Umaid Wasim – DAWN
Whatever it is, it’s just there, it comes naturally and every time a sizzling local talent comes up, he is invariably compared to South American greats, not to Cruyff or Henry or even the universally-admired Beckham even with the huge viewership of the European game in the country.
Legendary striker Abdul Ghafoor Majna was Pakistan’s Pele and Kaleemullah wants to be Pakistan’s Lionel Messi while Mohammad Adil has modeled his game on Carlos Tevez.
The two young internationals, who made history for Pakistan by leading KRL to the final of the AFC President’s Cup, follow a generation of footballers in the country which idolised greats like Pele, Maradona, Zico and more recently Valderrama, Batistuta, Romario, Ronaldo and Forlán. Many up-and-coming Pakistan footballers would now probably want to be like Neymar.
They have all just seemed more relevant to the Pakistani psyche.
Pakistan’s infatuation with Brazilian football in particular has a long history and although that love affair has decreased in a way ever since Argentine World Player of the Year Messi burst on the scene, remnants of that adoration are still pretty evident in Karachi’s township of Lyari where aspiring footballers don the blue and yellow jersey of the Brazilian national team with great pride.
The love for a step-over, a mazy dribble or a deft flick is ingrained in Pakistan’s footballing mindset.
In 2011, Brazilian ambassador to Pakistan Alfredo Leoni met with Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials and he pledged his support for the growth of football here. He also discussed the possibility for Brazil to host coaching clinics for Pakistan’s players and coaches.
In that connection, Shahzad Anwar – in-charge of the national team during the SAFF Championships – attended a coaching clinic in the South American country held by Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreiera.
Under Shahzad’s tutelage, Pakistan played the best football they had in years at the SAFF Championships in Nepal.
“The national team played with an attacking intent and at times outplayed their opponents,” PFF’s marketing consultant Sardar Naveed Haider told Dawn.com after Pakistan’s final Group ‘A’ game in Kathmandu.
“So it was a remarkable improvement for the national side considering our recent performances.
“And hopefully the performances in Kathmandu will pave the way for a better future.”
Pakistan’s performance in the SAFF Championship was just a small indication of how the South American blueprint could work for the boys in green.
For now, the man to take Pakistan to the next level is Bahraini coach Mohammad Al Shamlan.
Al Shamlan went to Nepal as a consultant, having been hired by the national team just days before the SAFF Championships.
Shahzad, who was assistant to former coach Zavisa Milosavljevic of Serbia, was handed the reins for South Asia’s biggest football event.
Shamlan has been handed the job for the next two years.
If he delivers success, there is a chance that his contract will be extended – something most Pakistan football fans would hope for.
But the question is whether PFF would take a gamble on a South American coach after Shamlan’s two years.
Not only will Shamlan take charge of the national team but he’s also been roped in to guide the teams at junior levels; which is essentially PFF’s hope to build a better team for the future.
Talk of Pakistan’s youngsters getting a chance to train at the academy of English Premier side Fulham has fizzled out but now with Shamlan at the helm, that disappointment has probably been lessened.
But even then, what remains to be seen is how far Shamlan improves the team.
Pakistan’s ace defender Zesh Rehman believes that he can take the team forward.
“Shamlan has great technical skills and he can help the national team improve by a long way,” Zesh told Dawn.com. “Hopefully in two years’ time, we can raise a team capable of being the best in South Asia.”
Being the best in South Asia, though, wouldn’t satisfy this country’s football-mad youth.
For the youth, only seeing their team and their own stars playing at the World Cup would help them take off the posters of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and replace them with those of Zesh, Kaleemullah or Mohammad Adil.
The PFF chief has already claimed Pakistan will qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
And so having tried with numerous European coaches in the past, would 2015 be the right time to experiment with the South American gaffer considering the country’s love for Latin style of the game?
The European coaches that came to Pakistan in recent times were mostly from Eastern Europe – Joseph Serel (Slovakia), George Kottan (Hungary) and Milosavljevic; countries that usually adopt a more defensive, physical approach to the game and a total reverse to the footballing philosophy Pakistan’s player grow up honing.
