By Ashley Hammond, Gulf News
Dubai: Pakistan’s opening South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship match against India next month is “not just another football match”, according to the Green Shirts’ coach Zavisa Milosavljevic.
Pakistan and India kick off the 11-day, eight-team SAFF Championship on September 1 at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the top two teams from two groups of four will progress to the semis.
Dubbed ‘The Group of Death’, with Pakistan and India also drawn with Nepal and Bangladesh in Pool A, there’s added incentive to win their opening game beyond just trying to establish regional one-upmanship usually reserved for cricket.
Milosavljevic, who previously managed at domestic and national level in his native Serbia — between coaching spells in Rwanda and Lesotho — told Gulf News: “I don’t feel any pressure. Mentally we are ready to play India.
“As a coach it’s just as normal as any other game. But I understand that for others, India and Pakistan is not just another football match. It will make reputations across the region and we will try our best for sure.
“India is always a tough opponent. But at the same time this is the first game and it is most important that we win the match in order to qualify for the next round. If we win against India, I think we can go on to qualify and that’s the motivation.
“If we can implement all that we’ve been working on we are sure to play well against India.”
In 23 matches against India since 1959, Pakistan have lost nine times, drawn 11 and won three and India have scored 27 goals to Pakistan’s 16. Pakistan’s last win was in 2005 and, to top it off, India are currently 21 positions above 167th-placed Pakistan in the Fifa world rankings. Despite the weight of history and statistics, though, Milosavljevic refuses to be overawed.
“I’m satisfied with our group,” said Milosavljevic. “Others are calling it the ‘Group of Death’, but I don’t think so. During the group stages of the championship there are no two favourites. The chances are the same for all teams.”
In 10 editions of the SAFF Championship, India are the all-time leading champions with six titles. But Pakistan, whose previous best finish in this tournament is third (1997), will be hoping a good show against the rival can spark a footballing revolution.
“There is great potential for football in Pakistan,” said Milosavljevic. “But football needs to improve its standards here. One of the crucial things is the league and youth competitions – there’s no youth league or foundation for the senior team.
“If we can arrange leagues and employ professional coaches who can deliver knowledge to players, Pakistan will develop as a footballing nation, but it doesn’t come automatically. Without quality and educated coaches we cannot expect any quality results in the future.”