The decade-long decline of Pakistani football after a rare high

The decade-long decline of Pakistani football after a rare high

It’s not easy qualifying for a World Cup. The big football powers usually making it every four years, but they all face tough roads before they reach the main event. Sometimes, a few stumbles are enough to deny them that trip as Italy found out for the first time in 60 years last years after failing to qualify for Russia 2018.

The journey becomes even harder when your team is from outside the UEFA-CONMEBOL dyad with sides from Europe and the Americas gaining the most spots. Asian and African sides have slug it out with 100 countries (46 in AFC and 54 in CAF) receiving nine or 10 spots, causing the qualification stages to begin over three years in advance. This is the story of a qualification tie from 10 years ago, one that still has ramifications a decade on.


Hear Me Roar


The year 2007 was interesting for Asian football. Wartorn but football-mad Iraq made everyone take notice when they became Asian champions for the first time after their under-23s won silver at the 2006 Asian Games and finished fourth at the Athens 2004 Olympics. Under the leadership of Younis Mahmoud and Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, the Lions of Mesopotamia roared to victory in the AFC Asian Cup in Southeast Asia.

The historic win united a country ripping at its seams on ethno-sectarian grounds as a bloody insurgency followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The violence meant Iraq had to play all home matches in neutral countries for many years. Under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, whose unforgiving son Uday headed Iraq’s football and Olympic associations and tortured many Iraqi athletes for failing to perform, the country did manage to qualify for Mexico 1986 – their first and only time in the World Cup. Now, with a team including stars like Nashat Akram, Hawar Mulla Mohammad and Mahdi Karim, Iraq’s greatest-ever side were favourites to qualify for South Africa 2010.

Usual suspects like Japan, South Korea, Iran, Australia and Saudi Arabia were also eager to make the four direct and one intercontinental playoff spots allotted to the AFC. But given the latter five qualified for Germany 2006 (Australia as an OFC member before jumping ship to join the AFC in 2006), they were given a bye to the third round group stage. Conversely, Iraq had to go through at least one round of playoffs with a lower ranked Asian side to join those five. Barely a month after their Asian Cup win, Iraq faced lowly Pakistan in a playoff scheduled for October.


The Perennial Green Horns


Cricket-mad Pakistan is better known for making footballs than playing them, with the industrial city of Sialkot in northern Punjab famous for its sports goods manufacturing. Despite having a distinct football history since the British Raj, and among the founding members of the AFC in 1954, Pakistan appears nowhere near the continent’s football progress.

With cricket dominating every sports discourse in the nation, especially with a continued decline in other sports like hockey and squash, local football receives scant coverage. Yet international football always attracts a lot of attention given mass support of European clubs among Pakistani youth.

Domestic football’s stagnation in a largely semi-professional system dominated by public department teams with little grassroots development and few dedicated playing facilities means Pakistan remains stuck in the past. Qualification for the World Cup and Asian Cup was always next to impossible, given how the team would be hammered by football-loving Middle Eastern and East Asian sides. In fact, Pakistan’s first ever attempt at a World Cup qualification was for Italia 90.

Back in 2007, Pakistani football was still struggling but with some progress over the years for the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) to feel content with. Seasoned politician Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat had won a second term as PFF president after taking over in 2003. In those four years, Pakistani football gained some traction with the formation of the Pakistan Premier Football League, winning under-23 gold twice in the regional South Asian Games – in 2004 and 2006 – after more than a decade, and having a new generation of players led by foreign coaches.

The PFF had started reaching out to Pakistani diaspora in Europe, especially UK, to find professional and semi-professional players eager to play for the country their families emigrated from. The most high profile was Zesh Rehman – then at Fulham – who switched to Pakistan in 2005 after realising any England caps would be impossible. Another was ex-Manchester United academy trainee Adnan Ahmed who turned pro at lower league Huddersfield. The PFF even held an open trial in Rotherham in mid-2007 to find potential players of Pakistani origin to play at various AFC youth tournaments.

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Yet despite all these developments, something that could consolidate all these gains into a coherent long-term strategy was amiss. While FIFA assistance allowed the PFF to develop proper headquarters in Lahore, there was still no dedicated playing venue exclusively for the national team, nor any national football academy under the PFF.

All international matches at home were mostly played at Lahore’s Punjab Stadium; right next to the PFF Football House, but usage required permission from its primary operators, the provincial government. The stadium itself attracts barely a thousand-strong crowd in Pakistan’s second largest city, while the much larger Peoples Stadium in Karachi can attract a full house due to the port city’s football-mad working classes.

There was also no stability in how the national senior and junior teams were managed. With coaching staff being chopped and changed on an ad-hoc basis, instead of keeping the senior and junior sides independent of each other, the PFF would often focus its entire energy on any pending event – senior or junior.