Milosavljevic, for one, adopted an extremely defensive approach. His aim was to form a compact team that is solid at the back and relies on quick counterattacks.
Kaleemullah, who bangs in goals – and plenty of them – for national champions KRL was shifted to the role of a defensive midfielder.
It ultimately led to a succession of poor results and the axe fell on the Serbian.
With Shahzad at the helm at the SAFF Championships, Kaleem enjoyed a free role behind the target man Hassan Bashir and it ultimately led to Pakistan playing some attractive football – even if the results weren’t the ones that had been desired.
But still, it is good for a start. And now Shamlan needs to make sure that they keep playing in the same vein.
A South American coach can then take them to the next level – in both technical and mental terms.
Imagining someone like Diego Maradona at the touch-line barking orders at Kaleemullah to go on the attack; beating a few players and scoring a goal in a World Cup qualifier against Japan to send Pakistan into the 2022 showpiece may seem far fetched but imagination is free of cost.
That scenario though needs a lot of planning, according to Pakistan’s former coach Tariq Lutfi.
“The PFF need to make better decisions if they were to hire a South American coach,” Lutfi, who has guided KRL to back-to-back Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) titles in the last two years, told Dawn.com.
“They need to have a structure for the players to benefit from the presence of a South American coach.”
By structure, Lutfi means bringing the players to a level where they are more competitive and improve local coaches to the extent where they can assist the foreign coach.
He says firstly the PPFL needs to improve so as to enhance the players’ skill.
“The PPFL needs to be more competitive so that the players improve their technical skills,” Lutfi says.
“Only if they get a required skill-set, then only it would be of any help to a coach from South America because of course even he won’t be able to improve a bunch of amateurs.
“Secondly, we need to train local coaches so that they can guide the incoming coach of the structure of Pakistan football.
“The coaches should also be able to learn from the foreign coach so that in effect, those technical skills then trickle down to local clubs and teams so it leads to an overall growth of the game.” It’s something that Jose Mourinho did when he was an interpreter at Barcelona to manager Bobby Robson in the 1990’s. From an interpreter, Mourinho became one of the most respected managers in Europe.
Maybe Shahzad could follow in those footsteps if Pakistan – in an ideal scenario – get someone of the stature of Maradona in two years’ time after a drastic upheaval in the football structure here.
Working as a sports ambassador in the UAE, the Argentine legend recently decided to act as a part-time consultant for Argentine fifth-tier side Deportivo Riestra. If Pakistan presents itself as an attractive proposition in two years time, who knows the fiery World Cup winner may decide to take it up as a challenge to revive his faltering managerial career.
Imagine what would be the reaction of Lyari’s football-mad population if he turns up at the People’s Sports Complex for a PPFL match.
It could, however, be a double-edged sword for Pakistan.
Lutfi believes if a South American is hired, he should have a proven track record and good credentials – unlike many Europeans who have been at the helm of the national team.
“Many coaches come to the country for the challenge of training a side with great aspirations of being the best in South Asia,” he said.
“But unfortunately the coaches who have been hired by the PFF in the recent past, haven’t won trophies with their previous sides – at club or international level,” he added.
“How can a coach who doesn’t even know how it feels to be successful, guide a team to glory?” he asks.
Pakistan’s former captain Mohammad Essa agrees.
“The national team coach should have a good record,” he says. “It is essential for the coach to be a winner so that he’s able to inspire his players when the heads are down.”
As far as credentials are concerned, South American coaches have exhibited a lot of that in the recent past.
South American coaches are now in some of the top jobs in Europe.
Argentine Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino was named as Barca coach at the start of this season while Manuel Pellegrini of Chile took over at Manchester City.
Martino comes with a reputation that he likes free-flowing football while Pellegrini took Villarreal and Malaga to the semi-finals and the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League in their debut seasons in Europe’s premier club competition.
