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The shadow of a gunman

The gunshots that rang out around the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore on March 3rd did not just leave their mark on their immediate vicinity. The impact was felt across the entire spectrum of Pakistani sport. Aside from the crisis the country's cricket team finds itself in, it has left gaping holes in the Pakistan national football team.

As a result of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the "Greenshirts" have lost out on two desperately needed managers, and UK-based players who had been carrying the hopes of the nation are now understandably reluctant to join-up with their team-mates for national duty on the eve of what is deemed in Pakistan as a major tournament.

Football is not the biggest sport in Pakistan, that honour is bestowed upon cricket, nor is it the second, with that spot filled by field hockey yet it has a passionate following of supporters in the country itself. In addition, British-born second-generation Pakistanis are keen to see the sport they love conquer the land of their ancestors.

In fact, passions run so high that fans in the UK set up a website to lend a helping hand to the Pakistan Football Federation by taking it upon themselves to find and recruit UK and Europe-based players of Pakistani heritage to play for the national team.

Mohammed Shahnawaz, is founder of, the most comprehensive English language website on the Pakistani game. He explains that the attack, coming just a few weeks before the team were due to fly, ironically to Sri Lanka, for the AFC Challenge Cup - a qualification competition for the 2011 Asian Cup - could not have come at a worse time for Pakistani football: "Six players from the UK were included and three of them opted out immediately after hearing of the incident. Not having these players could really affect their Challenge Cup fight and hopes of qualifying for the Asian Cup."

The six initially called up to the preliminary squad were Amjad Iqbal, Reis Ashraf, Shabir Khan, Atif Bashir, Adnan Ahmed and, captain of the national team Zesh Rehman. Unfortunately, three players, Iqbal, Ashraf, and Khan dropped out, while former Fulham defender Rehman was not released by Bradford City.

Iqbal, who plays for Bradford Park Avenue in the Northern Premier League Premier Division and was first called up in 2007, decided to give the tournament a miss: "I think it's a great moment when you represent your country in anything. It's a proud moment for you, so I would have loved to go because I enjoyed the last time I went, but this incident has jeopardised that.

"Pakistan is not a stable country at the moment and it's not a good feeling to go knowing, in the back of your head, that the attack occurred with security at its highest." Torn as he is, for Iqbal it boils down to one simple thing: "It's just not worth risking your life."

One player who differs in his opinion is Adnan Ahmed, a Tranmere Rovers midfielder currently on loan at Port Vale: "If everyone says they are not going to go, then we're sending the wrong message really. It is a really big blow and the fact of it is, that what happened is going to scare a lot of people."

However, Ahmed prefers to take an optimistic view: "It will take time to get back confidence but like anything, over time things change and hopefully Pakistan will come good again."

The hope is that the safe return of Ahmed along with Barry Town's Bashir, from Sri Lanka will instil more confidence in other players who have shown their reservations. "I'm sure everything will be fine and when we come back it will show that hopefully things are on the mend," said Adnan.

It is a hopeful view, particularly given the instability of the country and with major security incidents on the increase, with another gun battle taking place in Lahore this week, this time unrelated to sport.

Indeed, it is of little comfort to know that the Pakistan national team were training in the Punjab Stadium, merely a few hundred metres from the Gaddafi Stadium up until two days before the fateful attack. Nor that the home of Pakistan's Football Federation is also nearby.

The training camp was moved to Karachi upon the instructions of coach George Kottan who complained of poor training facilities in Lahore. The Austrian was appointed following the failure to capture two previous candidates for the job, both of whom cited security issues as a problem.

The first was Hungarian Bertalan Bicskei, a well-respected coach in Asian football who was invited to attend negotiations in Pakistan in January. Unfortunately for the PFF, who had been trying to lure a foreign coach to their shores since 2006, a bomb blast occurred in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan.

The former goalkeeper returned to Hungary and tried to secure a deal whereby he would remain in Hungary and only return to Pakistan before major tournaments. This was not a viable option for the PFF so they turned to German Antoine Hey.

While his visa was held up, the turbulent nature of Pakistan's security issues meant that yet again doubts began to creep in, so when an offer was made to him by the Kenyan national team - a team in the World Cup qualifiers - with an increased pay packet, he took the job.

Finally, Pakistan did manage to secure a foreign coach. Kottan is well aware of the political and security situation but remains not overly concerned and has taken the step of reassuring players that it is safe to come and play for their country.

In the short term, the attacks have impacted on Pakistan's fight for the AFC Challenge Cup which in turn could impact their 2011 Asian Cup hopes, but the longer-term impact could well prove to be more damaging.

At present, the feeling is that confidence can be restored to Pakistani football by the help of UK-based players. With the political climate in the country so precarious, that assistance looks highly doubtful.


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