Given the regular AFC under-19 and under-23 qualifiers each year, Hayat’s PFF would prioritise them at the cost of the national team given many youth players would be simply fast-tracked to the senior side. This tactic meant infrequent senior team action except for at major tournaments, and with almost zero international friendlies, Pakistan’s FIFA ranking remained below the 150 mark, leading to lower seeding spots for the Asian and World Cup qualifiers.


Team Sharida and Other Concerns


The year 2006 showed promise under Bahraini coach Salman Sharida – recruited for free by the PFF from Bahrain FA (and later AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa for a year. Sharida looked for stability from local players and a hectic year saw Pakistan play the AFC Challenge Cup for lower ranked Asian sides as well as 2007 Asian Cup qualifiers.

While Pakistan unsurprisingly lost all Asian Cup qualifiers in a group boasting the UAE, Oman and Jordan, they almost pulled off an upset in the final qualifying game away to the UAE in November by taking the lead twice thanks to right-back Naveed Akram’s solo effort and veteran defender Tanveer Ahmed scoring from a corner. But the UAE fought back and won 3-2.

Much of the squad was retained for the under-23 side that played a month later in Doha’s Asian Games. In what would turn out to be Sharida’s last tournament as Pakistan coach as the side scared Japan to narrowly lose 3-2, then lost a close game 1-0 to North Korea, before a 2-0 loss to Syria.

Sharida’s dedication to the team attracted a litany of praise from the press and fans, but a pay dispute with his employers at the Bahrain FA meant he declined the Pakistan job for another year and left before the Syria game. With the first half of 2007 bringing the Olympic qualifiers for the under-21s, the PFF went back to its old habits and solely focused the eligible Sharida-era players under local coach Muhammad Rasheed, a former Railways player and an international regular during 1970s and 80s.

The reason was that despite millions given by the AFC and FIFA financial assistance, and even a substantial grant from the federal government to hire a qualified foreign coach, the PFF maintained its line of being ‘cash-strapped’. Despite the instability, Pakistan stunned Singapore in the February preliminary playoff 5-3 on aggregate with a 2-1 win in Singapore and a 3-2 come-from-behind victory in a mostly empty Punjab Stadium. The group stage saw Pakistan fall down to pre-Sharida levels by losing all six games against Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, scoring only once and conceding 27.

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Unsurprisingly, little senior team action meant Pakistan’s FIFA rankings plummeted further and meant another low seeding for the World Cup qualification draw. Bagging Asian champions Iraq more or less meant another quick end to the country’s World Cup journey, where it has yet to win a single qualifier.


Lions in Lahore


With less than two months before the qualifiers, the PFF appointed Akhtar Mohiuddin as senior team coach. He and Tariq Lutfi can be considered the Harry Rednkapps of Pakistani football given they have been the PFF’s local fallback options when they do not want a dedicated foreign coach for long-term stability.

Both were accomplished domestic players from the 1970s and gained enough coaching qualifications after retirement to become the senior-most Pakistani coaches for the longest time. Lutfi was the coach in mid-2005 when Pakistan beat India in a three-match friendly series at home on goal difference, and two years later it was Akhtar‘s turn.

With pressure to gather a full squad, the PFF called up a mix of Sharida-era locals and foreign-based players like Rehman and Ahmed. Other foreign players included Sweden-based semi-pro Azeem Razwan, Farsley Celtic defender (and Bradford College chemistry lecturer) Amjad Iqbal, and another English semi-pro defender in Adam Karim.

But with regular goalkeeper Jaffar Khan – a serving soldier in the Pakistan Army football team – unavailable because of a UN peacekeeping deputation in Congo at the time, Pakistan needed a quick replacement. On the recommendation of Iqbal, Bradford-based halal takeaway worker and Sunday league amateur goalkeeper Iltaf Ahmed became a last-minute addition to Akhtar’s squad, which had also selected Pakistan Navy’s Muhammad Shehzad as goalkeeper.

Iltaf was something of a cult figure in the local British Pakistani weekend football scene in Bradford, but playing international football was a different game. With just a month-long training camp to cut costs and no friendlies to get the team ready, Pakistan were on the back foot from the start. Under Muhammad Essa’s captaincy, they would first host the Asian champions at Punjab Stadium on 22 October 2007 while Iraq would play their home game a week later in neighbouring Syria due to security concerns.

Iraq’s Younes Mahmoud sat out due to injury with Norwegian veteran Egil Olsen replacing Brazil’s Vieira as the Lions coach. As a result of Olsen’s appointment and Norway’s significant Iraqi diaspora, Norwegian TV actually gave substantial coverage to both matches. Few realise this now, but Pakistani football has always struggled to get televised coverage, and the Norwegian interest was a real godsend.

