Interim assistant coach Witajewski thrust into firing line after India loss [Dawn]

Interim assistant coach Witajewski thrust into firing line after India loss [Dawn]

KARACHI: Once the dust had settled on a feisty clash between a jet-lagged and fatigued Pakistan and their arch-rivals India in Bangalore on Wednesday, there was a maiden appearance — an unveiling of sorts — before the press for interim Pakistan assistant coach and analyst Torben Witajewski.

Witajewski’s appointment — he’s been with the team since the start of June — wasn’t formally announced by the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee, which has in recent times shown a knack for hyping things up especially on social media.

A PFF NC spokesperson said on Thursday that the 28-year-old German, who’s had a relatively modest career, had joined on an interim basis ahead of Pakistan’s tour of Mauritius for a Four Nations Series.

“The appointment of Torben Witajewski is temporary, as he has joined the team in Mauritius on a project basis,” the spokesperson told Dawn on Thursday. “The official development will be notified, in case he gets permanent.”

It was immediately unclear how Witajewski, who was head coach of Luca FC — a state-level club in Kerala, came under PFF NC’s radar but he was the one taking charge of Pakistan’s first news conference at the SAFF Championship.

Pakistan, who’d arrived in Bangalore only a few hours before their Group ‘A’ opener, had been dispatched 4-0 by the hosts in a naturally limp display considering the team didn’t even have a practice session at the Sree Kateerava Stadium and Witajewski’s assessment was that the team’s late arrival from Mauritius after a delay in getting visas was a major contributing factor.

“For sure, we couldn’t change the situation, the problem is the visa and we had a lot of problems in Mauritius [where Pakistan took part in a Four Nations Series],” retorted the 28-year-old German during the post-match press conference. “It [reaching Bengaluru well in advance] could have made a difference. But full credit to India for producing a good game. I am sure, our team will produce better football as the tournament progress.

“If you travel through the night, the players cannot sleep. We had a lot of problems in Mumbai at the airport with the immigration. So it was tough for the guys. The last group arrived at half past one in the hotel today. After 16 hours, right. So this is not easy.

“We cannot change the situation so I suppose the federation did everything but it is like this. It was clear we have to cope with the situation like we played. It was difficult. We cannot expect a lot from the guys.”

A major flashpoint came during the match when India coach Igor Stimac knocked the ball off the hands of Pakistan defender Abdullah Iqbal as he prepared to take a throw-in, sparking an angry confrontation between both sets of players and officials. Stimac was red-carded for his actions and Witajewski clarified that Pakistan “didn’t initiate” the fracas.

He, however, didn’t hide the fact that Pakistan needed to improve ahead of their remaining matches against Kuwait on Saturday and Nepal three days after it.

“We have to improve,” he said. “Of course India have a lot of quality, they deserve their victory. We need to relax and we have a few days until the next game. Hopefully we will not be tired as today and will show a different face and a different performance.”

The jury remains out on what input Witajewski has provided during his stint so far. Pakistan lost all three of their matches in Mauritius against the hosts, Kenya and Djibouti and now face an uphill task to advance from their group at the SAFF Championship.

Pakistan winger Otis Khan, one of the team’s better performers against India, said the team had to work on avoiding little mistakes that proved costly — most notably the error by goalkeeper Saqib Hanif which led to the opening goal against India.

“I think that’s the way it has gone for us, in the Four-Nations Cup in Mauritius as well. It is the little mistakes,” he told reporters. “In the Djibouti match we scored, and then ten seconds later, we conceded a sloppy goal. These mistakes don’t help us at all. We have to build from a good platform and play put better from the back.”

Otis, however, was clear that the team’s late arrival in India shouldn’t be an excuse.

“It’s been crazy … we were supposed to get the visa on Sunday,” he said. “Then we waited till Monday. Then we found out we are flying on Tuesday. Then, half the team missed their flight from Mumbai and came just today morning. There was a lot of messing about at the airport.

“I didn’t arrive…half the team didn’t arrive at the hotel till four pm. The biggest game for Pakistan in the last 10 years, and you got just three hours to prepare with no sleep and no food. But we don’t want to make any excuses. The best team won today.”

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2023