RIYADH: Pakistan open their first campaign in 22 years in the group stage of Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup when they face heavyweights Saudi Arabia in Al Ahsa on Thursday.
Having edged past Cambodia in the first round of qualifying for the 2026 edition of football’s showpiece tournament, Pakistan are lowest-ranked side still in the hunt.
Placed 193rd in the FIFA rankings, coach Stephen Constantine has already said that the team’s six home and away matches in Group ‘G’ against the Saudis, Tajikistan and Jordan are a learning experience.
The top two teams from each of the nine groups in the second stage advance to the next round and that’s the minimum for Saudi Arabia, coached by Italian Roberto Mancini, as they look to confirm a third-straight appearance at the World Cup.
Joined by former Ivorian midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure on his coaching staff, Mancini has named a young squad with the inclusion of 16-year-old forward Talal Haji standing out but the Saudis have injury concerns over recently-anointed Asian Player of the Year Salem Al Dawsari.
At the last World Cup in Qatar, they were the only team to beat eventual champions Argentina with Al Dawsari scoring the stunning winner. But almost a year on since one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, the Saudis are looking for a victory.
Mancini, who guided Italy to the European Championships in 2021, has overseen three defeats and a draw in his four friendly games in charge since taking over in August.
For Pakistan, though, there is nothing to lose. It’s the first time they’re in the second round of qualifying since the format was introduced.
But they would be looking to do better than the last time they participated in a group stage during qualifying.
For the 2002 World Cup, they ended bottom of their group, their only point coming in a 3-3 draw with Sri Lanka in May 2001.
With the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico having been expanded to 48 teams, Asia’s slots have also been doubled with regular finalists Japan, Australia and Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea also looking to lock up their berths.
Japan will be expected to book their place at an eighth straight World Cup after a phenomenal run of form since last year’s tournament in Qatar, where they reached the last 16.
The Blue Samurai have won their last six games, plundering 24 goals and conceding just five along the way.
They travelled to Europe in September and beat Germany 4-1 and Turkey 4-2 — results which cost both opposing managers their jobs.
Hajime Moriyasu’s side kick off their campaign against Myanmar in Group ‘B’ also featuring Syria and North Korea would not be easy.
South Korea initially struggled when German legend Klinsmann took over as coach in February, but results have picked up in recent games.
The Koreans scored 11 goals without reply in friendly wins over Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Vietnam, and begin their qualifying campaign at home to Singapore.
China and Thailand have also been drawn in what looks like being one of the toughest groups of the qualifiers.
Australia, who joined Japan and South Korea in reaching the World Cup last 16 in Qatar, being their campaign against Bangladesh in Melbourne.
The Socceroos have also been drawn alongside Lebanon and Palestine in Group ‘I’.
Palestine are away to Lebanon in their opener but the conflict between Israel and Hamas means they will play their home game against Australia on neutral ground in Kuwait next week.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Iran are at home to Hong Kong and Qatar, now under the guidance of former Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, are at home to Afghanistan.
Eighteen of Afghanistan’s players are reportedly set to boycott the match in protest at what they describe as poor treatment by their country’s football association.
North Korea play their first World Cup qualifier since 2019 when they face Syria on neutral ground in Saudi Arabia.
The North Koreans withdrew midway through 2022 qualifying when the Covid pandemic struck.
Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2023