Despite some media publicity by the PFF about hosting the Asian champions, the Punjab Stadium barely attracted 2,500 spectators to see Iraq humiliate Pakistan 7-0, with Mahdi Karim scoring four. Iraq’s quality was unmatched but Akhtar Mohiuddin’s tactics would raise concerns. For one, he decided to use a complicated 5-4-1 formation, which many are fairly certain had never been used in Pakistani football.

The novel formation added confusion in Pakistan ranks as Iraq’s strikeforce sliced through again and again. Iraq only led 2-0 at half-time. which wasn’t the worst thing Pakistan had seen in football, but in 60th minute Akhtar replaced Tanveer Ahmed with another defender in Yasir Sabir. All hell broke loose as Yasir’s poor marking at set-pieces and a lack of composure allowed Iraq to score four times in last 20 minutes

Another quirky move was picking right-footed defender Amjad Iqbal as a left-winger against Iraq. As per the player himself, Akhtar liked Germany and Bayern Munich left-back Philipp Lahm and his ability to cut in on his stronger right foot. Why Akhtar thought an English Conference defender would be able to pull a Lahm on his international debut against the best team in Asia is something even Sir Alex Ferguson would have trouble explaining.

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But the most glaring error was Akhtar’s insistence on using Shahzad in goal. While it is understandable that using a local player would make more sense, Shahzad’s height, poor communication with his defence and horrendous positioning made it easy for him to concede. Needless to say, watching the game was painful for the small band of Pakistani football followers, myself included, given I was streaming Norwegian TV online whilst doing postgrad research in Manchester back then. Iraq more or less guaranteed a place in the third round group stage.


Drawing in Damascus


Both teams then travelled to Syria for the return leg. Iraq just needed to show up and they were certain to go through, while Pakistan had only pride to play for. Wanting to avoid another embarrassment, the PFF putting its foot down on Akhtar’s experimentation. He was forced to play a standard 4-4-2, with Amjad partnering Adnan Ahmed in central midfield and the much taller Iltaf Ahmed playing in goal instead of the uncertain Shehzad.

Even though Iraq were comfortable in the afternoon game in front of 8,000 fans, Pakistan used familiar tactics and keep the Asian champions from prevailing again. The times Iraq did threaten to score, Iltaf pulled a blinder in goal and saved shot after shot to frustrate the Lions’ attack. Pakistan were even able to pull off a few decent counter-attacks and had a strong shout for a penalty in the final 10 minutes turned down.

Eventually a cagey game finished 0-0; Iraq went through to group stage and Pakistan salvaged some pride as they headed back to Lahore. The Pakistani diaspora in Syria attended the game and cheered on the players from the stands. The Iraqi fans, however, were less than impressed. As a staffer, I was following the online Iraqi message boards and even asked their staffers to upload the game so we could all watch it back. One of them said that if the demand is there they would upload it. A decade later, footage of Pakistan’s most memorabl draw has still not been uploaded.

Despite its meaninglessness impact for qualification, Pakistani fans rejoiced. Maybe this was what Pakistani football needed to plan long term, attract greater media coverage, sponsors and, eventually, develop the game top down and bottom up. But as is often the case in Pakistan, hope is a futile thing.


A Decade On


Call it bad luck or a conspiracy, but Iraq failed to finish in the top two of its group in 2008 and didn’t progress any further. The Lions, who had sacked Olsen just a few months after the Pakistan tie, finished behind a resilient Australia and an extremely fortunate Qatar.

The Qataris fielded a Brazil-born player named Emerson Sheik against Iraq. When it was revealed that Emerson had also represented Brazil’s under-20s at the 1999 South American Youth Championship before accepting Qatari citizenship, Iraqis cried foul. They appealed to FIFA to not only take action against Qatar for fielding an ineligible player but to follow its rules and grant Iraq a 3-0 forfeit.

Citing the example of Singapore being punished for fielding ineligible players with 3-0 forfeits awarded to Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in another qualification group, Iraq being awarded the forfeit would have meant the Lions replacing Qatar in round four. But FIFA, as they do, left everybody flummoxed, merely fining Qatar and saying they weren’t at fault for fielding Emerson. Iraq’s appeal against the decision was rejected by FIFA for a “late submission of documents” and another appeal to CAS was also turned down in favour of FIFA.

Iraqis and neutrals bemoaned corruption, especially given that the AFC president was Qatari businessman Mohammed bin Hammam, who was also a FIFA Executive Committee member and a key ally of FIFA boss Sepp Blatter. Emerson never played for Qatar again, and Qatar failed to qualify from the fourth round as Australia, both Koreas, and Japan went to South Africa 2010.

