Zohaib Rashid, England Correspondent, Leeds
As Pakistan get their campaign in the 2013 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship underway against neighbours India, one player will be missing from the starting line-up.
And it will be a tough ask for Atif Bashir to watch his country’s progress in the competition, knowing that he could have been playing with the boys had it not been for a serious knee injury.
There’s no doubt Bashir would have been one of the first names on the team sheet to lead Pakistan’s charge against group rivals India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
But after four years of playing international football, the 28-year-old’s career is on a break as he works his way back to full fitness.
In an exclusive interview with Footballpakistan.com, Bashir described the moment when his knee gave way in a game for Barry Town against Caerleon on 4th September 2012.
“It was a freak accident as I was not tackled. I turned awkwardly and heard a loud crunching noise and excruciating pain from my right knee dropped me to the floor. I was then diagnosed with a torn ACL, torn medial ligament and a partly damaged meniscus.”
The news devastated Pakistan’s football fans, who had become accustomed to his never-say-die attitude and dominating style of play in the Green shirt.
Bashir made his debut for Pakistan in the 2008 SAFF Championship in the Maldives. Since then, he was ever-present, featuring in the qualifiers for the AFC Challenge Cup and 2014 FIFA World Cup as well as playing in the 2010 Asian Games in China.
“I’m going to be honest, the injury I sustained has completely ruined my season and recovery has been slow and painful,” said Bashir.
“After two surgeries I am now ready to get back into strengthening my legs and then back into football training by the end of the year. When I will be part of competitive football, only Allah knows.”
He added: “I’ve dedicated most of my life to football and made countless sacrifices for the sport I love. Watching the progress Pakistan made since my last involvement, I can only say that not much has changed results-wise but (I feel) that I could have helped a little in some situations.”
Pakistan go into the SAFF Championship with hardly the idea preparation following the sacking of coach Zavisa Milosavljevic following a 3-0 defeat away to Afghanistan last month.
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) installed former Bahrain coach Mohammed Shamlan Mubarak Basheer Al Shamlan in the hot seat on a two-year contract. Shamlan will act as a consultant while Shahzad Anwar takes charge of the Pakistan team for the Championship, before taking the reins on the conclusion of the tournament.
Bashir is confident that Pakistan can make it through to the semi-finals of the Championship. He also believes that a change in the coaching set cup could yield good results for the team.
“My hopes are with the squad. Insha’Allah, they will bring back the pride to the country. I believe we can make it past the group stages and with the help of a new coach, who knows, a fresh set of eyes can possibly do the trick.
“(But), if they come back with bad performances, than the PFF should seriously consider a new approach.”
Reflecting on his experience of playing against Afghanistan, Bashir was impressed with them, while lamenting Pakistan’s tactics for the game.
“To be honest, from my experience of playing against Afghanistan a couple of years ago, they have more foreigners in their teams than we do. They have a collection of a few actual Afghans and mostly well trained and pedigree players from Germany and the USA.
“They are a decent team and after the latest friendly I cannot comment too much as I’m a player not analyst, but the performance of the Pakistan team did not reflect my past experience of passing the ball.
“The long ball tactic does not suit us and I don’t believe that we have the composure or talent to kick a ball long and expect one or two players to keep it under control while the other nine players follow up or even beat six defensive players.”
His frank and honest nature on and off the field has made him a fan favourite but Bashir remains ever-modest about his contributions for the Pakistan team.
“Me? I do not believe that I am anyone’s favourite due to my ability but rather my presence on the pitch. I agree I can stir up a match in some occasions by running wild.”
And what about his team-mates?
“I must say that there is no one that stands out. Each tournament or game I have been part on we have had individual performances that stood out one match and then let us down the next. So no consistent player (who stands out) but remember, I have not seen the likes of Hassan Bashir or some other new comers yet.
But he did reserve praise for Mohammad Ahmed and talismanic midfielder Adnan Ahmed, the former Manchester United youngster who has played in England, Hungary and Iran.
“So far my personal favourites are probably Mohammad Ahmed and Adnan Ahmed. Ahmed has outstanding ability but has not been developed by anybody and instead gets pushed from position to position by different managers.
“In my opinion the lad has the ability to be a major player if given the chance to grow in his favourite position.
“Adnan is just in a different league to Pakistani footballers; he is by far the best individual player in the squad but requires the right players around him, which we do not have, unfortunately.”