After years of doubting whether South American managers could cut it in the English Premier League, Pellegrini’s appointment meant it was first time in the league that two sides were being led by two from Latin America – Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino the other.
But there haven’t been many success stories when coaches from South America go to Europe.
“Some of the most successful South American coaches – Carlos Bianchi and Vanderley Luxemburgo, for example – have failed to make the transition successfully,” says BBC’s South American football correspondent Tim Vickery.
“European football is faster, and there are multi-national, multi-cultural dressing rooms to take care of – an area in which many South American coaches lack experience.”
Pakistan’s national team, on the contrary, has struggled to play well under European coaches.
And if a South American was to coach the national team, he wouldn’t have to deal with a multi-national dressing room except for the language barrier.
It points towards a win-win situation.
And looking at the track record of some of the South American coaches in Asia, the PFF could consider a South American as Shamlan’s eventual successor.
Carlos Alberto Parreira made his reputation in Asia – winning the Asian Cup with Kuwait (1980) and Saudi Arabia (1988) – before guiding Brazil to glory in the 1994 World Cup.
His compatriot Zico also found success in Asia when he took Japan to the Asian Cup title in 2004 in a spell during which the Blue Samurai earned plaudits for playing football Samba style.
At club level, another Brazilian made his mark.
Sergio Farias helped South Korean side Pohang Steelers win the AFC Champions League in 2009.
But one of the best AFC Champions League triumph was masterminded by Uruguayan Jorge Fossati when he made an unheralded Al-Sadd side the first Qatari club to win Asia’s biggest club competition.
In each of those successes, though, the platform had been laid for the South American managers to take the team forward.
Pakistan too will need to do exactly that in order to find success with a South American coach.
“If the system is in place, the South American coach will have little problems in taking the team forward,” Lutfi opined, “because he will have the players to fit into the South American system of play”.
Zesh, however, differs from Lutfi regarding that matter.
“A South American coach won’t be able to adapt to the culture here,” he said. “There will be a lot of expectations placed on him and he will succumb to that pressure.
“I personally think an Asian coach can understand Pakistan football better.”
Recent track record of the South Americans though points to them overcoming the adaptability barrier.
And Lutfi thinks that if a South American coach takes over the Pakistan side, he will have the players play exactly the way he wants to.
“It is the South American system to operate with a 4-3-3 formation rather than the 4-4-2 formation preferred by many European coaches [or the defensive 4-5-1],” Lutfi said.
“And there are players here who can operate in that system better than in a 4-4-2.
“In the current national team, we can easily form a quality front trio of Hassan, Kaleemullah and Adil.
“Kaleem and Adil are already used to playing that way for KRL where they are joined by Zia-us-Salam on the right.
“So overall, on a tactical basis, it would be easier for the players to perform under an attack-minded South American coach rather than a defensive European coach.”
But first, Lutfi says, Pakistan needs to form a proper senior team.
“The current PFF setup is reliant on youngsters [players from the U-21 squad] who play for the senior team,” he said. “A number of players who have under-performed need to be axed and new players brought in so the team can succeed.”
Essa strikes a similar chord to Lutfi’s views.
“Results will only come if we differentiate between the senior team and the junior team,” he says.
“There needs to be proper understanding in the PFF that U-19 and U-21 players will of course struggle at international level.”
He also thinks that the country’s football infrastructure needs to be upgraded for a South American coach to succeed.
“We will need facilities, a major improvement to the system and better grounds to help the South American coach set up his own regime,” he says.
“For him to employ his tactics he’ll need facilities that he’s been used to in South America so first we’ll need to make sure he gets all that.”
Essa reckons Shamlan is the man for the next two years but after that a South American coach could do wonders.
“Shamlan knows the system and he can improve the team to a level where we can be the best in South Asia,” he hopes.
“But maybe after that – considering Pakistan’s affinity for Brazilian and Argentine style of football – we can bring an experienced South American coach [if the PFF can bear his expenses].
“He can then take the team to the next level because I believe that a good coach will lead to greater success.