FIFA World Cup: Constantine hopes to see ‘different’ Pakistan against Cambodia

Published October 12, 2023
PAKISTAN coach Stephen Constantine (L) attends a news conference alongside captain Easah Suliman at the National Olympic Stadium on Wednesday.
—courtesy Football Federation of Cambodia
PAKISTAN coach Stephen Constantine (L) attends a news conference alongside captain Easah Suliman at the National Olympic Stadium on Wednesday. —courtesy Football Federation of Cambodia

PHNOM PENH: The mo­m­ent of truth has arri­ved. For the last 15 months, since the FIFA suspension on Pakistan was lifted, everything was built with Thursday’s game in mind.

It’s been a rocky road for Pakistan heading into the opening leg of their 2026 World Cup qualifying first-round tie against Camb­odia. Shehzad Anwar, the coach who was tasked to take the team to the game, was sacked after a run of eight successive losses. The incoming Stephen Consta­ntine hasn’t had much time.

Pakistan have never won a qualifying match for the World Cup in their history. In 32 qualifiers for world football’s showpiece tournament, they’ve drawn just three.

Four years ago, at the same stage of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, Paki­stan fell to Cambodia but the 60-year-old Constantine is optimistic about his team’s chances, even though he admits the odds are stacked against them.

“I recently arrived with the team in a difficult situation,” Constantine told reporters at Wednesday’s pre-match news conference. “Football in Pakistan is undergoing a recovery process [after the ban] ... it’s at a rebuilding stage. These two games [the return leg is Islamabad on Oct 17] will be very difficult for us.”

Constantine has faced Cambodia during his time as the coach of Pakistan’s arch-rivals India and he said that continuity breeds success, pointing the fact that Felix Dalmas had been at the helm of their opponents for the last several months.

“I’ve been here before and understand the mentality here,” he stated. “The players are very disciplined and Felix has done a good job here. But our attitude has to be positive. We’ve to fight and I hope we can show a different Pakistan tomorrow.”

A spot in Group ‘G’ alongside the likes of Asian giants Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Jordan in the second round of qualifying is on offer for the winners of the tie. For Pakistan, 195th in the FIFA rankings, advancing to the second round could have far-reaching impact.

“A lot is riding on this game,” Pakistan winger Otis Khan, who plays for English fourth-tier side Grimsby Town, told the FIFA website. “Not just getting to the next round, but for the local players back home and for the kids growing up in the grassroots in Pakistan.

“If we get to the next round, they may put a league back in place. Right now, you haven’t got those next steps for players to improve. It would give hope to the children in Pakistan, to show, ‘This is where I can be one day’. It would mean everything for them, this game could change a lot of people’s lives. We need to give everything so that things can improve in the country.”

Things are different for Cambodia, ranked 19 places higher than Pakistan in the FIFA rankings. A consistent, functioning league means that while Pakistan look for diaspora players to strengthen the team, they can choose from naturalised players.

Last week, Japan-born midfielder Yudai Ogawa became the first naturalised Cambodian citizen to earn a call-up to the national team.

But despite their stre­ngths — Cambodia come in to the game on the back of a 4-0 win over Macau in their last international game — Dalmas, who was assistant to Kaisuka Honda when the teams faced each other in 2019, isn’t expecting an easy ride against Pakistan.

“We’re going to play against a strong side tomorrow as I said FIFA ranking doesn’t represent the quality they have,” he told reporters. “I think all the players understand their responsibility.

“The new players that we have and the players that have been here before, all have the same feeling and the same passion to represent the country. So, we will do our best to bring happiness to the people of Cambodia tomorrow.”

Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2023

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