Coach sees Maldives defeat as another stepping stone for Pakistan [Dawn]

Coach sees Maldives defeat as another stepping stone for Pakistan [Dawn]

KARACHI: Pakistan coach Shahzad Anwar is impressed seeing his charges take their initial steps after their long hiatus from international football.

The national football team lost 1-0 away to the Maldives in an international friendly on Tuesday, its first match since November’s defeat to Nepal by the same scoreline in a game that ended a drought stretching over three years for Pakistan.

Aisam Ibrahim’s 20th-minute header from a corner at the Laamu Gan Zone Stadium in the Maldivian island of Gan proved to be the difference between the hosts and Pakistan but Shahzad said the team’s performance augured well for the future.

“We have a young team with an average age of just 22,” Shahzad told Dawn over the phone after the match. “The more matches they get, the further they will improve. Right now the players make some technical errors but those things will only go once they have more exposure.”

Shahzad was Pakistan’s technical director when the national team played its last match before that drought-ending fixture against Nepal: the two-legged first-round tie of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Cambodia in June 2019.

A lot has changed since then and now Pakistan’s target is the first round of the qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup set for October this year, where they are looking to end their unenviable record of never having won a match in the preliminaries of world football’s showpiece tournament.

The initial plan by the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee, appointed by FIFA to put the sport back on track in the country after years of crisis and controversy, was to have two matches against the hosts on the tour to the Maldives. That didn’t materialise but Pakistan’s next assignment, ahead of the World Cup qualifier, is June’s SAFF Championship in India.

“The SAFF Championship offers us a chance to further streamline the side,” said Shahzad, who hopes a number of Pakistan’s Diaspora players will be able to link up with the team by then.

For now, he was delighted with the way England-based Harun Hamid — a midfielder for Queens Park Rangers under-21 side — played on his international debut. Harun came the closest from the team to scoring when his acrobatic effort in the 52nd minute was saved by Maldives goalkeeper Hussain Shareef.

“He did really well and gelled in with the team quite quickly after joining the side here in Maldives,” said Shahzad. “The presence of foreign-based players on the side helps the local-based ones raise their levels.”

Pakistan’s local-based players have been attending a training camp in Lahore for the last month and captain and goalkeeper Saqib Hanif had a player with good local knowledge.

Saqib has turned up for a number of sides in the Maldives Dhivehi Premier League but he was on the receiving end earlier on as the Maldives went on the attack.

It was not long before the Maldives, coached by Italian Francesco Moriero, took the lead with defender Aisam running into the box unmarked to head in a corner swung in from the left.

Harun showed glimpses of his talent, including his second-half effort, but Maldives were never really troubled despite seeing Aisam sent off for a straight red late in the game.

“Most of the Maldives players play together at the Maziya Sports Club, who have been their champion team for the last three years,” said Shahzad.

“They have been playing together for a long time and perform as a collective. We, on the other hand, have been training together but competitive matches are different.”

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2023