KARACHI: Unless Pakistan’s national football team — which hasn’t played an international match since the last three years — gets a good run of friendlies and gels quickly, its road to World Cup qualification will once again end at the first stage.

Pakistan, who have never won a World Cup qualifier in their history, last played in June 2019 when they lost to Cambodia in the first round of qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which gets underway in November this year.

Then, Pakistan were ranked among the bottom 12 among Asia’s 48 members, who had to enter in the first stage.

And despite the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico being expanded to 48 teams from 32 — increasing Asia’s slots from 4.5 to 8.5, Pakistan are still likely to start their road to qualification in the first stage.

That after the Asian Football Confederation confirmed the joint-qualification cycle for the World Cup as well the 2027 AFC Asian Cup on Monday, which sees the last 22-ranked Asian teams starting their campaign with a single home-and-away fixture in October next year.

The road to the World Cup ends for the 11 countries that lose in the opening round.

The 11 winners, meanwhile, will advance to the second round, joining the continent’s top 25 teams with the 36 then being divided into nine groups of four each which will compete in a round-robin home and away format.

The top two in each of the nine groups advance to the third stage — the 18 teams also qualifying for the Asian Cup. For World Cup qualification, those teams will be divided into three groups of six each with the top two from each group securing a spot at the World Cup.

Teams finishing third and fourth will then be divided into two groups of three with the group winners going through to the World Cup and the second-placed teams competing in a playoff, the winner of which will be Asia’s representative in the intercontinental playoff.

The change this time around, unlike in the last two qualification cycles, for teams like Pakistan which went out in the first round of qualifying is that they get another crack at trying to qualify for the Asian Cup.

While the top-ranked side in the 11 teams that fall in the first round advance to the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers, the 10 others will compete in a playoff with the five winners also going through to the final round.

There they will join the 18 teams that failed to make it to the third stage of World Cup qualifying with the 24 teams being divided into six groups of four each with the winners of each securing a spot at the Asian Cup.

“The new qualification format has been established after several consultation and dialogue sessions with the AFC Member Associations (MAs), briefings with the AFC Competitions Committee, as well as the Confederation’s key stakeholders,” the AFC said in a news release.

“The format above is based on the entry of all 47 Member Associations and is subject to change depending on the final number of entries.”

Pakistan’s entry would’ve been missing if the FIFA suspension on the Pakistan Football Federation, which was lifted at the end of May, had prolonged till next year.

The suspension, which was slapped in April last year after the FIFA-appointed PFF Normalisation Committee was pushed out of the headquarters of the country’s football governing body, along with the long-running crisis in the PFF has seen the national miss out on participating in international friendlies as well as tournaments, notably last year’s SAFF Championship.

After FIFA lifted the suspension, the PFF Normalisation Committee has been keen on restoring football activity in the country but its toughest task perhaps will be to ensure that a strong national team enters the first round of World Cup qualification.

Players have also missed out on domestic action due to the football crisis in the country and while the mandate of the NC is till June next year — by which it has to hold fresh elections of the PFF, the foundations it lays in the coming months to revive the team will be key if Pakistan are to end their dismal record in World Cup qualifiers.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2022

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