KARACHI: Regardless of whether the 2022 FIFA World Cup is a 32-team tournament or is increased to a 48-team one, Pakistan’s road to Qatar won’t be easy. While an increase in the number of teams is expected to make the qualification path less rigorous, Pakistan won’t be benefitting. Just like qualifying for the 2018 showpiece in Russia, two preliminary round matches — within a week of FIFA’s final decision on the number teams at the World Cup — could see them end up without competitive matches for the next four years.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) introduced a system in the previous qualification cycle that merged the road to the World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup together. It will be the same this time around. “The qualifying draw is on April 17 in Kuala Lumpur and the format will be the same as last time with joint Asian Cup and World Cup qualification,” an AFC spokesperson told Dawn on Thursday. Last time out, Pakistan fell to Yemen at the first hurdle. That, combined with a dispute in the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), meant Pakistan went more than three-and-half years without an international match.
The prevailing situation in Pakistan football means there remains uncertainty whether Pakistan will send a team to the preliminary playoff round. For now, though, they have confirmed their entry. “Pakistan have entered the 2023 Asian Cup/2022 World Cup qualifiers,” the AFC spokesperson said, when asked if the PFF had confirmed the entry, nearly two weeks after they withdraw the team from the qualifiers of the 2020 AFC Under-23 Championship. The spokesperson added that they “don’t enter into speculation” when asked what would happen if Pakistan were to withdraw from the qualifiers.
At a dismal 199th in the FIFA rankings, as Asia’s second-worst team, Pakistan will start in the preliminary round which will feature Asia’s bottom 12 teams. Taking the FIFA rankings from April 4 into account, there will be six seeded teams that will be drawn against one of the six unseeded teams and they will play over two legs, home and away. The six first-round winners will join the 34 top-ranked teams in the second round which will see 40 teams divided into eight groups of five. From there, the eight group winners and the four best second-placed teams advance into the third round of World Cup qualifying whilst also confirming their berths at the Asian Cup. The second-round teams that don’t finish in the top 12, they will then continue to play for a place in the Asian Cup.
The final rounds of World Cup qualifying, however, could see a change if the number of teams are increased. A 48-team World Cup in 2022 will see Asia’s slots increased to eight from 4.5. It remains to be seen how that comes into play with FIFA proposals for expanding the Qatar World Cup including matches in its neighbouring Gulf countries. The World Cup hosts qualify automatically with their slot taken from their confederation’s quota, according to the allocation for the 2026 World Cup — the first confirmed 48-team World Cup. “The decision though on 32 or 48 teams may mean a review of the latter stages of the competition [if increased to 48],” the AFC spokesperson said.
FIFA will take a final decision at expanding the Qatar World Cup at its Congress in Paris on June 5. According to the AFC’s competitions calendar, Asia’s World Cup qualifying begins the very next day with the first legs of the preliminary playoff round. The second legs are scheduled for June 11.Just making it to the pitch for the first leg match seems like a tall order for the Pakistan team which is beset with problems off the pitch.
FIFA recognises the PFF of Faisal Saleh Hayat but the Hayat-led body isn’t recognised domestically after the Supreme Court ordered fresh elections of the country’s football governing body that saw Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah elected as Pakistan’s football chief last December. The election did bring to a close a long-running legal wrangle that has afflicted Pakistan football since the last four years but a final decision rests in the hands of FIFA which called the court-ordered election as “third-party interference” in the affairs of its member associations.
FIFA’s Member Associations Committee will discuss the PFF case when it meets on April 3. In October last year, FIFA’s Member Associations committee had given the Hayat-led PFF an 18-month period — until March 2020 — to hold fresh elections. After a controversial PFF election in June 2015, that sparked a dispute in the football body, Hayat was earlier given a two-year mandate in September 2015 to ratify the PFF statutes and hold fresh elections. The Hayat-led body made no headway into those issues.
The PFF was banned for six months for “third-party intervention” before FIFA lifted the suspension in March last year after Hayat was restored as the PFF chief on the orders of the Lahore High Court, which had appointed an administrator to oversee PFF affairs in 2015. The case went to the Supreme Court the very next month with the country’s apex court ordering fresh elections. Ahead of the SC-ordered election, FIFA had warned that the PFF faces possible suspension.
A suspension, during the first week of June, would naturally rule Pakistan out of the World Cup qualifiers. Even with no suspension, Pakistan continues to miss out on football. Hayat’s body isn’t sending teams to play fearing Contempt of Court. Ashfaq can’t send the team because AFC or FIFA don’t recognise him. In that scenario, the Hayat-led body withdrew Pakistan’s entry from the qualifiers for the AFC Under-23 Championship, the tournament which was going to decide Asia’s representatives for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Pakistan went out of the race for the Olympics without kicking a ball. If the situation doesn’t change, they will be out of the World Cup race in similar fashion.
Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2019