Having not played at all at the international level, owing to a continued manifestation of ineptitude by the Pakistan Football Federation, little was expected of the national football side in the ongoing South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Dhaka.
Therefore, a semifinal finish, that equals Pakistan’s best ever performance in the tournament – considering there won’t be a third place playoff – since SAFF’s inception, is definitely cause for much celebration. This is especially true since Pakistan entered the tournament as the lowest ranked side in the tournament at 201 in the FIFA rankings.
What it means is that there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the protracted tunnel that Pakistan football has continued to traverse since the turn of the millennium. If nothing else, Pakistan football has at the very least taken baby steps towards the long road to redemption.
With the seven South Asian nations drawn into two pools, Pakistan were joined in Group A by Nepal, Bhutan and hosts Bangladesh, ranked 161, 183 and 194 respectively.
Pakistan’s first match in the tournament on paper was the toughest in the pool as they took on Nepal in what was going to be their first international assignment for three years. A surprise 2-1 ensued for Pakistan in the most dramatic of circumstances as Muhammad Ali scored a late stoppage time winner. After taking the lead through a Hassan Bashir penalty, Pakistan conceded a soft goal through an 82nd minute corner with the defence all over the place, only to steal the winner on the counter late on.
It appeared as though a reality check had followed through when Bangladesh edged Pakistan out 1-0 in the second pool match, after Topu Barman scored an 85th minute winner for the hosts. Fittingly in a match where the best chances for both sides came through set-pieces, it was a set-piece that broke the deadlock as Bangladesh scored through a long-throw. It was the second successive goal in the second successive game that Pakistan had conceded following a scramble in the defence in the aftermath of a set-piece.
Following the first two fixtures, Bangladesh topped Group A with 6 points, both Nepal and Pakistan on 3 each, with Bhutan without a point. Given that both Bangladesh and Nepal had a +3 goal difference after two rounds and Pakistan on 0, they needed a comfortable win over Bhutan to qualify for the semis. But since the final four probably weren’t in Pakistan’s thoughts at the start of the tournament, the team probably focused on giving a good account of themselves against Bhutan.
A 3-0 win over Bhutan coupled with Nepal beating Bangladesh 2-0 meant that Pakistan qualified for the semis finishing second on goal difference, with the hosts missing out on third. Muhammad Riaz latched on to a long ball after a flick on from Hassan Bashir and finished with a thundering shot to give Pakistan a 1-0 in the 20th minute to ease the nerves. Bashir made it 2-0 in the 29th minute with a masterful finish from a supreme cross by Muhammad Ali. Faheem Ahmed sealed the match and Pakistan’s qualification in the 91st minute.
Finishing second meant table toppers from Group B India lied in the wait in the semis. With over 100 ranking spots separating the two sides, it was going to be a steep challenge for Pakistan. However, the team were more than a match for their more illustrious rival in the first half, which ended 0-0. Having done toe to toe in the first 45 points, the young Indian side caught Pakistan off pace with Manvir Singh opening the scoring in the 49th minute. With Pakistan attacking, India would go on to catch them on the counter twice, as Manvir Singh made it 2-0 for India in the 69th minute with a wonderful finish to round off a quick move, with Sumeet Passi settling the semifinal with a header in the 84th minute to make it 3-0. Hassan Bashir grabbed a consolation in the 88th minute with a long-range drive.
Even in the 3-1 defeat against India, Pakistan did manage to give a good account of themselves. Beating Nepal and Bhutan was of course the clear positive, along with overall performances. Hassan Bashir stood out with three goals in the four matches, with both Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Riaz exhibiting their attacking talents and could’ve scored more than the single goal each.
The defence was a bit shaky, especially while facing set-pieces and crosses. But goalkeeper Yousuf Butt, and skipper Saddam Hussain can work on that with the squad.
The bigger question of course surrounds over the PFF and if it can help provide sufficient stability for this group of players to grow and eventually pave the way for the progress of the national football side, which has traced its nadir in recent years and now is hinting at an upward curve.