By Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: Pakistan will play their Group ‘B’ qualifiers for the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in May, Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) secretary Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi said on Wednesday.
Pakistan were due to host the Group ‘B’ qualifiers, which also involve Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, in Lahore from March 23-31 but they were postponed by Asia’s football governing body AFC in wake of the twin suicide attacks on churches in the Youhanabad neighbourhood of the Punjab capital.
The attacks also saw the second leg of Pakistan’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen, which was due to be played at the Punjab Stadium on March 17, shifted to Bahrain.
And after much deliberation by the AFC, which also consulted the PFF along with the other four national federations, they have shifted the qualifiers to the UAE.
“The AFC has decided that the Group ‘B’ qualifiers will be held in UAE from May 16-24,” Lodhi told Dawn. “The UAE has a sizeable Pakistani community so hopefully it will spur us on.”
Earlier, when the AFC had been contacted, a spokesman told Dawn that an update on the issue will be “published on the website as soon as it is decided”. There had been no update on the website till the filing of this report.
The qualifiers for the AFC U-23 Championship are Pakistan’s only ‘official’ matches for the next four years with the team having seen their road to the Russia World Cup end in the first round.
Having lost the first leg 3-1 in Doha, Pakistan were held to a goalless draw by Yemen in the rearranged second leg on March 23.
With the World Cup qualifiers also merging the preliminaries for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, Pakistan have a pressure to deliver in the U-23 qualifiers with Bahraini coach Mohammed Al Shamlan having focused mainly on the junior team for the last year.
“I’ve put faith in the U-23 lot for the last year so I expect them to deliver,” Shamlan told Dawn last month.
Midfield dynamo Saddam Hussain, who impressed with a sterling performance against Yemen in the second leg, was also looking forward to the U-23 qualifiers. “We haven’t performed up to expectations in the World Cup qualifiers so we’re looking to redeem ourselves in the U-23 qualifiers,” he told Dawn.
The remaining nine groups of the U-23 Championship qualifiers were played during the international window which ran from March 23 to 31.
The nine group winners, Japan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Australia, South Korea, North Korea and China have joined hosts Qatar for the U-23 Championship which will be held from Jan 12-30 next year.
The Group ‘B’ winners will also seal their ticket to Qatar along with the five best runners-up with the U-23 Championship to also serve as qualifiers for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.