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Aug 23, 2014

Football: a uniting force between two rivals

Unity: Pakistan captain Kaleem Ullah and Indian counterpart Sunil Chhetri shake hands before the start of their second friendly football match in Bangalore.

According to a New York Times editorial published last week, there are no two countries in the world that need to talk more than India and Pakistan. The newspaper was reacting to the decision of new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cancel high-level meetings with Islamabad. Yet, there has been recent and significant engagement between the two nations, neighbours and rivals -- and it came on the football pitch. In the same week as Modi's announcement, Pakistan defeated India 2-0 in the second of a two-match test series, the first friendly games between the two since 2005.

To say that sport in general and football in particular can bring people together may be a cliché, but there is no other way of describing the world game's power to reach across divides to an extent that politicians can only dream of. The "handshakes of peace" that took place between the players prior to the game will linger longer in the memory than the latest tit-for-tat decision between South Asian political leaders, even if the Indian players will want to forget the delirious Pakistani lap of honour at the end of it all.

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Over the years there has been talk and plans for such meetings, usually in a neutral venue such as the United Kingdom, mooted, but it never happened until now. And this was better with the games taking place in Bangalore, India. Better for Pakistan, at least. To beat India is sweet; to do it in their backyard is sweeter still.

This is the thing about a two-match series -- whatever happens in the first game, the winner of the second is going to be the one celebrating at the end. But overall, Pakistan were the better side, losing unluckily 1-0 last Monday but returning to action 48 hours later to taste victory. Thus 180 minutes of football ended up with the Green Shirts celebrating in a stadium that had started to empty even before Saddam Hussain -- no typo there -- got the second to give the visitors a first win in India in over half a century.

It is worrying for the hosts. Under Dutch coach Wim Koevermans, India have lost to Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan and now Pakistan. The Blue Tigers looked disjointed and short of ideas, and in the absence of star striker Sunil Chettri, they are short of firepower. The meeting was preparation for the Asian Games, which take place in the South Korean city of Incheon in September. India were seeded in the second pot of four for the draw made on Friday due to a decent showing four years ago, but a repeat performance is unlikely, especially given the fact they face a talented UAE team with genuine hopes of gold after silver four years ago and a solid Jordan side.

The games were not played in front of massive crowds. Bangalore is known as India's IT capital but is not exactly a hotbed of football in a country that does have some passionate pockets. Playing games on a weekday afternoon is also not going to get the fans out.

But it is in Pakistan where the games could have the biggest effect. In football, South Asia doesn't get much of a mention, and when it does it is usually all about India, the population, the potential and the passion for cricket. Yet if India underachieves so does Pakistan. The country's league, dominated by such romantic-sounding clubs like the state-funded Khan Research Laboratories, struggles. Finance is a problem, facilities are poor and domestic instability obviously does not help. The season is too short, meaning that fitness levels are often a problem and fans and coaches alike have long complained about the lack of games that the national team actually plays.

India are not in the greatest of shape ahead of the Asian Games in September, with coach Wim Koevermans said to be under pressure.

It doesn't help that Pakistan has been left behind by Afghanistan. Such strides have the reigning South Asian champions made in recent years that they barely consider Pakistan rivals anymore and have moved ahead of India too. Some of the success that the Lions of Dhorosan have enjoyed stems from how the team embraced Afghanistan's worldwide diaspora of talent. Pakistan have spent years discussing whether to do so and, having done so, then debating whether the foreign-born stars (the most famous of whom is Zesh Rehman, former Fulham defender and the first player to appear in all four of England's divisions) care enough about the country to represent it. It is an issue that has still not been settled and that does not help.

In India, preparing for the much-hyped Super League with its foreign veterans, there are questions over coach Koevermans. Dutch tacticians are held in greater regard these days than their English counterparts, but fans are starting to pine for Bob Houghton, the well-travelled Londoner who led the boys in blue to South Asian and AFC Challenge Cup success and finally to the 2011 Asian Cup and games with Australia and South Korea.

Koevermans was brought in as part of a general overhaul of the football system in the country with compatriot Rob Baan as technical director. Baan's efforts to introduce a more Dutch-style of play across the national teams have been appreciated by the federation, though not by media or fans. In truth, it hasn't really worked as the team does not play enough together and the clubs do their own thing, despite efforts from above to encourage a new national style. Baan is stepping down in December. It is certainly possible that Koevermans will move upstairs to replace him, with a new coach being appointed.

Pakistan's boss is in a better situation. Mohammed Shamlan has instilled a feel-good factor to the national team. The Bahraini has been keen to try to get more games for the Green Shirts and North Korea and China will provide excellent tests. Any kind of result against the East Asians would go down very well at home. The victory may not change much in Pakistani football but will at least bring a feeling of warmth to the game that has been absent for some time.

It also provides a little optimism about the upcoming Asian Games, a rare chance for the country to mix with the continent's football royalty. The team never gets far enough along the road to the World Cup to do so and has not in the past been deemed good enough to enter regular qualification for the Asian Cup.

The fine performances could even provide opportunities for players to perform in the new Indian Super League, due to kick off in October, that is getting a good deal of coverage in the region. The stars would have to receive permission from their government to do so but it could happen -- just another example of football's power to bridge any divide.

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