KARACHI: It all seemed doom and gloom for Pakistan’s national football team when it crashed out in the first round of the marathon joint-qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup last year.
The 3-1 aggregate loss to Yemen in March last year meant Pakistan were left facing four years without competitive matches.
It also meant there would be very little international action with the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) never too interested in friendly matches.
“The lack of international matches has been hurting us over the last year,” Pakistan international winger Saadullah told Dawn on Tuesday. “Not only has our FIFA ranking fallen but the players’ fitness too has gone down.”
In the FIFA rankings announced last week, Pakistan slipped to 190th, just two places off their all-time lowest of 192.
The rankings fall has been due to Pakistan not having played an international match since their ouster to Yemen in a first-round qualifying playoff which could’ve been avoided had the PFF been smarter.
With the first round qualifiers seeing Asia’s 12 bottom-ranked nations taking part, a plan to improve the ranking by playing friendlies could’ve seen Pakistan pass the safety net and ensure themselves at least eight matches in the second round.
And while qualifying to the third round would’ve been a bonus — and a glorious achievement, the team would’ve even had two chances to qualify for the final round of qualifying of the AFC Asian Cup if they would’ve finished in the bottom 11 of the 40-team second round.
While that did not happen, the PFF was thrown a lifeline on Tuesday when the AFC’s Competitions Committee decided to introduce a new international competition for their worst-ranked sides this year to replace the AFC Challenge Cup, which was scrapped in 2014.
Pakistan, Nepal, Brunei, Macau, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and two other sides to be determined, will take part in the 14-day tournament at a neutral venue.
The tournament will also include coaching, refereeing, technical and event management education courses.
But for Pakistan to take part in the newly-announced tournament, a dispute in the PFF needs to be resolved.
The PFF has been mired in crisis ever since it split into two factions in the lead-up to its presidential elections in June last year after a full-blown dispute over the controversial Punjab Football Association (PFA) elections in April.
With the two groups — one led by incumbent president Faisal Saleh Hayat and the other by contender and vice-president Zahir Ali Shah — heading into the polls, it saw the Lahore High Court (LHC) intervene and order a stay on the elections.
The Hayat group however went on to hold the elections and that has resulted in a drawn-out battle against the honourable court which appointed retired Justice Asad Munir as PFF Administrator till the issue is resolved.
Last week, the court ruled that any activity regarding football can only be conducted by the PFF Administrator.
World’s football governing body FIFA, meanwhile, has backed Hayat and has given him two years to conduct fresh elections.
The conflict also saw Pakistan miss out on the SAFF Cup late last year.
While the Administrator was willing to send the team to South Asia’s showpiece tournament, the Hayat faction refused to work with him.
And Pakistan goalkeeper Saqib Hanif admitted it was a “problematic situation” for the players who are willing to give it their best for the national team.
“It’s very difficult to face people when they ask us why the ranking of the national team keeps going down,” he told Dawn on Thursday. “It’s a problematic situation, one that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.”
Midfielder Saddam Hussain echoed Saqib’s view but told Dawn: “No one seems to be serious about football and football players of Pakistan.”
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2016