olympic qualifiers for 2008, only to be knocked out of contention after heavy defeats in their Group-A encounters with Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.


Fast forward to 2011, and our opposition this time around is another ASEAN team in Malaysia. Depending on whom we select – preferably a main core of foreign-based talent to work in tandem as well as guide the specialised role-specific local talent in the side – the Malaysian side is not a difficult side to overcome. Back in 2007, our local boys beat much fancied Singapore primarily thanks to all the effort put in by Bahraini coach Salman Ahmed Sharida the previous year, only for the team’s weaknesses to become exposed against the much stronger Middle Eastern powerhouses in the next round.

This time however, Pakistan can overcome Malaysia and, depending on whom we face in the next round, push our boys further and further. All under a competent international coach and our foreign legion as core, of course!

Same goes for the senior team games in the Challenge Cup qualifiers, World Cup qualifiers and SAFF Championship!

The Challenge Cup qualifiers will be very tricky, as it looks like 2008 Challenge Cup winners India will be hosting our qualification group which also includes Turkmenistan and the winners of the Chinese Taipei-Laos playoff. Only the top two sides out of four will go through to the 2012 Challenge Cup final round – the winner of that will qualify directly for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup to be held in Australia!

Turkmenistan are a real challenge as they have a solid, but not invincible, outfit while India – fresh from their 2011 Asian Cup campaign – will have its home crowd cheering for them especially when they take us on! However once again, a solid coach, and a core base of experienced foreign players will be vital for our progress as we can potentially beat all the teams in our group comfortably or even get enough points to qualify for 2012. Experienced defenders Shabir Khan (Worcester City FC) and Amjad Iqbal (AFC Farsley) will likely miss out on these vital qualifiers because of long-term injuries sustained a few months ago, which will keep them out of commission until summer 2011!

Then comes the drama of World Cup qualifiers in middle of 2011! It seems that AFC will keep the qualification format used for 2010 once again, as it means Pakistan will be thrown in the mix to see which team it will be drawn against. Last time we got the wrong end of the stick when we faced Asian champions Iraq and under the Akhtar Sahib regime got smashed 7-0 on aggregate. Hopefully this time, lady luck has a soft spot for us and we avoid the big sides like Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Kuwait, and China to avoid getting mauled again. But come what may, hopefully our boys will be ready for anyone we face.

The importance of friendly games before the World Cup qualifiers is vital as it will fine tune the side in preparing for these games.

The year will end with the 2011 SAFF Championship in India in December 2011. Embarrassingly, Pakistan has never even reached the final of this regional competition! Sure, we have won 4 football gold medals in South Asian Games, but that’s just a glorified youth competition, which only the PFF seems to take seriously in its self-praise publicity, compared to the actual SAFF Cup. History has shown that a combination of misfortune, bad coaching, and horrendous finishing in front of goal means we have been facing the exit door early for quite some time now.

Now is the time to end this humiliating streak and end that year, whichever way it goes with the blessings of those pulling the strings in PFF, with all guns blazing!

Again, 2011 can change everything we knew about the Pakistani football team. It will only make our progress and prosperity unstoppable!

The onus is on the PFF Sarkar over what direction it takes, because even if it all fails I still don’t expect any of the big guns to give up their chairs of power and walk away from football. However if it works, then hopefully the PFF will accept what my fellows at FPDC and I have been screaming at them for almost a decade regarding what the PFF should be doing compared to what they have been doing!