By Usama Mushtaq Bhutta
Pakistan football team returned home in the early hours of August 1 after touring Bahrain for the preparation of 2018 Asian Games – Men’s football event which will take place in Indonesia from August 10 to September 1 2018. Pakistan will later participate in 2018 SAFF Cup which will take place in Bangladesh between 4 and 15 dates of September.
Pakistan’s participation in Asian Games and SAFF Cup, the following year, is of immense importance as these tournaments will be Shaheens’ first and second competitive events respectively after a gap of 3 years. It is one of the major contributing factors to the fact that the aforementioned tournaments are getting much hype among Pakistani football fans.
There is no second opinion that Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) should do their best to prepare the team for these events. But still there is something more important than Asian Games and SAFF Cup which should be prime focus of PFF right now.
It is the combined qualifiers for 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup. The qualifying event for these big tournaments may start in the first quarter of 2019 because the qualifiers of the previous editions of the respective tournaments kicked off in March 2015. However, the official dates for the event are yet to be announced by FIFA.
Currently, this event is most important for Pakistan football because it will decide the future roadmap for the Green Shirts. This event, whose format has changed since qualifiers of World Cup 2018, has a proper qualifying structure consisting of 4 rounds unlike Asian Games and SAFF Cup. A team cannot proceed to the next round without winning the previous one.
Like 2015, Pakistan is one of the 10 lowest ranked teams in AFC that will participate in the first round of the qualifiers. If Pakistan is knocked out in this round, then Green shirts will not only lose participation in World Cup but also in Asian Cup. Moreover, Pakistan will have to wait for another 4 years in order to have a hope to participate in these major tournaments for the very first time.
In 2015, Pakistan was drawn with Yemen for the first round then. Pakistan played both away and home legs in Doha, Qatar on 12 and 23 dates of March respectively. Pakistan couldn’t play its home leg in Lahore due to security concerns. Pakistan lost away leg by 3 – 1 and drew the home leg by 0 – 0. Hassan Bashir’s spot kick was the consolation goal for Shaheens in the first leg and it was the first ever goal scored by Pakistan in World Cup qualifiers.