SAFF U-16 Championships: Team’s dismal show casts shadow over Pakistan’s footballing future [DAWN]

Umaid Wasim – DAWN

KARACHI, July 24: They went with so many aspirations. They will be coming back with so less.

There will be a new name inscribed on the SAFF U-16 trophy next Tuesday after defending champions Pakistan were knocked out of the group stage following a 3-0 reverse at the hands of hosts Nepal on Wednesday.

Pakistan went to Nepal for the second edition of the event high on confidence but after two successive draws in their first two games against Afghanistan and Bhutan left them needing victory in the final Group ‘A’ match against the hosts.

Instead, they succumbed to the pressure — and the rains — in Kathmandu.

“There was a lot of pressure on the boys,” Pakistan coach Sajjad Mehmood, who led the side to glory in the inaugural edition in 2011, told Dawn after the match at Kathmandu’s Dasarath Rangasala Stadium.

“Heavy downpour didn’t help either as they disrupted our passing moves while for Nepal, it became an advantage as they are well-equipped to play in such conditions.”

Pakistan fell behind in the 13th minute, according to the information received here, when Sajan Limbu headed in a rebound after Pakistan goalkeeper Mohammad Junaid could only parry Hemant Thapa Magar’s effort into his path.

Pakistan failed to make much of an impact, with their best chance falling to Adnan Ashraf who saw a free-kick saved.

Nepal’s Bimal Gharti Magar doubled his side’s lead in the second-half before he rounded off the scoring in the 73rd to put Pakistan out of the competition.

Nepal finished as group winners and will be joined by Afghanistan in the semi-finals after the latter romped to a 3-1 victory over Bhutan courtesy Nasar Ahmed’s double.

Nepal topped the group with seven points, followed by Afghanistan (5), Pakistan (2) and Bhutan (1).

For Pakistan it was a dismal end to their campaign which promised so much but delivered so less.

And it raises serious question marks over this side which was billed as the ‘best U-16 team’ the country had produced and its players were dubbed to be ‘the future of Pakistan’.

Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) secretary Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi was at a loss to explain the team’s poor showing.

“I think the team didn’t click at all despite our best efforts,” Lodhi told Dawn on Wednesday. “Maybe we were unable to give them proper exposure fir the event.”

Other signs point to improper planning by the PFF.

During the National U-16 Championships in Abbottabad in June, National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) coach Nasir Ismail was in the selection committee.

Nasir, who led NBP to National Challenge Cup title in May and served as assistant coach to Serbian Zavisa Milosavljevic in Pakistan’s senior team, however was left out of the Nepal-bound squad.

According to former Pakistan coach and current KRL boss Tariq Lutfi, though, the PFF did its best efforts but it was down to the coaches to make the team play.

“It is up to the coaches to make the team play,” Lutfi told Dawn in the aftermath of Pakistan’s inglorious exit. “If they can’t do that then they should be answerable.”

PFF, and many of Pakistan’s former internationals, insist the country’s junior teams are up to the mark with the top teams in Asia.

But the team’s performance in the regional event — which hardly features the continent’s powerhouses — raises several doubts over that claim.

“The talent is there,” Lutfi said, before adding “it needs grooming”. “This is a really bad result for the junior lot of the country.”

So if this team is destined to be the future of the country, where did it go wrong?

“We missed a lot of chances in our opening two games,” Sajjad lamented. “If we had taken those, things would have been different.”

The next chance for redemption for Sajjad’s charges would come in the AFC U-16 Championship qualifiers where Pakistan will play Iran, UAE and Sri Lanka in Group ‘E’ here at the People’s Sports Complex in September.

“We need to try and overcome our weaknesses for that event,” Sajjad added. “It is an important event for the team.”

Pakistan’s colts went into the competition hoping for a good performance that would’ve lead some of them to Fulham’s academy, with PFF’s marketing consultant Sardar Naveed Haider Khan in talks with the English Premier League club’s Pakistan-born owner Shahid Khan.

In wake of their current performance, though, that seems like a distant dream.