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EXCLUSIVE: Pakistan women's team head coach Adeel Rizki talks impact of win over Maldives in SAFF, the plan to revive women's football

LIKE INDIA, PAKISTAN MADE a post FIFA-ban comeback in international football at the SAFF Women's Championship.

The difference, of course, was the fact that while India managed to resolve its suspension quickly within a few days, for Pakistan football it was an issue that dragged on for years.

So when the Pakistan Football Federation officials got together to pick their women's national team for SAFF, they were practically starting from scratch.

The squad was put together within an incredibly short time. On June 29th, FIFA un-suspended Pakistan. And on 7th September, just 70 days later, they were taking to the pitch against India with a newly built squad of mostly debutants, picked from quickly organised national trials.

Naturally, expectations weren't that high for them coming into their first tournament in 8 years. But although they lost to India and Bangladesh, they kept their chin up and ended their campaign with a 7-0 win over Maldives; which is also their highest margin of victory ever. Nadia Khan, who scored 4 goals in that match, has become an overnight hero to Pakistani sports fans.

Their big triumph, which came as a surprise to many given the obstacles the little time they had to prepare, has stirred up conversations about the untapped potential that Pakistan football, especially women's football, has to offer the footballing world.

And to discuss that in further detail, TFG caught up with the Pakistan head coach Adeel Rizki, who played a major role in keeping a team lacking in experience on track through the difficult grind of an international tournament.

Asked about the process of reconstructing the national team, Rizki said,

"It was a big task... we were starting again after 8 years and we only had a month [until we'd] participate in this tournament. But I think the good part is... we were provided with everything we needed to be successful or to be able to perform, a little bit even, in this tournament. So yes, initially, it was a little challenging, for myself as well. But I accept challenges. I knew it was going to be tough. So we worked really hard to arrive to this level, in such a short time... it worked out well for us."

But despite the challenges, Rizki insisted that the big margin win over Maldives did not come as a surprise to him,

"Our expectations are high. Of course we wanted to do better against India and Bangladesh as well. But again we know their qualities; what they have, what they don't have. So we had to work accordingly. But again, for us this is a stepping stone, a pathway to growth. So we're gonna continue growing from here."

However, when asked if he was worried about the possibility of losing the momentum this team has built up if they remain inactive for too long, he acknowledged his apprehensions,

"You're absolutely right. It happens, quite a bit. The idea is to keep the team together. We're just going to take a short break... these players have worked extremely hard. They haven't seen their families in over a month and a half. So they totally deserve to go spend some time with their families and come back stronger, fresher and healthier. So we will give them a basic plan that they need to follow. And hopefully the fitness level and other stuff will be maintained... so those are the things we are looking to do and get them back within, I think, two weeks maximum."

The coach further elaborated on how the team came together. The way to make a completely new team, he said, was to first make sure the base - which is the defense - is strong,

"A lot of things worked simultaneously. Of course, having good defenders, strong defenders is primary because if you stop conceding goals you can actually score goals. So I think... you have to start from the back. Even with the attacks you have to start from the back, if you have good defensive wingbacks or something, you can really build your attacks from there. But my idea has always been to create a team that has a really strong balance and of course the first step to that was having a really good, strong backline, like we showed against India. There were some errors of course but there's always going to be mistakes... I think generally they did really well."

He also talked about a problem that many teams lacking experience often face in a tournament setting; a constant decline in fitness and form as the matches go by. Rizki said,

"It's difficult, I must say... you lose one, it just keeps happening and it just keeps going down... we knew exactly what we were getting into before the tournament. We knew how much motivation and team spirit we needed just to pass through this tournament. So we worked on that quite a bit. We did our research and match analysis on all three teams... we were placed in the hardest group and that's okay, we knew this coming in... I really prepared them mentally as well, that this is what's going to happen, this is what we're going to do... there was a lot of planning that went into it. And credit to my coaching staff and the backroom staff who helped me through the process as well. We knew that we wouldn't let our spirits down and to be honest we had nothing to lose so we had to go in and give it everything."

So, was Maldives the target all along for Pakistan to go all out and get a win? The coach was diplomatic in his answer,

"We respect all our opponents... we do the same amount of work... there's a different level, which is obvious. Our planning was different on all three matches, according to the opponent. So yes, we thought we could play a better style of football, more attacking, against Maldives. However we knew that they're strong in terms of their physicality, they can really run and outrun us as well if they had to. So we had to play, we had to keep the ball, make sure possession is with us and when gaps open up we should be able to play."

But he did say it took some work to keep up the team's morale after they lost to Bangladesh by a 6-0 margin in their second match,

"It was a very logical thought process because I like to keep it very transparent for the girls. First we talked about all the mistakes we made. And then we talked about all the good points. There were several really strong positives that we had from the Bangladesh game. We said, if we can do that again top sides like Bangladesh and India, then we can do a lot more against a team like Maldives. We knew that it had only been two games for us in almost a decade... we were down with some injuries but those players really put in everything they had."

But now that they've ended the tournament on a winning note, he said he was happy with the response the team is getting from the fans, and expressed hope that the win provided the people of Pakistan with some joy during a difficult time,

"We're hearing from fans across Pakistan... our communities are all across the world so we're hearing from everywhere. It's a feel good factor for our entire nation which has suffered quite a few things in the last few years. Recently we've suffered a lot of losses due to the floods that happened in the country. So truly if I were to dedicate this victory I would do it to them, the victims of the flood... we're going to work as hard we can to gi ve them whatever we can from our side."

Although happy to have got a positive result, Rizki was quick to say that things were far from perfect. When asked what about this team he would like to improve on primarily, he said,

"Overall fitness levels. That's something that takes a quite a bit of time. And given we had just one month we could only reach to a certain point. I believe if we had more time and opportunities then we'd be able to do a much better job... I know we have players with tactical and technical ability, and that's something we as coaches can work on as well, but fitness is something we should really strive to achieve. That was primarily the reason we had to go into a defensive shape because of the fitness levels we had at the time."

He also said that PFF is planning to hold more trials and use other means to add more players to the national team pool,

"Absolutely, we will be doing that. We know we have other players who are out there in Pakistan who have worked hard and are playing well. So there's always an open door, open opportunity for anyone who is strong enough to make the team. And that's how it should work, it's merit based... we will be taking more trials, doing more tournaments to see the potential that we have and attract more talent based on that."

The coach particularly identified domestic tournaments as an effective way to find more talent and keep the existing players fit through regular matches,

"I think domestic tournaments is something we will be looking into because it's a quicker solution, I would say, in terms of getting players back into the rhythm and back in training. We need to have some tournaments going on and grassroot development is also there. Coach education is also a part of this. There's a lot of different factors that need to come into play. So it's not only one thing, I think we'll have to work with a 360 degree approach where we can build football in Pakistan again. I'm really happy that this Normalisation Committee that we have is working towards that."

When asked about the role overseas players were going to play in Pakistan national team, he said there was a long term approach at work,

"We have identified quite a few players abroad as well but... we want to maintain a strong balance between local talent and foreign talent because that only helps develop football in Pakistan. The idea, the long term goal is to make sure that we have players who are coming from our local communities, through the ranks. But they must also understand what level they need to be playing at. So the diaspora players, the foreign based players are the ones that can help us reach that goal. And again, it's more education... winning is not just about winning, it's about learning from it as well."

Speaking at a press conference previously, Adeel Rizki had mentioned that PFF was working on organising friendly matches for the Pakistan women's team to make sure the players got regular games to play in. If that pays off, we may be looking at a long build-up process leading up to the Olympic Qualifiers in April 2023.

Whether this renewed Pakistan team will be able to deliver eye-popping results like the one against Maldives regularly remains to be seen; but for a team that has never appeared in World Cup Qualifiers before, being present in the international stage and competing regularly may be the best way to make sure the building blocks of the sport are laid in the correct order.

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