KARACHI: Pakistan avoi­ded a potentially fiery clash aga­inst Afghanistan but will once again face Cambodia in their quest for a first-ever victory in FIFA World Cup qualifying.

Just over four years on from losing to Cambodia on the road to last year’s World Cup in Qatar, Pakistan will once again cross paths with Cambodia in the home-and-away first round of qualifying for the 2026 tournament in North America — which features 48 teams for the first time — and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup.

Thursday’s draw ceremony at the Asian Football Confe­deration headquarters in Kuala Lumpur also saw Pakis­tan discover their second-round group stage opponents should they overcome Cambodia.

The winners of the tie will move into Group ‘G’ featuring Asian giants Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tajikistan but getting into the second round once looks like a tough ask for the national team which has lost all eight matches it has played in the last year since FIFA lifted a 15-month suspension on Pakistan.

Those matches were the first since Pakistan, who are 201st in the FIFA rankings and have suffered plenty of inaction due to the crisis in the Pakistan Football Federation, lost in both legs to Cambodia in June 2019. They fell 2-0 away in Phnom Penh before going down 2-1 in the home leg, which was played in Qatar.

Those matches were played under a cloud with two separate PFF setups in place — one accepted by FIFA and the AFC and the other by the local court. This time, however, the FIFA-appointed PFF Norma­li­s­a­tion Committee is in-charge.

“The off-pitch matters are better this time,” Pakistan head coach Shehzad Anwar, who was the PFF technical director four years ago, told Dawn on Thursday. “Last time out, we couldn’t select from a full squad and there were problems but this time, things are better.

“We will try to play a few matches in the September [international] window to fine-tune the team and most of our senior team players will also be playing in the qualifiers for the AFC Under-23 championship where we will be up against Japan, Bahrain and Palestine [in Group ‘D’].”

Cambodia, on the other hand, lost their last international friendly 1-0 to Bangla­desh in June and finished third in their group in December’s ASEAN Football Federation Championship, winning two and losing two matches.

They will, however, be without the man who masterminded their two-legged victory over Pakistan four years ago. Former Japan international attacker Keisuke Honda has left as the team’s coach but during his spell in charge, he has transformed the side from also-rans in the Southeast Asian region to a fluid, attacking team.

“Honda’s impact can be seen on the Cambodian team and they play with a lot of verve so that will be a challenge for us,” opined Shehzad.

The same can’t be said about Pakistan, who have got on the scoresheet just once in the last year with questions over head coach Shehzad’s approach lingering on despite the national team having inducted several foreign-based players in the side.

Last month, Pakistan lost all three matches in the Four-Nations Cup in Mauritius with a combined score of 7-1 against the hosts, Kenya and Djibouti. They then lost all three matc­hes in their group of the SAFF Championship in India by a combined 9-0 against their arch-rivals, Kuwait and Nepal.

“That’s a major problem for us,” admitted Shehzad, who is hopeful that the paperwork for attackers Adil Nabi and Etzaz Hussain will be completed before the Cambodia matches.

Both currently play in Cyprus and Shehzad would hopeful that their additions will help the team “on the attacking front” and “ease our goal-scoring woes” with the promise of playing against more illustrious Asian opponents lying in wait in the second stage of qualifying.

Saudi Arabia, who stunned eventual champions Argentina at the World Cup in Qatar, are the kind of elite teams Pakis­tan have rarely had the chance to meet. The Saudis have shown their intent to become world football’s next heartland and their players will head into the qualifying campaign training and playing with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema who have been lured to the multi-billion Saudi Pro League.

Japan, Asia’s best team at 20th in the world rankings who reached the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup, were drawn to face North Korea, Syria and the winners of the first-round playoff between Myanmar and Macau.

South Korea, led by coach Jurgen Klinsmann and captain Son Heung-min, begin their quest to qualify for an 11th straight World Cup against China, Thailand and either Singapore or Guam.

Reigning Asian Cup holders Qatar, who have never advanced to the World Cup through the qualifying stages, will face India, Kuwait and either Afghanistan or Mongolia while six-time World Cup qualifiers Iran face Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Hong Kong or Bhutan.

Iraq have been drawn alongside Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia or Brunei with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and either Yemen or Sri Lanka and Nepal or Laos being grouped together.

FIFA’s decision to increase the size of the World Cup to 48 nations means Asia has been granted eight guaranteed berths plus a possible ninth spot at the finals available through a series of intercontinental playoffs.

Games in the second round will take place between this November and June 2024 and teams will play each other home and away.

The winners and runners-up from the nine groups will go into the decisive third round of Asian qualifying. Those 18 teams will also go straight into the 2027 Asian Cup, being held in Saudi Arabia.

Six teams will qualify via the subsequent group stage played from September 2024 to June 2025. Two more places will be decided by another group stage in October 2025 involving six teams.

A two-team playoff in November 2025 will send the winner to the intercontinental playoffs.

Asian World Cup qualifying:

First round (to be played on home-and-away basis on Oct 12 and 17):

Afghanistan vs Mongolia; Maldives vs Bangladesh; Singapore vs Guam; Yemen vs Sri Lanka; Myanmar vs Macau; Cambodia vs Pakistan; Taiwan vs Timor Leste; Indonesia vs Brunei; Hong Kong vs Bhutan; Nepal vs Laos.

Second round (matches to be played from November 2023 to June 2024):

Group ‘A’: Qatar, India, Kuwait, Afghanistan or Mongolia

Group ‘B’: Japan, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar or Macau

Group ‘C’: South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore or Guam

Group ‘D’: Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Taiwan or Timor Leste

Group ‘E’: Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Hong Kong or Bhutan

Group ‘F’: Iraq, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia or Brunei

Group ‘G’: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Cambodia or Pakistan

Group ‘H’: United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Yemen or Sri Lanka, Nepal or Laos

Group ‘I’: Australia, Palestine, Lebanon, Maldives or Bangladesh.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2023

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