by Alam Zeb Safi
Despite turmoil at home, Pakistan football team is all set to break its 29-year winless drought when it takes on Cambodia in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers two-legged first round to be held on home and away basis.
In the first leg the two low-ranked sides come across at Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 6. This game will be held on artificial grass, according to a Pakistan team official. Pakistan will host Cambodia in the home leg at the Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium, Doha, on June 11. Pakistan opted to host its home leg in Qatar because of the football conflict at home.
FIFA-recognised Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) faces stiff opposition from Ashfaq-led PFF which came into existence as a result of the Supreme Court-ordered elections in December last year.
The same body has held a camp at Islamabad which carries eight such players who could make it to the national team for the World Cup Qualifiers.
Pakistan team is scheduled to fly out of Bahrain for Cambodia on Monday (tomorrow).
With most of the home-based players engaged at the Islamabad camp, the FIFA-recognised PFF opted for the best available foreign-based stuff along with ten home-based players.
Most of the players from abroad have played for the country for the last few years. The inclusion of two England-born brothers, Samir Nabi and Rahis Nabi, and England-born winger Tabish Hussain is a big boost to the team. It is highly expected that former Fulham defender Zeeshan Rehman will lead the side which played an unofficial game against Bahrain’s Under-23 team the other day which the Green-shirts lost 1-2 despite taking lead through Ahmed Fahim.
Cambodia are ranked 173rd in the world.
Due to a long barren patch Pakistan stand at the 200th spot.
Cambodia are in great shape as they have played eight matches since January this year. They are being managed by former Japan international Keisuke Honda. I remember that Honda playing as an attacking midfielder scored the first goal in Japan’s 3-2 win over Pakistan in the 2006 Doha Asian Games when Jaffar Khan was in the cage.
Pakistan remain a force despite having missed international competition in the last few months due to the conflict at home.
The team has been re-grouped by the soft-spoken Brazilian coach Jose Antonio Nogueira who knows how to keep his players gelled.
Nogueira may not be a big name in coaching but he has the rare quality of reading the psyche of his charges and use them accordingly.
Danish strikers Mohammad Ali and Hasan Bashir, former Danish Superliga winger Adnan Mohammad Yaqub, gloveman Yousuf Butt, England-born wingers Tabish Hussain, Rahis Nabi and Zesh Rahman are in top shape. With the home-based players, they are expected to enable Pakistan to create history by qualifying for the second round.
The lowest-ranked 12 teams of Asia have been put in the first round of the qualifiers.
The six winners will join the 34 top nations of the continent in the second round to be held in September.
Had Ashfaq-led body released such players as Saddam Hussain, Mansoor Khan and Saqib Hanif Pakistan team would have been strengthened a lot.
Since debut in the 1990 World Cup qualifiers, Pakistan have so far played 27 matches. They lost 23 and drew four, a very poor run.
Meanwhile the football conflict at home is expected to be resolved soon. A four-member FIFA-AFC joint delegation met with all parties concerned during its stay at Lahore on May 28 and 29. The mission was headed by Head of MA Governance FIFA Luca Nicola and included Senior Manager MA Governance and Services FIFA Alexander Holt, Deputy Director Legal AFC Andrew Mercer and Senior MA Manager AFC Purushotam Kattel.
The mission will submit its proposals with the relevant FIFA body.
This was the second time that FIFA sent a mission to Pakistan.
It had sent a delegation in August 2015, the year in which the conflict began. Initially, Ashfaq-led body decided that it would not meet the mission unless its vice-president Naved Haider was allowed to be part of its team.
The mission had refused to meet Naved because he was recently suspended for five years by Punjab Football Association (PFA).
However, on May 28, the Ashfaq-led body decided in its emergency Congress to send its legal team comprising Chaudhry Zulfiqar and Taha Ali Zai to meet the mission.
On the final day of meetings, Ashfaq himself decided to meet the delegation.
The mission held talks on both days with the team of FIFA-recognised PFF headed by its Secretary General Col Ahmed Yar Lodhi. FIFA-recognised PFF president Faisal Saleh Hayat also discussed with the mission the issues in detail. His legal counsel Afzal Khan and some other Congress members of FIFA-recognised PFF also held meetings with the mission.
Pakistan Olympic Association’s (POA) president Lt Gen (retd) Arif Hassan and secretary general Khalid Mehmood also held a meeting with the mission.
I have written before that POA could have played a key role in dispute resolution had both rivals approached them for arbitration.
Both groups did not avail themselves of this option because they believed that FIFA rules did not allow them to do so.
Both parties hope that FIFA will decide in their favour.
The mission should also have taken input from senior journalists as they could have given it the correct picture. Nevertheless, I hope FIFA will announce a balanced decision which will help end the issue for ever.