Preparing for the AFC Challenge

Following a series of failures during the last one year, national football team’s Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljevic faces what is perhaps is biggest test yet when Pakistan appear in their Group B matches of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Challenge Cup Qualifiers to be held in Kyrgyzstan from March 17 to 21.

The inaugural edition’s champions Tajikistan, hosts Kyrgyzstan and Macau are the teams in Pakistan’s group. As many as 20 nations have been placed in five pools. One leading outfit from each group and the two best second-placed sides will join hosts Maldives in the 2014 AFC Challenge finals.

The AFC Challenge Cup was a welcome introduction to the continental football calendar in 2006 with the biennial tournament established to provide the confederation’s developing and emerging nations with a more competitive platform.

Tajikistan were the inaugural AFC Challenge Cup winners with a 4-0 victory over Sri Lanka in the final. The Central Asians had to settle for a second place two years later when they lost 4-1 to hosts India.

India’s victory in the 2008 final earned them qualification to the 2011 AFC Asian Cup and DPR Korea followed a similar route to Asia’s flagship tournament when they defeated Turkmenistan 5-4 on penalties in the finale of the 2010 edition in Sri Lanka.

Two years later, in the most recent edition of the AFC Challenge, DPR Korea and Turkmenistan met again in the final with the East Asians successfully defending their title with a 2-1 triumph in Nepal to seal their place in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia.

Zavisa, who has been working as Pakistan coach since November 5, 2011, looks a disciplined coach but so far he has not been able to turn the team into a winning unit. Under his belt, Pakistan failed to move into the 2011 SAFF Cup semi-finals, his first assignment with the unit which was originally formed by former Pakistan coach Tariq Lutfi.

His next tough task was to prepare an Under-22 outfit for the Asian Cup Qualifiers. His team was given foreign tours of Thailand, Palestine and Bahrain but the Greenshirts miserably flopped in the Qualifiers in Saudi Arabia in June-July this year.

Last month, he took the senior side to Singapore where Pakistan tasted a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the hosts in the FIFA friendly on November 19, a poor result considering the fact that Pakistan had fielded around seven foreign-based players, Zeeshan Rehman, Shabbir Khan, Adnan Ahmed, Hasan Bashir, Mohammad Ali, Yousuf Butt and Omar Malik.

It was expected that the team would fight well but it turned out to be a different story. Singapore looked a different side while facing Pakistan because of the presence of foreign players, particularly from Serbia, who were given nationality.

Soon after Singapore’s tour Zavisa took the Under-23 team to Sri Lanka to feature in a four-nation tournament in Nawalapitiya recently. And there the team lost to Maldives 2-1 in the final, again a disappointing result as Zavisa’s charges had the potential to lift the crown keeping in view the strength of his team, with most players from the senior side.

Zavisa will have to make an extra effort to build a strong unit for the AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers as his future as Pakistan coach depends solely on this assignment.

If he fails to deliver, then his two-year contract could be dissolved prematurely. But if he is able to deliver then it will be a great development for the 180th-ranked country which has never qualified for the final round in the history of the AFC Challenge Cup.

The task before the Serbian is no doubt a tough one but it is achievable provided he is able to get from the authorities the sort of support he will need for preparation of the team.

The real challenge for Pakistan will be to beat the 137-ranked Tajikistan in their pool as their other rivals, hosts Kyrgyzstan and 199th-ranked Macau, are beatable.

Pakistan will have to kick-start their preparation soon after the Premier League which concludes on January 17.

It would be a problem for a few of the foreign-based players to feature in the event as they don’t have Pakistani passports.

The PFF should try to help the cream of the foreign-based stuff get Pakistani passports. It has always been a problem that foreign players are not able to join the camp in time and most of them prefer to join the team only a couple of days before international assignments as they did recently for the tour of Singapore.

Half a dozen players from England, Denmark and Norway came directly to Singapore and left for their respective countries from there after appearing in matches.

In order to develop coordination among the players foreign-based boys must join the team 20 to 25 days ahead of the assignment because unlike Europe a long preparatory camp is absolutely necessary for building a strong Pakistan side, which has multiple problems.

Finishing has been a big problem and a long camp will help the coach give sufficient time to the vital area. The PFF should make concerted efforts to arrange international matches for the team against tough nations which is the only way to raise our football. Matches against South Asian nations will be a futile exercise.

In order to raise the mental level of the players the services of a psychologist are also absolutely necessary.

Besides this, the PFF should ensure better diet and healthy living conditions for the players during the training period.

The support staff of the coach also needs to be increased as only a single assistant coach will not be able to serve the purpose.

In the developed countries one could see a packed bench of the support staff which normally proves effective during preparation of the lot and even during competitions.

The services of the manager are also required so that the coach and his support staff could solely concentrate on their actual job. It’s time to focus on these issues.

by Alam Zeb Safi [The News]