So what about Pakistan? Things could have changed in the following decade but they have frustratingly remained the same. Faisal Saleh Hayat won another PFF term in 2011, moved into the AFC Executive Committee, somehow got his sister’s husband Nayyar Hasnain Haider into the FIFA Disciplinary Committee, and tightened his stranglehold on Pakistani football until the 2015 botched football elections which Hayat again tried to win. The PFF then split into rival factions now fighting each other in the Lahore High Court.

The 2015 split meant Hayat’s FIFA-recognised PFF faction refused to register Pakistan for many senior and junior events for both men and women, and no national-level tournaments like the PPFL either. All this time, Hayat’s faction cited the excuse of government interference, losing control of their bank accounts and being forced out of the PFF Football House.

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Team Hayat repeated their FIFA ban threat. While FIFA subsequently stopped their funding, the AFC continued their funding through the private accounts of Hayat faction’s members until a full FIFA ban came into place. Hayat’s faction’s refusal to set aside differences with their rivals to at least allow nationwide football to continue meant that Pakistan’s ranking plummeted to below 200, joining the lowest ranked sides in the world. In fact, the last time Pakistan played a senior game was when it lost 3-1 on aggregate to Yemen in March 2015.

FIFA dragged its feet for over two years before finally imposing a ban on the PFF for “third party interference” in October 2017 – 10 years after the Iraq game – and reluctantly backed Hayat’s faction for now. But with FIFA already fighting various fires since raids in 2015 and indictments convicting its once untouchable football barons, one wonders how long before FIFA has to directly intervene, force new PFF elections, and formally investigate serious allegations of corruption in Hayat’s PFF – ranging from the illegal sales of World Cup tickets to gross mismanagement of development project funds, and taking away aid money meant for Pakistani coaches.

So what happened to the players from that historic 2007 tie? Zesh Rehman did not play a game in Pakistan again, and his overall involvement with the national team remained sporadic at best until late 2013. His club career, though, has been steady, with stints in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand over the years.

Adnan Ahmed kept playing for a few more years in the English lower leagues, including brief stints in Hungary and Iran, and was proud to represent Pakistan when called up to boost a struggling midfield. Amjad Iqbal moved to non-league Bradford Park Avenue but breaking a leg twice meant he had to bid football adieu a few years ago.

Muhammad Essa retired from the national team during the 2009 SAFF Championship after being played out of position by Austrian coach György Kottán. Essa’s tantrum disrupted the dressing room, which caused what was arguably Pakistan’s best side to be knocked out early in group stages again. He is now a player-coach at K-Electric, has his own team, PACA, and an academy in his native town of Chaman on the Pakistan-Afghan border in restive Balochistan, and is dabbling in football politicking amid the PFF crisis.

Muhammad Shehzad and Yasir Sabir struggled to make the national team again, Tanveer Ahmed eventually retired a few years later and became a coach at his parent department team WAPDA. Left-back Abbas Ali saw his career slowly deteriorate amid personal issues, poor fitness, and a lack of commitment over the coming years.

Azeem Razwan and Adam Karim never played for Pakistan again. Razwan went to the USA to play college soccer before quitting the game altogether. Karim eventually quit football due to his growing business and now owns a number of high-end restaurants around Manchester. Amateur goalkeeper Iltaf Ahmed played a few more times for Pakistan in 2008 for the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers, though he couldn’t repeat his heroics against Iraq. 

And manager Akhtar? He hung around until the 2008 SAFF Championship in which another poor performance as coach saw him dismissed. But he was called up again for the 2010 Asian Games, and was supposed to have Tottenham Hotspur legend Graham Roberts as a coaching consultant as part of a third-party agreement with the PFF. Akhtar dismissed all of Roberts’ ideas and did his own thing. Eventually Roberts parted ways and Akhtar was again fired by the PFF. Bahrain’s Sharida went on to have a successful stint at Al-Muharraq SC at home, winning the AFC Cup in 2008.

A new generation of Pakistani players emerged after 2007, both local and foreign, with some today arguably better than the ones assembled against Iraq. But because of Hayat’s PFF merely using his post-2007 control for his own advancement in world football, and doing just the basic stuff required to guarantee FIFA and AFC annual funding, Pakistani football suffered with little long-term vision. Much of the national press – always occupied by cricket – don’t even pay attention to what Hayat has been doing in power since the crisis began in 2015. 

Ten years is a long time to make or break something. For Pakistani football, the system remains broken – as is post-Blatter FIFA – but for some ardent football followers like myself, the hopeless romance continues.

By Ali Ahsan @Syednaa

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