South Asia's spicy rivalry
It's been 40 years since Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, split from West Pakistan and in that time, neither South Asian nation has made much, if any, impact on the world of football. In fact the way things are going, optimistic would be the fan who predicted an appearance at the World Cup within the next four decades, even if the two countries, which went to war in 1971, somehow decided to get back together in a football sense and pool their playing resources.
That is not going to happen of course. Similarly impossible is the chance of seeing both appearing in Brazil three years from now as they meet in the first round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup in a two-legged affair that starts in Dhaka on June 29 and then moves to Lahore on July 3. For the winners, a date with Lebanon awaits later that month and after that, the group stage and possible matches against the likes of Japan, Iran, Australia or South Korea.
South Asia may be a region best known for cricket but its football rivalries are nothing to be sniffed at. The controversy has started already. Bangladesh requested that the second leg of the tie by moved to Dhaka due to fears for safety in Pakistan. FIFA denied the request and the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) blasted the request, while Bangladesh coach Syed Golam Jilani told ESPNsoccernet the matter is not settled yet - more of that later.
India is the nation that gets most of the attention in the neighbourhood in football terms, as in pretty much everything else and is seen as something like the Promised Land in terms of potential growth for European giants. You are not likely, however, to bump into English Premier League club executives in Islamabad or Dhaka looking to do deals with the local federations or trip over scouts looking for potential stars in Lahore or Chittagong.
Maybe it will take a World Cup appearance to put them on the map and at least meeting in the first round this time ensures that one will progress further. Pakistan lost 6-0 on aggregate to Kyrgyzstan trying to reach Germany in 2006 and lost 7-0 to Iraq four years later, while Bangladesh where well-beaten both times by Tajikistan. No team from the region has made the global competition except for India back in 1950. Qualification was followed by withdrawal after FIFA ruled that playing barefoot was against the rules.
Sixty-one years on and while Pakistan and Bangladesh both feel they can match India on the pitch, it is off it where the problems start. "On recent standings India take the South Asian mantle as they featured in the recent Asian Cup in Qatar, they have tried hard to improve their infrastructure and have employed foreign coaches so that helps to change the mentality of the players," Pakistan captain Zesh Rehman told ESPNsoccernet. "Pakistan need to sort out their infrastructure and send the coaches overseas to start getting better results. I'm sure it will happen."
The Birmingham-born defender has Premier League experience with Fulham and also played in all four of England's professional leagues on his way to Thai champions Muang Thong United. "Playing Bangladesh is not a bigger rivalry than India but all South Asian countries have a point to prove when they play against each other," Rehman added.
Despite a varied and interesting career, Rehman has never played in a World Cup qualifier and both he and the nation are desperate to ensure that dreams of Brazil are not ended three years before the tournament kicks off. "Pakistan are favourites to progress but as ever in football nothing is straightforward. There's very little between the two sides, it's about who takes their chances on the day. We are eager to progress through to the next round where we would face Lebanon."
Fans should not be booking trips to Beirut just yet (and even if they are able to, the memory of a two-legged 14-1 thrashing handed out by the Lebanese during qualification for 2002 would deter many). Form suggests that Bangladesh are the favourites. Pakistan haven't even scored in their last four meetings. If that wasn't worrying enough, the Greenshirts' build-up for the match has been far from ideal.
A tour of Palestine was called off due to security reasons, then plans to travel to the middle-east to face strong regional sides such as Qatar and UAE didn't happen, leaving Nepal's rejection of Pakistan's hurried replacement tour as depressingly inevitable. Criticism from fans directed towards the PFF is a regular occurrence but warranted in this regard at least. The national team warming-up for a vital World Cup qualifier by playing local league teams doesn't bode well.
What Pakistan do have is a growing foreign legion led by Rehman. Denmark-based Nabeel Aslam and Hassan Bashir as well as Atif Bashir Qureshi of Barry Town in Wales will all arrive ahead of the first leg and the skipper believes that their input is vital. "I believe Pakistan can progress through to the next round and keep going after that if we get all of our best players together. We have two lads who ply their trade in the Danish Super Liga who will be making their debuts so the squad will have some more experience to it."
"Being captain of the side, it's my responsibility to help the new members of the squad. We have players who have played in the leagues in England, Adnan Ahmed and Attif Bashir who have played in the UK. Hassan Bashir is a striker with very good potential who is very quick and strong and can play in England in my opinion."
Perhaps it is because Bangladesh have still yet to be a major force in the world of cricket that football means more there than it does in Pakistan or India. Bangladesh have actually won the South Asian Football Federation Championships (SAFFC), back in 2003, while Pakistan have never made it past the semi-final stage and their club scene is relatively healthy.
Despite their billing as slight favourites, their build-up has been worse than Pakistan's. Croatian coach Robert Rubcic left his post early in June after a pay dispute - he says that he wasn't paid while the federation claims that he left the country suddenly leaving them no way to pay him - and his successor was supposed to be Gjorgji Jovanovski. The problem was, the Macedonian only wanted to take his position after the away leg in Pakistan had been played due to, you guessed it, security fears.
Local coach Syed Golam Jilani has stepped into the breach just a week ahead of the big game. "We start our training camp on the 24th," Jilani told ESPNsoccernet. "It is a very short time to get things ready. Our preparation has not been good and it is a problem. Of course, I will try the best for the team and I expect the best from the players.
"It is always tough to play Pakistan but we have a good record against them. We are still not sure if we have to play the second leg there, it hasn't been confirmed yet. We will find out soon but whether we play at home or away, we are all determined to reach the next stage and from then we will see."
"The World Cup comes around just once every four years and we will give everything we have."