Constantine sets sights on Asian Cup as Pakistan enter uncharted territory

Published November 11, 2023
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan head coach Stephen Constantine instructs his players during a training session at the Naseer Bunda Hockey Stadium on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan head coach Stephen Constantine instructs his players during a training session at the Naseer Bunda Hockey Stadium on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

ISLAMABAD / KARACHI: Pakistan will take a step into the unknown next week when they compete for the first time in the second round of joint-qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2027 AFC Asian Cup with games against Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan with head coach Stephen Constantine believing that expectations should be at a minimum.

Having overcome Cambodia in the first round of qualifying — the 1-0 victory in the second leg being Pakistan’s first-ever victory in World Cup qualifying, Constantine’s men will open their Group ‘G’ campaign away against Asian giants Saudi Arabia at the Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium in Al-Ahsa on Thursday before welcoming Tajikistan to the Jinnah Stadium here five days later during this international window.

Jordan are the fourth team in Group ‘G’ and with the bottom two teams at the end of this stage going into the third round of qualifying for the 2027 Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia, Constantine is setting realistic targets.

Asked by reporters at the Naseer Bunda Hockey Stadium on Friday if Pakistan could qualify for the expanded 48-team World Cup in the Americas in three years’ time, the 61-year-old Englishman gave a blunt reply: “No we can’t … we’re not ready for it. But what we can do [in the next six matches] is build a team and try to qualify for the Asian Cup.”

Saudi Arabia, coached by Italian tactician Roberto Mancini — who guided his native country to the European Championship crown in 2021, have qualified for each of the previous two editions of the World Cup and they’re looking to reach a the finals for the seventh time overall. At the last World Cup in Qatar, they were the only team to beat defending champions Argentina.

“They have one of the best coaches in the world and we have 100 percent respect for them,” said Constantine. “But we will go there and we will fight. The probabilities aren’t in our favour but you have to consider where we were [before winning against Cambodia], where were are and where will be [after the six games in the second qualifying round]. We need time. The willingness is there and we will not go there to lose.”

In the only meeting between the two teams, back in 1978, the Saudis ran out 6-0 winners with Pakistan having missed out on playing their continent’s top-tier opposition during the past several qualifying campaigns after falling by the wayside in the first round.

Pakistan head into their first games without the injured defensive stalwart Easah Suliman but boosted by the return of Britain-based winger Otis Khan, who was cleared by FIFA to represent the national team.

“The preparation has been okay,” said Constantine, as Pakistan wrapped up their final training session before flying out to Saudi Arabia on Saturday; the players forced to train at the hockey ground of the Pakistan Sports Complex instead of the Jinnah Stadium due to inclement weather. “But again, I think we could do better by starting at the right time. We’re a bit late but the boys have worked hard.

“All the games are important and we have to take advantage of these six [in front of us],” said Constantine. “We might lose all the games but what we want to do is develop a football culture. Make sure everyone in Pakistan knows there is a football team … make sure the world knows. We can learn a lot in this period of time and then we have to think about the Asian Cup qualifiers, where there will be another six games.”

Squad:

Goalkeepers: Yousuf Butt, Salman Ul Haq, Hassan Ali; Defenders: Abdullah Iqbal, Haseeb Khan, Mamoon Moosa Khan, Mohibullah, Muhammad Sohail, Muhammad Saddam, Junaid Shah, Rao Umar Hayat, Muhammad Hamza Munir; Midfielders: Rahis Nabi, Alamgir Ghazi, Rajab Ali, Ali Uzair, Imran Kiyani and Harun Hamid; Forwards: Shayak Dost, Otis Khan, Fareed Ullah, Abdul Samad Arshad, Muhammad Waleed Khan, Adeel Younas.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2023

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