Pakistan’s Cinderella Story [FPDC-Dawn exclusive]

From Dawn.Com

In this day and age, it is rare to see Pakistan coming out on top in a sporting event. Even rarer is seeing Pakistan win anything when it comes to the beautiful game: Football.  Anyone who has been following Pakistani football for the last number of years will realize that our national team’s performance has been a mix of disappointment and hap hazard ad-hoc preparation and most of this year has been no different.

All of that changed this August in Nepal, when Pakistan’s U-16 team stunned everyone by rampaging through to win the inaugural SAFF U-16 Championship with style, grit, determination and a display of good football. What was even more remarkable was that Pakistan beat eternal rivals, and tournament favourites, India twice in the same tournament to be crowned champions of this 6 team tournament also featuring hosts Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Maldives.

Pakistan U16 celebrate SAFF U16 Cup final win (AFP Photo)

The last time Pakistani football tasted success, at any level, was five years ago: Winning the football gold in the 2006 South Asian Games under Bahraini coach Salman Ahmed Sharida. This time, it was under Sajjad Mehmood and Hassan Baloch that the young guns emerged victorious at Dasarath Rangsala Stadium in Nepal.

The Pakistan team scored an astounding 11 goals, conceded just 1, and won all of its matches with star striker Mansoor Khan and winger Sher Ali being the star performers, with Muhammad Bilal top scoring with 4 goals (all in same match against hapless Maldives), captain Muneer ul Haq being a rock in defence, and goalkeeper Usman Khan being a reliable presence at the back.

However, this was not an easy route. In the run-up to the tournament, Pakistan had the worst possible preparation to begin with. The National U-16 Championship that was billed to help prepare and select the best possible team for the tournament was cancelled by PFF. This forced the coach Hassan Baloch of KESC to call up most of his former U-13 and U-14 troops that he had guided to impressive results in various AFC ‘Festivals of Football’ over the past 2-3 years to be part of the current U-16 team. The team had to rely on playing practice games with a few local sides just to get into rhythm.

However, despite all the odds, Pakistan started the SAFF U-16 campaign with a 1-0 shock win over favourites India in the first game of Group A, with Mansoor Khan’s lone goal being enough at the end. This feat had a bigger sense of achievement around the win as India’s U-16 had been regularly training in 2010 at USA’s renowned IMG Soccer Academy in Florida as part of the Indian U-15 side, and were arguably far superior in technique, organization, and skill.

India struggled to equalize and despite coming close many times, Pakistan held out for the win. With morale high, Pakistan then went into the next game against Maldives and hammered them for six in a 6-0 win as they qualified for the semi-finals by topping their group. Muhammad Bilal scored four goals that day, with two goals and a few assists from star winger Sher Ali.

In the semi-finals, Pakistan fought tooth and nail with a gritty Bangladesh side on a difficult pitch and it took two very late goals from Mansoor Khan (89’) and Sher Ali (90+1’) to help Pakistan through to the final.

The final was a high tempo affair with Pakistan and India going at each other from the kick-off whistle. But Pakistan stunned their rivals again by taking a lead through Muhammad Zeeshan’s speculative 23rd minute shot that beat Indian goalie Supritam.

India managed to equalize just before half time through Daniel Lalhimplua. The second half started in rocking fashion when Mansoor Khan once again proved to be India’s tormenter as he scored from a corner after just 5 minutes, forcing India to chase again.

Despite all their efforts, India ran out of ideas as Pakistan’s defence held on for a memorable triumph at the end to be crowned the first ever South Asian U-16 football champions.

Nepalese fans supporting Pakistan in SAFF U16 Championship final against India (AFP photo)

One of the surprising moments of the tournament was the amazing support shown by Nepalese fans towards Pakistan throughout the entire tournament.

This title win, as team captain Muneer said on return, was a gift to Pakistan over its upcoming Independence Day anniversary of 14th August. Sajjad Mehmood and Hassan Baloch performed great as a team, and Hassan Baloch in particular deserves special praise for his efforts in making the youth teams under him perform and train much better in international football for the past three years.

Now the boys will be preparing for the 2012 AFC U16 Championship qualifiers in Kuwait next month that features hosts Kuwait, UAE, Yemen, Maldives, and surprise package Afghanistan. Realistically, Pakistan’s U-16 team will not overcome the much tougher and stronger Middle Eastern teams in the group but such experience at international level will help them grow, improve and mature as they get older as players.

The best way to ensure that good progress continues is by arranging much needed preparation camps abroad in countries like Iran, UAE etc, allowing the boys to train and practice with good Asian clubs to better assess their standing as players and giving the best performers the chance of playing for the better clubs to help facilitate their improvement and growth.

The final victory suddenly garnered tremendous media and public attention, with the PFF announcing a Rs 3 million reward for the win, given how much criticism and disappointment it has had to endure this year because of senior national team results.

Team coach Sajjad Mehmood was right when he said that this result shows Pakistan has talent in football. However, the system of football in Pakistan still remains a problem to deal with. The clumsy domestic structure of department teams, rather than city-based privately owned and operated professional clubs, remain dominant in Pakistani football which only inhibits talent, development, and professionalism.

Victory for Pakistani football is seldom, and this U-16 result is something to really cherish and celebrate. Good times lie ahead, no doubt, but it will take dedication, innovation, and vision to ensure that they come aplenty soon.


Be Champions!