Pakistan’s FIFA World Cup qualification history: FRANCE 1998
Since Pakistan first made its World Cup qualification debut for Italia 1990, it ended up facing the cream of football-mad Middle East teams that put our boys in their place. With 12 qualifying matches played till end of qualification for USA 94 Pakistan lost all games without as much of a whimper to their more well organised, better trained, and professional opponents. And if that wasn’t enough, the political rifts within the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) would also severely impact on the state of football in the country and define the rest of decade for us as well. Meanwhile, Asian football was gradually progressing and improving with each passing year, widening the gap with Pakistan and the rest of South Asia.
By mid-1994, the rifts between PFF President Mian Muhammad Azhar (a former Governor of Punjab 1990-92) and General Secretary Hafiz Salman Butt were so bad that Hafiz Salman ended up forming his own PFF faction and both PFFs sent their own Pakistan teams for the AFC Youth Championships in July 1994. FIFA was not pleased, and immediately suspended Pakistan from international football for six months. Mian Azhar was quick to use his presidency to maintain his legitimacy and imposed a 10 year ban on Hafiz Salman from all football activities for bringing PFF and football into severe disrepute. PFF also claimed both FIFA and AFC also imposed their own bans on the fallen General Secretary. Hafiz Salman Butt though disputed the latter claim and insisted that only PFF banned him. This situation was no different to the political turmoil and constantly changing governments that defined the ‘Decade of Democracy’ in Pakistan from 1988 (death of military ruler Gen Zia-ul-Haq) till 1999 (military coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf). Though Pakistan didn’t fare any better under military rule either.
Both individuals were senior politicians from their respective parties in Lahore as PML and JI were rivals and allies as frequently as the wind direction changed. Both Mian Azhar and Hafiz Salman Butt preferred their own men taking charge in PFF amid widespread allegations of both insisting on selecting their own players. Hafiz Salman was often accused of forcing coaches to fill national senior and youth team squads with players from his own Wohaib FC deemed mediocre. The ban now meant almost the entire Pakistan team was changed with players seemingly in good books of the former General Secretary being dropped and ignored for any future assignments despite good performances at domestic level in the National Football Championships. Newer players were selected, though many were even worse off in terms of handling the demands of international football. The likes of Haroon Yousaf, Qazi Ashfaq, Imtiaz Butt etc did retain their spots as they were deemed the best in their positions across Pakistan.
It wasn’t until March-April 1995 that Pakistan would see international action again in the 2nd SAARC Gold Cup hosted by Sri Lanka. Pakistan did start brightly with a 1-0 win over Bangladesh. But a 2-0 loss to Nepal and then Bangladesh beating Nepal 2-0 meant Pakistan failed to qualify for the next round on goal difference by finishing bottom of the group despite being tied on points. Hosts Sri Lanka eventually won the final, beating India 1-0 in extra time for their first SAARC Gold Cup title. A year later, Pakistan was drawn to face Iraq, Jordan, and Bangladesh for the 1996 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. The qualification group was held in Jordanian capital of Amman in August 1996, albeit without Bangladesh who withdrew, and Iraq won the group to qualify for next round with Pakistan losing 4-0 to Jordan and 3-0 to Iraq.
The Asian qualifiers for 1998 FIFA World Cup were held between September 1996 and June 1997 in which 36 teams signed up for 3.5 spots given by FIFA – 1 more from USA 1994 and also an inter-continental playoff with OFC for the 4th ranked qualifying team. Pakistan was drawn in a group again with Iraq and former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan that had become an AFC member in 1992 before eventually joining UEFA in 2002. The Pakistan squad comprised of goalkeepers Muhammad Younis and Noman Ibrahim, defender Haroon Yousaf, Muhammad Ayub, Zahir Ahmed, Zahir Rafiq, Muhammad Tariq, Muhammad Rashid, Abdul Khaliq, Farid Majeed, Qazi Ashfaq, Mohammed Umer, Mohammad Arshad, Amjad Zikriya, Malik Azir Nasir, Naseer Ahmed, Muhammad Shahid, and Bashir Ahmed.
With Iraq already being among the strongest Middle Eastern sides and a significant chunk of Kazakhstan players plying their trade with Russian football clubs, we more or less knew what was coming. Kazakhstan eased past Pakistan 3-0 in Almaty on 11 May 1997, with Iraq overcoming initial resistance from Pakistan at Railways Stadium in Lahore on 23 May. Muhammad Umer and Zahir Rafiq scored for Pakistan but Iraq overwhelmed the hosts to win 6-2 in the end. Kazakhstan then also joined the fun and won 7-0 in Lahore on 11 June before Iraq again won 6-1 in Baghdad on 20 June (Muhammad Umer scoring one for Pakistan). Kazakhstan had also beaten Iraq convincingly to win the group and qualify for next round. The only good part was that both games in Lahore were telecast live on PTV though the country witnessed just how badly its standard of football lagged behind rest of Asia.
Eventually, Saudi Arabia and South Korea topped their final round groups and Japan beat Iran in extra-time to finish 3rd overall to directly qualify for France ’98. Iran then beat future AFC member Australia on away goals after a historic AFC-OFC intercontinental play-off round finished a nail-biting 3-3 on aggregate to qualify for the World Cup after 20 years. France 98 would be the first time 4 Asian teams would take part in the World Cup given the global event had been expanded from 24 teams in 1994 to 32 by 1998.
Pakistan, meanwhile, had its own issues to sort out given the utter mess football had become due as a decade with a decent start paved way for political bickering; often seen in almost every aspect of life in the country. Even a draw in a World Cup qualifier seemed elusive for our boys. The year 1997 did end at a slightly better, though still frustrating, note with Pakistan using the World Cup thrashings in stride to take bronze in the 1997 SAFF Gold Cup in Nepal with India again winning gold.