Pakistan’s FIFA World Cup qualification history: USA 1994
The Pakistani experience of the Asian qualifiers for 1990 FIFA World Cup was a lesson over how far its football lagged behind the rest of Asia. Other South Asian sides like Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh did not fare much better though some did pick up an odd victory here and there. Pakistan did end up winning consecutive SAF Games football gold in 1989 and 1991 after the humbling from UAE and Kuwait.
By 1991, PFF Presidency came to PML stalwart Mian Muhammad Azhar and General Secretary to Hafiz Salman Butt (Jamaat-e-Islami) who tried revamping the game. Amid much fanfare, and the hard work of renowned football organiser Usman Baloch from Malir, the Lifebuoy Football Championship was held across the country and televised live on PTV to boost the game as it briefly captured the public’s imagination. But as is often the case, the potential of the Lifebuoy Championships becoming a permanent fixture to improve domestic football was wasted as PFF in-fighting between Hafiz Salman and Mian Azhar caused the sponsors to pull out by 1994 and put the game back in the darkness.
This political chaos – common with all sports organisations in here – would have a bad impact on the national team as Pakistan failed to qualify to the 1992 AFC Asian Cup as it lost heavily to three-time Asian champions Iran (7-0) and eternal rivals India (2-0) in Kolkata back in May 1992. Iran topped that group with a 3-0 win over hosts India to qualify for the continental event.
In May-June 1993, the Asian qualifiers for USA 1994 took place with 30 teams being divided into 6 groups of 5 each, although Nepal and Myanmar both withdrew without playing a game. Pakistan was again drawn in a tough group having 1986 World Cup participant Iraq (led by legendary striker Ahmed Radhi), China PR, Yemen, and Jordan. AFC decided to centralise the World Cup qualifiers at common venues to avoid extensive travelling. Pakistan’s Group 1 had first half of group games played between 22-30 May in Irbid, Jordan and the other half of games between 12-20 June in Chengdu, China as centralised venues.
With WAPDA goalkeeper Malik Mateen Akhtar as captain, Pakistan had a side containing Tahir Pervez, Zafar Iqbal, Saleem Patni, Sher Mohammad, Ghulam Rasheed, Syed Nasir Ismail, Zahir Ahmed, Abdul Farooq, Amir Mahmood Butt, Tanvir Jamal, M. Tariq, Tahir Agha, Qazi M. Ashfaq, Haroon Yousuf, Imtiaz Butt, Taj Din, Farooq Aziz, Adeel Sarfraz Butt, Naeem Khalid, and Iftikhar Ghani. PFF General Secretary Hafiz Salman Butt was manager with SAF Games maestro Aslam Japani as coach. Much of this side had Lifebuoy Championship discoveries like defender Haroon Yousaf, Imtiaz Butt, legendary striker Qazi Ashfaq, and others who joined major departments like WAPDA, HBL, PIA, ABL etc. But this lot was in for a very rude awakening.
As expected, China (5-0), Yemen (5-1), Iraq (8-0), and 1st stage hosts Jordan (3-1) made short work of a hapless Pakistan team with only Tahir Agha and Abdul Farooq scoring against Yemen and Jordan respectively. In Chengdu, Pakistan did not fare any better as hosts China (3-0), Yemen (3-0), Iraq (3-0) and Jordan (5-0) pounded us to bottom placed finish in the group as Iraq qualified for the next round as group winners.
The final round of qualifiers saw 1992 Asian Cup champions Saudi Arabia making it to the World Cup for the first time in their history and South Korea also making the trip to USA’94.
Current NBP head coach and former national team assistant Nasir Ismail spoke in great detail with Dawn about Pakistan’s 1994 WCQ team and said that while the team was fairly talented with some experience of past events, it simply did not have the energy to compete with their bigger, faster, more professionalised rivals. Nasir, who was a striker in that team, also spoke with us and felt that had PFF gotten significant government funding to play international football regularly for preparations, it would have surely allowed the 1994 WCQs team to do a lot better against their more illustrious Asian rivals. This is often the case of Pakistan being international football minnows because of an inherently weak domestic structure, with miniscule government funding, that remains largely amateur to this day that cannot develop talent for international action and the system remains prone to political leg-pulling with almost zero public or private interest as a whole.
However back in 1993, the mood in Pakistan was positive towards the experience gained as 1993 also saw more international football action for the team. But Pakistan disappointed while hosting the inaugural SAARC Gold Cup 1993 from 16-23 July. Pakistan oddly ended up playing two teams in the event, the senior team and a youth side as Pakistan Whites – many saying this was because of the growing rift between Hafiz Salman Butt and Mian Azhar who wanted to select their own teams. Both failed to win a single game and the senior team finished bottom of the 4 nation group with India becoming the first SAARC Gold Cup champions. The SAARC Gold Cup was later rebranded into the SAFF Championship with the SAF Games eventually becoming a minor U23 event that at one time the PFF took very seriously given the sheer lack of international football. In December 1993, Pakistan failed to make it three SAF football golds in a row with Nepal beating India on penalties in final to take gold.
So it would be yet another 4 years before Pakistan again graced the World Cup qualification stage, this time with a significantly different team, although no need for guessing how that campaign fared.
To be continued.