ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: Harun Hamid’s goal will go down in history; the win will script the future of Pakistan football.
This was massive, almost ethereal. It was some way to end a 34-year long wait in front of a raucous crowd that had gathered for the team’s first home game in over eight years.
In 34 matches since Pakistan first entered qualifying for the FIFA World Cup back in 1989, they had failed to win a single game. That’s why it meant so much. For the players, who sank to the ground in tears at the final whistle. For the fans, who had gathered on a damp afternoon at the Jinnah Stadium on Tuesday to cheer them on.
And when the 19-yeart-old Harun met the ball at the half-volley and placed it perfectly into the back of the net with his left foot midway through the second half of the second leg against Cambodia, the stadium erupted.
Pakistan had the aggregate lead in the first-round tie of qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and once they secured a 1-0 win following the goalless draw in Phnom Penh in the first leg five days ago, it sparked wild celebrations.
While some prostrated, several players ran on to hug coach Stephen Constantine and embraced him from all sides. Hired by the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee just 12 days before the opening leg, the 60-year-old Englishman masterminded this triumph — helping a team that had lost all eight matches it had played over the last year to consecutive clean sheets.
Credit for that also goes to veteran goalkeeper Yousuf Butt, who repelled several Cambodian attacks in the first half, as well as the defence marshalled by Easah Suliman and Abdullah Iqbal. There were gladiators all across the pitch; from Rao Umar Hayat and Shayek Dost delivering breathless performances as wing-backs to Rahis Nabi and Alamgir Ghazi exerting control in midfield.
“They showed pure fighting spirit and I’m really happy,” Constantine told reporters at the post-match press conference. “It’s a proud moment for Pakistan.”
Constantine’s short-term contract expires by the end of this week and he said it was up to the PFF NC to decide on giving him a longer contract. “Then, I’ll make up my mind,” he added.
Whether Constantine remains at the helm when Pakistan open the second round of qualifying in Group ‘G’ away to Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia on Nov 16 remains to be seen but at least he’s taken the team to a stage which was once considered dreamland.
Pakistan will also face Tajikistan and Jordan home and away during the second round, which will see the top two teams not only advance to the third round of qualifying — where 18 sides will battle for the continent’s eight guaranteed berths at the first 48-team World Cup in Canada, the United States and Mexico — but also secure their berths in the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.
The bottom two teams, meanwhile, drop into the third round of qualifying for the Asian Cup.
With first-round qualifiers played across the continent on Tuesday, Pakistan were joined in the second stage by nine other teams.
Singapore beat Guam 3-1 on aggregate after winning 1-0 on Tuesday, and Afghanistan also beat Mongolia 1-0 to advance 2-0 overall.
Yemen were held 1-1 at Sri Lanka but had done enough in their home leg to advance 4-1 on aggregate while Myanmar’s 0-0 draw with Macau confirmed their progress after a 5-1 win in the first leg last week.
Hong Kong survived a scare in Thimphu, losing 2-0 to hosts Bhutan but progressing as a result of their 4-0 win in the first leg at home.
Taiwan won 3-0 over Timor-Leste to complete a 7-0 victory over two legs while Indonesia recorded a second 6-0 win over Brunei.
Nepal’s 1-0 victory over Laos in Vientiane secured a 2-1 aggregate success and Bangladesh notched up a 2-1 win over the Maldives to progress 3-2 on aggregate.
Pakistan’s game against Cambodia started with news trickling in from Lahore that the PFF headquarters had been sealed by the Punjab Revenue Department.
A spokesman of the PFF told Dawn that it had been done “without giving any notice”.
The revenue department had also sealed the PFF headquarters in 2021 before it was handed back. The revenue department contents that former PFF officials had rented out three of its halls to a private company, going against the terms and conditions of the 30-year lease agreement made when government allotted the land to build the country’s football headquarters.
“This is embarrassing that we have to be in this situation on such a big day,” PFF NC member Shahid Khokhar told Dawn. “We had already told the government that we were willing to talk to sort out the matter but the revenue department acted as soon as a stay we had obtained in the Lahore High Court was vacated”.
Pakistan could face the wrath of FIFA if the PFF NC isn’t handed back of its headquarters. It was banned by FIFA for 15 months, the suspension eventually lifted in June last year, after the PFF NC regained control of its office.
None of those developments, though, fazed the Pakistan players, who went onto the pitch and were composed throughout even if Cambodia made a fast start with Chantha Chanteaka missing from six yards out with the goal at his mercy in the fifth minute.
Cambodia dominated the opening period, creating chance after chance only to be thwarted by the resolute Pakistan defence.
Pakistan showed more purpose with the introduction of Harun and striker Abdul Samad at half-time; finally the speed of their thought matching the speed of their legs.
They forced a few saves off Kimhuy Hul but the Cambodian goalkeeper had no chance when Harun launched that strike from the edge of the box.
“There was only one plan,” Harun said afterwards, “and that was to win.”
Additional reporting by Mohammad Yaqoob in Lahore
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2023