by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: Qatar will get the first action of the FIFA World Cup it hosts in about three-and-half years’ time on June 11 after it was announced that Pakistan will play the home leg of its first-round qualifier for the 2022 showpiece against Cambodia in Doha.
The announcement came in the early hours of Thursday by the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) faction that is recognised by global football body FIFA.
“We can confirm the venue for the match has been approved by FIFA,” a FIFA spokesperson told Dawn on Thursday, referring to the Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium — the 12,000-seat venue that is home to Qatari clubs Al-Ahli and Al-Sailiya. The venue is not among the eight venues for the 2022 World Cup, which FIFA said on Wednesday will remain a 32-team event.
The announcement to play the home leg in Doha confirmed long-running rumours that the PFF led by Faisal Saleh Hayat, who is accepted by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation as Pakistan’s football chief, was looking to move the home leg away from the country.
Pakistan play Cambodia in Phnom Penh in the first leg on June 6.
The Asian qualifiers for the World Cup also act as preliminaries for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and progressing to the second round is crucial as it ensures four years of competitive fixtures for the national team.
Pakistan missed out on that opportunity last time around, losing to Yemen in the first round. Then, Pakistan were due to play Yemen at home in the second leg in Lahore but the game was shifted to Bahrain following unrest after twin bombings in churches in the Punjab capital.
This time, though, the reasons are political. The faction led by Hayat isn’t recognised in the country after the Supreme Court held elections of the PFF in December last year that saw Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah elected president.
Those elections came at the end of a nearly three-year-long legal battle over the reins of the PFF but FIFA hasn’t accepted the result of those polls and it due to send a joint fact-finding mission with the AFC next week to talk to both parties and come to a final conclusion.
In the meantime, both factions of the PFF have organised separate training camps with national team players split evenly between the two. While the Ashfaq-led PFF has organised the camp in Islamabad, the Hayat faction is holding camp in Bahrain.
FIFA did not comment on the reasoning for approving Pakistan to hold the second leg away from home at a time when the situation in the country is ripe for international sport. Instead it referred Dawn for “further information and reasoning on the matter”.
“Home teams nominate their venues for matches,” an AFC spokesperson told Dawn when asked for the change of venue which originally was Lahore.
The move of the Hayat faction to organise the match in Qatar also raises questions over the costs of the whole operation. After Ashfaq seized control of the PFF, both FIFA and the AFC had announced that they were suspending funding to the Pakistan’s football governing body.
“The costs and choice of venue are questions for PFF,” the AFC spokesperson said when asked if the Asian body was providing funds to the Hayat faction to hold the game. FIFA did not answer whether it had resumed funding to the PFF.
In a press conference in Lahore a few weeks ago, the Ashfaq-led body had slammed the AFC for its role in Pakistan’s football woes by providing funding to the Hayat faction, including paying the fees of their lawyers.
The spokesperson of the Hayat faction did not comment on holding the home leg in Doha. The move will once again see Pakistan’s football fans missing out on seeing their team in action.