KARACHI: A top-ranking official of the Asian Football Confederation believes that the newly-unveiled qualifying format for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup will help further improve the teams in the continent.

The AFC on Monday announced a new format for joint-qualification to the two tournaments, which will allow teams like Pakistan — who have fallen at the initial stage on each of the last two occasions since qualifying for both the World Cup and the Asian Cup was merged — to stay in the running for a spot at the Asian Cup if they lose the first home-and-away tie.

“The AFC’s Vision underlines our desire to ensure the success of our teams through world-class competitions and the new qualification format has been specifically designed to achieve those ambitions,” AFC general secretary Datuk Seri Windsor John told Dawn in a statement on Wednesday.

“As we have seen in the recently concluded campaign, the AFC Asian Qualifiers — Road to Qatar [2022] broke all digital engagement records, and we are confident that the new qualification format will continue to inspire our participating teams to scale even greater heights and excite and enthuse passionate fans of Asian football like never before.”

Pakistan will hope its football team seeks inspiration from the new format.

The national team hasn’t won a World Cup qualifier in its history and having fallen to Syria and Cambodia in the first round of qualifying for the 2018 and 2022 editions respectively, it has faced eight years without much competitive action.

Add to that to the institutional crisis in the Pakistan Football Federation, which has resulted in Pakistan being suspended twice by FIFA — the latest 14-month ban only being lifted in June this year, players haven’t played much either internationally or domestically.

It means that with the Asian qualifying cycle for the expanded 48-team 2026 World Cup in the United States. Mexico and Canada starting from October next year, Pakistan — currently 196th in the FIFA rankings — will likely be among the continent’s bottom 22 teams which will start in the first stage.

PAKISTAN LOOK TO IMPROVE RANKING

The groundwork to ensure Pakistan end their dismal record World Cup qualifying record will be done by the FIFA-appointed PFF Normalisation Committee and its recently-appointed coaching consultant Shahzad Anwar said the first aim was to advance from the first stage.

“That will not only see us go directly into the group stage of the Asian Cup qualifying but also give us the opportunity to compete against Asia’s top teams in the second round of World Cup qualifying,” Shahzad told Dawn on Wednesday.

“There is a second chance to play in the Asian Cup qualifying playoffs if there is a first-stage loss but right now, the focus is to win the first stage.”

Shahzad believes the key to crossing the first hurdle is to improving the team’s ranking.

“We will try to be amongst the seeded teams in the first round by being at least among top 10 in the bottom 22,” he said. “That will help us get an easier draw. In order to improve the ranking, we will try to arrange as many friendly matches during the international weeks.”

Getting past the first round still remains a tall order for Pakistan.

The PFF crisis has meant the domestic league hasn’t been held regularly. The uncertainty whether the departmental sports system will be revived has also meant that the Pakistan Premier Football League cannot be planned.

PFF NC member Shahid Khokhar, however, said on Wednesday that other aspects to rebuild the national team are also under consideration.

“We are looking to gather a player pool which will have both established and emerging players,” Shahid told Dawn. “We can then work on them for the next 14 months to work on their fitness and game temperament.

“We are also looking at forming a panel of coaches for the team. It’s a tough road for us but we’re hoping to do our best.”

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2022

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