Pakistan’s football team missing in action

Pakistan’s football team missing in action

Published by Al Jazeera:

India may not exactly be a giant at football but at least fans in the country are ‘treated’ to regular articles in the international media asking just why that is and when it will end.

Pakistan don’t even get that. When it comes to the beautiful game, this beautiful land may as well not exist for all the attention it gets.

The limit of the national team’s ambitions at the moment is the South Asian Football Federation Cup in September but few are confident that the Green Shirts will get their hands on the trophy in Nepal. Of the nine editions played so far, India have won six, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all triumphed once but Pakistan have still to even reach the final.

Preparations are not going well. So much so, that, at the time of writing, there are not really any preparations at all.

“We need a large number of international matches, which will give players need international experience and confidence,” Pakistan’s national team coach Zavisa Milosavljevic told Al Jazeera.

“We need to create unity and a sense of belonging.”

The Serbian is beginning to realise that it is easier said than done. A planned mini-series in June at Fulham’s Craven Cottage in London with India and Bangladesh has been cancelled. It’s a familiar refrain. In 2011, a similar event scheduled to take place in three British cities also never happened.

They could have been meaningful matches for UK-born Pakistani international Zesh Rehman. After all, the well-travelled defender played for Fulham in the Premier League.

Now in Hong Kong with Kitchee, he doesn’t expect to be back in England any time soon.

“I’m not surprised in the least that the games have been cancelled again in the UK,” Rehman told Al Jazeera.

“The federation seems to want to minimise spending money. They need to see the bigger picture and not just think about the short term. Unfortunately as a football nation we are lagging behind in South Asia which is not the most competitive level in Asia.”

Lacking professionalism

Improving the local league, with its poor facilities and standards, would help. Rumours of a football copy of cricket’s Indian Premier League, teams full of stars and showmen, seem fanciful though fantasy is understandable when you look at the reality.

The government runs the best teams such as champion Khan Research Laboratories. Such set-ups and names lack appeal for fans and private investors, two groups that are largely absent with many attendances struggling to run into three figures. Unsurprisingly, broadcasters are not that interested either.

Security problems, especially in football-loving Balochistan, don’t help. Having the league squeezed into four months means that players’ fitness levels suffer and the few fans there are lose interest.

“The league should be professional,” noted Milosavljevic.

“We should play two half-seasons and championship matches should be played for an audience and fans and play only on weekends.”

The lack of foreign imports in the league is another problem according to Rehman.

“The likes of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives have foreign players in their local leagues and when Pakistan follows suit that will help. However the longer it is left the way it is the football will stand still and will gradually become less and less competitive even in South Asia.”

What Pakistan does have are players like Rehman, born overseas with European experience. Afghanistan has an increasing Diaspora that helped the team reached the final of the 2011 of the South Asian Cup. Yet in Pakistan the international stars are not always welcomed by the folks back home. Mohammad Essa, the best-home grown player of recent years has been consistent in his criticism of how the foreign stars arrive late for training camps and are not as committed as the home-grown heroes.

It rankles Rehman. “It’s normal in football to look for scapegoats so it’s not a huge surprise the foreign-based players will get the blame so the local lads don’t lose face. The reality is the local players are nowhere near good enough or tactically aware enough to improve the FIFA rankings significantly.” Milosavljevic believes the PFF should “fight” for these foreign-born players.

The Serbian is under pressure after the Green Shirts failed to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup, a competition reserved for developing football nations, losing to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in March.

He needs good results at the South Asian Cup or his contract may not be renewed when it ends in November.

“I am an optimist by nature. In previous matches, Pakistan had competitive and recognisable games and it gave us hope. Our main goal is always to win.”

For the moment, even the summit of South Asia looks distant. Anything else is still a dream. The team fails to get anywhere near qualification for the Asian Cup, never mind the global tournament. Rehman’s evaluation is probably more optimistic than most.

“To qualify for a World Cup will take twenty years and there needs to be a complete overhaul of the whole football system.”

John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden