KARACHI: Pakistan and Yemen will clash yet again in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.
Almost 22 years on from when the two teams met in the preliminaries for world football’s showpiece tournament, Pakistan and Yemen were paired together in the draws for Asia’s 12 lowest-ranked teams which were held at the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
The first-round qualifier for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will see Pakistan play the away leg of the playoff tie on March 12 before the home leg five days later.
With Yemen hit by militant insurgency, Pakistan’s away leg is likely to be played either in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or Qatar.
“It will be a home away from home for us considering the number of Pakistanis in both countries,” Pakistan Football Federation’s marketing consultant Sardar Naveed Haider Khan told Dawn on Tuesday, adding that the home tie will be played at the Punjab Stadium in Lahore.
“Hopefully that will help us in getting a result and progression into the second round of the qualifiers.”
Pakistan and Yemen met in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup when Asian teams were directly drawn into groups. Then, Pakistan were thrashed 5-1 in their first match in the Jordanian city of Irbid before losing 3-0 in their second game in Chengdu, China.
With several changes to the qualifying structure for World Cup since, Pakistan and Yemen will now clash head-on for a place in the second round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers which also double-up as qualifiers for the 2019 Asian Cup.
Among other ties India face Nepal in a mouth-watering encounter, Sri Lanka clash with the world’s lowest-ranked team Bhutan, Timor-Leste are up against Mongolia, Cambodia will play Macau and Chinese Taipei are taking on Brunei.
The six teams will then join the continent’s top 34 teams in the second round which will see 40 sides divided in eight groups of five each with the group winners and four best runner-ups advancing to the third round whilst sealing a berth at the 2019 Asian Cup.
The next best 24 teams will then take part in the third round of Asian Cup qualifiers to fill the remaining 12 slots at the expanded Asian Cup.
Pakistan have a sorry history in World Cup qualifiers, having failed to win a single game since they began taking part for the preliminaries of the 1990 World Cup but former striker Nasir Ismail, who played in the 1994 qualifiers against Yemen, believes the current lot can buck the trend.
“It was only the second time we were taking part in the World Cup qualifiers so obviously we were lacking in experience then,” Nasir told Dawn on Tuesday while recalling the matches against Yemen in 1993.
“That team, though, was tactically a lot mature than the current lot as we had an average age of 27 and great players like Haroon Yousuf, Qazi Ashfaq and Mateen Akhtar,” added the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) head-coach.
“But despite that, the team in 1993 wasn’t that energetic and that proved to be our undoing. The current team, on the other hand, has a lot of energy and more commitment which is why I believe we can get a result against Yemen.”
Nasir said that Pakistan can draw heart from their 2-1 win over Afghanistan in their international friendly last week despite the notable absences of star players including Kaleemullah, Mohammad Adil and Zesh Rehman.
“We showed great aggression against the Afghans and Pakistan will be boosted by the arrivals of Kaleem, Adil and Zesh for the World Cup qualifier,” he added.
The PFF plans to give good exposure to the national team ahead of the World Cup qualifier with trips to Thailand and Malaysia planned whilst a training camp at the Aspire Academy in Doha is also in the pipeline.
Yemen, meanwhile, have been hit by political crisis at home and have been venturing to the UAE to play their ‘home’ games. In their recent games in Dubai last month, they lost 2-0 to Nigeria while playing a goalless draw with Finland.
“I think Yemen against Pakistan will be a very lively game,” India’s English head-coach Stephen Constantine told FIFA.com after Tuesday’s draw. “Both are good sides in this region.”
With the first-round qualifiers set to kick off on March 12, it gives Asia the honour of being the first continent to start the procedure to decide which 31 teams will join Russia at the finals in 2018.
The main World Cup qualifying draw will be held on July 25 at the Konstantinovsky Palace in St Pertersburg although the qualification process AFC and the North, Central American and Caribbean Federation (CONCACAF) will already have begun.
The second round of the AFC World Cup qualifiers will be held on April 11 with matches to be held from June 11, 2015 to March 29, 2016.
The CONCACAF region began the qualifying process last month, pairing teams for its first two preliminary rounds and the first-round matches will be played between March 23 and 31.
The road to Russia for the Oceania region begins in June, while Africa and South America kick off in October and Europe in September 2016.
The qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, meanwhile, will be “the first time that all 209 member associations of FIFA have registered to take part in qualifying”, the world football governing body said. Four teams did not play in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2015