It seems strange to describe Pakistan, the world’s sixth-most populous nation, as a minnow on planet football. Yet their failure to make a single appearance at either the FIFA World Cup™ or the AFC Asian Cup make that description inarguable. However, progress is being made and, boosted by their impressive showings during the recent friendlies, the Green Shirts have fixed their sights on a return to the AFC Challenge Cup ahead of the qualifiers in Kyrgyzstan later this month.
The South Asians began their build-up for this qualifying campaign in early March with a pair of warm-up matches in Nepal, when Zavisa Milosavljevic's visitors claimed back-to-back 1-0 wins, with Hassan Bashir and Muhammad Mujahid grabbing the all-important goals. The victories also ensured the Pakistanis were rewarded with timely morale-booster in the shape of a 19-place rise to 170 in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking.
Pakistan’s best performance in the global ladder came in February 1994, when they climbed to 141st, but they have long struggled in its lower reaches, plunging as low as 192 in May 2001. This downward trajectory continued even after Milosavljevic’s appointment as coach in November 2011, with the team slipping from a position of 174th to 189th this January. The recent spirited friendly performances have, however, brought this trend to an end and enabled Pakistan to emerge as Asia's biggest movers in the past month.
*Challenge and opportunity *The competition in Kyrgyzstan will now provide Milosavljevic's charges with a chance to make further progress in the global pecking order. And should they make it through to their second AFC Challenge Cup in 2014 in Maldives, their next target will undoubtedly be to win the tournament and book a historic place at the 2015 Asian Cup.
For the team’s down-to-earth Serbian coach, though, there are no easy games during qualifying, in which they have been pitted against the hosts, Tajikistan and Macau. Pakistan have won just once in their four previous meetings with the central Asian duo, with Milosavljevic all too aware what difficulties are facing them.
"The Challenge Cup is truly a challenge for us," said the former Lesotho coach, "We have a very difficult first match against Tajikistan. These central Asians are good at long-range shots and our keeper must be very wary of this."
Two opening wins will all but seal Pakistan's progression either among the group winners or the two best second-place finishers, and a good result in the closing game against Macau – a team they have never lost to - should be within their grasp.
"If we continue our form and the level of our technical play during the recent friendlies, we can expect to get results," added Milosavljevic, whose side travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for a week's training before heading to Kyrgyzstan. “We should keep fully focused on our preparation and our play."
*Overseas back-up *Despite cricket's dominance of the national sporting scene, football has indeed claimed its fair share of supporters over the past decade, largely courtesy of the inception of Pakistani Premier League in 2004. With the aid of FIFA, infrastructure has also improved, with FA headquarters and a training centre among the facilities constructed.
All this, of course, provides home-grown players with a stage to emerge and develop. The national team also boast a host of overseas-based players, spearheaded by former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman. The 29-year-old joins the national team hot off his brilliant form with Kitchee SC of Hong Kong, excelling in his club recent 3-0 defeat of India's Churchill FC in the AFC Cup opener.
Also on the list are England-based duo of midfielder Adnan Ahmed and defender Shabir Khan, as well as a Demark-based quartet in Hassan Bashir, Yousuf Butt, Yaqoob Butt and Mohammad Ali, all of whom have been named in Pakistan's AFC Challenge Cup squad. Bashir was on target in their first friendly against Nepal and Butt grabbed the equaliser in the closing minute against Maldives.
"These foreign players bring a lot of quality to the team," Milosavljevic concluded, "They can help the team with their international experiences and professionalism. This (Challenge Cup qualifying) is our toughest assignment in two years and I hope these players have the guile and character to take the team out of any sticky situations."