Road to 2018 FIFA World Cup Pre-Qualifiers [FPDC Exclusive]

Road to 2018 FIFA World Cup Pre-Qualifiers [FPDC Exclusive]

By FPDC Staff:

For a country that has never won a World Cup Qualifying match and not scored a WCQ goal in over a decade you would have expected a bit more serious planning, urgency and ambition. But this is Pakistan where qualification for major events isn’t even dream about let alone work on achieving it practically. Forget qualification, a single win isn’t even dream about. “Every country dreams of winning the world cup, some just want to win a game” this is apt for the success starved and failure laden football fans of Pakistani football.

Having seen the last 2 world cup qualifying campaigns (if you can call exiting at the very first hurdle a campaign) from close up, hoping this time was going to be any different was just wishful thinking even though it has been made easier to progress to next round. If Pakistan had played their cards right they wouldn’t have to play this pre-qualifier at all. So let’s look at it, why and how we ended up here.

Bangladesh vs Pakistan - rain in Dhaka!
Bangladesh vs Pakistan – rain in Dhaka!

It started with an early exit for the 2014 World Cup pre qualifiers as Pakistan succumbed to Bangladesh 3-0 on aggregate having lost in Dhaka in conditions described by players as the “worst ever they had played in”, water-logged pitch, monsoon pouring down and the AFC officials paid no heed to complaints from the visitors. The hosts took advantage of conditions and some shoddy defending and goalkeeping winning the first leg 3-0 followed by a comfortable 0-0 draw in Lahore. Pakistan’s customary 1st round participation was done and dusted like previous participation. It had come with no planning or preparations because home-grown coaches usually don’t get the privilege of having international friendlies or training camps abroad. To make matters worse there is always questionable selections to add to the misery of already depleted fans.

After the failure against Bangladesh, Pakistan brought in Serbian coach just few weeks ahead of the SAFF Championship, Zavisa Milosavljevic did what he could in such short time, leaving the tournament unbeaten with 3 draws but failing to progress into the semi-finals. Pakistan spent the following year investing in the U-22 team with various training camps and friendly tours but the team failed miserably at Asian U-22 Championship qualifiers, finishing bottom of the group without scoring a goal in 5 matches with just a single 1 point to their name. Zavisa’s calls for senior team’s matches fell on deaf ears and he managed just 1 international friendly in 12months against Singapore in Nov 2012 losing 4-0.

2013 started brightly with Pakistan picking up 2 wins against Nepal in a friendly series followed by a draw and a loss against Maldives as the preparations continued for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers (tournament for emerging nations, route to Asian Cup). However Pakistan failed to clear their group losing against rising teams from Central Asia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. However Zavisa continued to try and prepare the team for SAFF Cup, but his plans again fell through. He was rewarded with a trip to Kabul for a friendly against Afghanistan which all local based players played and Pakistan were outplayed and well beaten 3-0. The Pakistani public had seen the team play on TV for the first time after 2 years, it had hurt some egos which prompted the PFF leadership to answer urgent questions from the media, resulting in Zavisa losing his job the same evening.

Enter Shamlan:

Coach Shamlan is expected to join the team soon.
Mohammad Shamlan

Just before the trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan had secured the services of Bahraini coach Mohammad Shamlan Al Mubarak on a free from Bahrain Football Association. He was to tour with Zavisa as an advisor for the SAFF Championship in Nepal in Sept 2013 but Zavisa having lost his job meant his assistant Shahzad Anwar was in charge with Shamlan acting as consultant. Pakistan once again failed to clear the group by smallest of margin, on head to head record after having played some brilliant football seen in recent years falling victim to questionable refereeing and an own goal.

Pakistan - India 2014 - team
The National Senior and U23 Team

It was seen as a new beginning that Shahzad and Shamlan could lead Pakistan to something, a month later Shamlan took over head coach with Shahzad assisting him as they led Pakistan to Peace Cup in Philippines with another good showing. But this was the last of that promising start, it was to take turn for the worse. Pakistan in 2014 abandoned its full senior team and turned to youth, players coming from U19 and U21 team, the same players that failed repeatedly at youth level were now being readied for the future. Pakistan played Lebanon in February with an under-strength but new 1st choice squad, it lost to 2nd string Lebanon side. Pakistan’s new national team was its U22, U23 and senior team, it failed at Al Nakhba Cup (1 win, 2 defeats), lost to Indonesia, win and loss a piece against India U23s and another failure at the Asian Games followed by a defeat to Palestine meant Pakistan had gone 2014 with just 2 wins out of 10, failing to score a goal in 7 of those.

2014 was the time to plan and prepare for 2015, a year with World Cup Qualifiers; AFC announced that WCQ also be linked to Asian Cup Qualifiers with AFC Challenge Cup coming to an end. AFC in April announced the format with bottom 12 teams in Asia playing a two legged pre-qualifier. At that time Pakistan ranked outside the bottom 12 and safe from this early participation. All Pakistan needed to do was play few friendly matches, maintain their rankings or improve them and get into group stage of World Cup Qualifiers with 8 guaranteed matches, 4 home and 4 away. This could have been a shot in the arm for football in Pakistan with Asian heavyweights making the trips to Pakistan, televised coverage and enhanced commercial opportunities.

However Pakistan failed to do any of that, it fell in ranking and continued to do that, it ranks 188 now and amongst bottom 4 in Asia, from 31st in Asia in April 2014 to 43rd in space of 8months. Now that’s what you call progress. Pakistan now go into the qualifiers unseeded amongst the bottom 12 meaning it could face anyone from the above 6 teams that include likes of Yemen and India.

The less cultured Shamlan had ignored the Europe based players and paid no attention to their progress, he has now made u-turn with conditions attached. Whilst he should have scouted them properly, watched them play, monitor their progress and keep them in the loop, he didn’t do any of that. He has called up just handful of overseas based players whilst ignoring half a dozen of the other ones. Senior players from the Pakistan Premier League are also set to miss out despite performing purely based on their age.

He has now put his priorities for the upcoming AFC U23 Championship Qualifiers instead of the World Cup Pre-Qualifiers which also have Asian Cup attached to it. Whilst the coach believe U23 are the future and will have long term impact he fails to understand that an exit in WCQs means you have no competitive football till 2019, so the investment on U23 who will become seniors have nothing to play for 4 years. How is that progress?

Maybe Pakistan need to make a quick decision, bring in a coach just for the senior team who can go for the win for senior team whilst Shamlan and his staff achieve their dream of U23 qualification.

PFF isn’t short of funds this year, it is getting $1.3 million from FIFA this year with $300,000 coming specially for the World Cup Qualifiers.

If PFF could sack Zavisa a fortnight before the SAFF Championship, it can surely do that with Shamlan too, and there are 2 months to go.

What’s it going to be? Another early exit in the World Cup Qualifiers and 4 years without competitive football or giving the nation a hope, a dream of qualifying for a tournament, the 2019 Asian Cup maybe.