By Paul Williams
Pakistan national team captain Zesh Rehman believes his side’s first round World Cup Qualifying draw against Yemen is the toughest match his nation could have expected.
The draw for the first round of FIFA World Cup Qualification, which will also double as the first round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualification, took place yesterday and saw the AFC’s 12 lowest ranked sides drawn together to determine which six will advance to the second stage where the big nations await.
“I think its possibly the toughest opponent we could have faced at this stage,” the 31-year-old told Football Channel Asia. “But we are confident we can get a positive result and progress to the next stage.
“Generally Middle Eastern countries are stronger than their South Asian counterparts but in football no game is straightforward at International level so I’m sure the two games will prove to close encounters.”
Rehman is one of the few Pakistani footballers to play outside of Pakistan, and currently belongs to Malaysian side Pahang. He was forced to withdraw from a recent friendly against Afghanistan due to a slight muscle strain he picked up playing for his club.
The prospect of advancing to the second round of qualifying, where the 40 nations will be split in to eight groups of five nations, and potentially playing against some of the biggest nations in Asia is one that excites the former Fulham and QPR defender.
“For Pakistan it would be a fantastic achievement to progress through to the next stage – for the fans, the federation, coach and players it would great to test ourselves against the bigger nations in Asia,” he said.
“The only way to improve is to play against the best to see how much work needs to be done in terms of the long term development of the football in the country.”
Rehman is a fan of the new qualification process, believing it gives developing nations better chances to qualify, especially for an expanded 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
“I think its great the World Cup Qualifying is doubling up as Asian Cup Qualifying because theres more of a chance for Pakistan to reach either one of the two,” he told Football Channel Asia.
“I believe it’s a realistic target for us to qualify (for the Asian Cup) and I believe the rest of the squad have adopted this mentality. If we don’t believe we can progress beforehand then we may as well not play in the first instance.”
In that squad are a growing number of young players testing themselves outside of Pakistan, spearheaded by veteran Rehman.
“Theres several good young players who are starting to shine due to the exposure they are getting by playing outside of Pakistan,” he explained.
“The likes of (Muhammad) Adil, Kaleemullah are doing very well playing for Kyrgyzstan champions FC Dordo. Hassan Bashir is a top striker playing in Denmark with a terrific eye for the goal and great link up play.
“We have a well balanced squad with local players and players plying their trade outside of the country, which can only benefit the teams chances of getting results.”
Pakistan travel to Yemen for the first leg on March 12, before returning to Pakistan for the second leg five days later on March 17.