ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: Pakistan coach Stephen Constantine and his Tajikistan counterpart Petar Segrt will add a new chapter to their tactical rivalry when their charges meet here at the Jinnah Stadium for their clash in the second round of qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday.
The two experienced, well-travelled managers have met each other in two finals of the SAFF Championship; the duo splitting one each. Constantine’s India beat Segrt’s Afghanistan for South Asia’s ultimate football prize in 2015 with the Croat turning the tables on the Englishman in the very next edition when he guided Maldives to glory.
But on Tuesday, they’re leading sides with very different ambitions.
Constantine led Pakistan past the first qualifying round for the first time in their history last month with their famous victory over Cambodia sending them into Group ‘G’ alongside the Tajiks, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The 61-year-old has already stated the six games the second qualifying round is a chance for Pakistan to prepare themselves for the future but added his team should realistically target qualifying for the 2027 Asian Cup.
The top two in each of the nine groups advance to the third round of qualifying for the World Cup, whilst also booking their spot in the Asian Cup, with the bottom two going into the next round of qualifying for the continental showpiece.
Pakistan opened their campaign with a 4-0 trouncing by the Saudis in Al Ahsa on Thursday but Constantine stressed his side aren’t just looking to make up the numbers and would be playing to win every game.
“We will give our best,” Constantine told reporters at a news conference alongside captain Otis Khan on Monday. “We’re learning with every game we’re playing … since we don’t have a domestic league in place in Pakistan.”
Winger Otis, who was cleared to play for Pakistan by FIFA ahead of the Saudi fixture, echoed Constantine’s views.
“In comparison to the other teams [in our group], we’ve played very little football,” Otis, who plays in England’s fourth tier, told reporters. “So we are essentially competing with the best.
“Tomorrow’s game is important for us,” he added, before saying Pakistan would give their best to get a home victory. “No one expected us to win against Cambodia, but we did.”
Tajikistan may be seeded third in the group but Segrt’s charges love punching above their weight and are looking to forge their way into the third round of qualifying.
They opened their campaign with a 1-1 home draw against Jordan, having won the Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia last month when they beat the hosts 2-0 in the final.
Since taking over in 2022, Segrt oversaw Tajikistan’s maiden qualification to the Asian Cup, which will be played later this year in Qatar, while also leading his side to victory in the King’s Cup in Thailand.
Tajikistan only landed in Islamabad on Monday morning but although Segrt said his side would’ve loved to come a bit earlier “to enjoy Pakistani hospitality”, his players were geared up for the match.
“We know there are some foreign-based players in the Pakistan squad and we expect a tough game,” Segrt told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s an important game for both teams.”
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2023