KARACHI: The players are hoping to play. But even after the draw, there remain huge doubts whether they will be able to play. If they aren’t, Pakistan will go out of the race for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup without even kicking a ball.
The omens aren’t good unless the dispute over the control of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is resolved. For now, though, Pakistan are slated to play Cambodia over two legs in June in the first qualifying round of Asia’s marathon qualifiers for the World Cup and the Asian Cup.
Not only is there uncertainty over Pakistan’s participation. There is also uncertainty regarding the number of teams at the World Cup with global football body FIFA to decide a day before Asia’s qualifying begins on June 6 whether its showpiece tournament will be increased to 48 teams or remain a 32-team event.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) told Dawn last month that it will review latter stages of the qualifying if the number of teams are increased, bringing Asia’s quota to eight from 4.5. That however, will not impact Pakistan who as one of the continent’s 12 worst teams begin their road to Qatar away against Cambodia in Phnom Penh after Wednesday’s draw in Kuala Lumpur.
The second leg on June 11 is to be held in Lahore according to the schedule but it probably won’t even go till there if the team is withdrawn. The issues surrounding the PFF has seen the national team being withdrawn from several events, most notably the qualifiers of the AFC Under-23 Championship last month that meant they went out of the running for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“If we play in the first qualification round, it will be good for the future of Pakistan football,” Pakistan captain Saddam Hussain told Dawn on Wednesday, referring to the fact that a victory over Cambodia would ensure competitive fixtures for the national team for the next four years.
Pakistan lost to Yemen in the first round last time out and went nearly three years before playing a competitive game. They finally returned to the pitch at the SAFF Championship in Bangladesh in September last year where Saddam was given the captain’s armband.
“If we are hoping to take part, we need to start the training camp this very month,” added Saddam. “Cambodia isn’t going to be an easy opponent and we have to work hard to start working now.”
The defeat to Yemen in March 2015 wasn’t the only thing that hurt Pakistan football. Three months later a dispute broke in the PFF — one that remains unresolved till date.
In a bid to resolve the country’s football crisis, a FIFA/AFC fact-finding mission is set to visit the country on May 28 and 29. But for Pakistan to take to the pitch for the game against Cambodia, it would require the mission to finalise a report of its finding and for its proposals to be implemented within six days.
Even then, there remains a question of funding the team. Both FIFA and AFC suspended funding to the PFF after Ashfaq Hussain Shah seized its control following an election ordered by the Supreme Court in December last year. FIFA termed that election as third-party interference and recognises the body led by Faisal Saleh Hayat.
Dawn has reliably learnt that the Hayat-led faction feels that there is very little time or finances to prepare the team for the all-important first qualifying round. The Ashfaq-led body, however, is keen on sending the team to the qualifiers and there have been suggestions from some sections that the two factions come together to ensure that the national team plays. A workable solution that has been mooted is that the Ashfaq-led body selects the team and the Hayat-led body sends the team to take part.
“We’re hoping that they can come to a solution and we can play,” Pakistan’s Denmark-based goalkeeper Yousuf Butt told Dawn on Wednesday. “As far as the Denmark-based players are concerned, me, Hassan [Bashir], Yaqoob [Butt] and [Mohammad] Ali, we are all in the middle of the season and are training and playing and if there is a chance to play, we can go and we will be the first ones on the flight.
“However, the Pakistan-based players have to begin training since they haven’t played since December and need high-level training. We can’t just go and play. At last year’s SAFF Championship, the team’s fitness levels were optimal since the coach had been working for over four months with them.”
The current situation is such that the national team is non-existent with Brazilian coach Jose Antonio Nogueira, hired by the Hayat faction in April last year, having left since Ashfaq came into power. Following the SAFF Championship, Pakistan played just one match — a friendly against Palestine in November.
And Pakistan’s star striker Kaleemullah, currently playing for Iraqi club Al-Najaf, isn’t so optimistic about the World Cup qualifier. “The situation isn’t good and I don’t think Pakistan will play in the qualifiers,” the former captain, who was axed from the national team due to his differences with Hayat, told Dawn.
Cambodia are coached by former Japan star Keisuke Honda and most recently lost to Pakistan’s South Asian rivals Bangladesh in a friendly last month. Former PFF official Muslim Butt, who now resides in Cambodia, believes there is a strong chance that Pakistan can win the tie.
“Cambodia are a very well-gelled team,” he told Dawn on Wednesday. “However, they don’t have technically sound players like Pakistan. Pakistan has gifted players like Kaleemullah who can hurt them and I appeal to Prime Minister Imran Khan to intervene and make sure we take part since we can win this tie.”
Pakistan, who have never won a World Cup qualifier in their history, did well to avoid Malaysia in the draw.
Malaysia, the highest-ranked team in the first round at 168th in the world according to FIFA, will face fellow South East Asians East Timor while the tiny Pacific Ocean islanders from Guam, who caused several upsets in the early rounds of qualifying for the last World Cup, will take on Bhutan.
In the other games, Laos face off against Bangladesh, Mongolia take on Brunei and Sri Lanka, Asia’s lowest-ranked team at 202, meet Macau.
The first-round winners will advance to the next phase of the competition, which will be determined at the official draw for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar in July. The second round of qualification starts in September with 40 teams divided into eight groups of five.
The winner and the four best second-placed teams will progress to the next stage and will also qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup that will be held either in China or South Korea.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2019