by Ali Ahsan – Editor at FPDC
So we are finally here. The long road for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup begins tomorrow on Thursday, 6 June 2019. The 12 lowest ranked Asian sides face-off in a two-legged playoff to determine which 6 teams head to Round 2 groups of the joint qualifiers scheduled for September 2019.
Pakistan were fortunate enough to avoid the toughest team in the preliminaries Malaysia and instead faces hosts Cambodia tomorrow in the first leg at the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium with 4:30 PM PST kick-off time. The return ‘home’ leg for Pakistan will be played at Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar on 11 June. More on that later.
A completely new look Pakistan team under its Brazilian coach Jose Antonio Nogueira still chase a first ever World Cup qualifier win since their first ever WCQ participation back in 1989 for Italia 1990 with only 4 draws in 30 qualification games. Last time Pakistan got knocked out in first round of these joint qualifiers 3-1 on aggregate by Yemen back in March 2015 for the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup.
With the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) divided due to FIFA refusing to accept the Supreme Court of Pakistan mandated PFF elections held at end of 2018, there were concerns that just like our youth teams, the senior men’s team may be withdrawn by Faisal Saleh Hayat’s FIFA-recognised PFF faction as Ashfaq Hussain Shah’s SC-recognised faction would be denied entry by FIFA and AFC anyway.
However, after months of speculation the Hayat faction managed to begin the Pakistan camp in secrecy abroad in Bahrain – the home country of AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa where Bahrain FA also pays for Nogueira and his staff’s salary for 3 years since their appointment in 2018. Pakistani players from home and abroad were registered and called up to attend the camp under Nogueira. Also, the actual home leg for Pakistan was moved away to Qatar – the 2022 World Cup hosts. Both moves not only mean Hayat’s faction somewhat avoids legal troubles with Ashfaq’s faction at home but also has been shown as proof of how much influence and friends the newly elected AFC Vice President from South Asia enjoys in Asian football now.
Naturally, such moves struck a nerve with Ashfaq’s faction as they organized their own national team training camp at Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad and called up more than 30 domestic players from Pakistan Premier League department sides and some more fresh faces from an Inter-City Championship held a weeks prior. The reasoning for the SC-recognised PFF holding its own camp under former Pakistan coach and SSGC coach Tariq Lutfi was to ensure some preparation in the off-chance that a joint FIFA/AFC delegation visiting Pakistan to meet both factions could side with them instead of Hayat’s. The delegation did visit, a month late in May, met both factions and reports back to FIFA’s Member Associations Committee on tackling PFF’s long standing divisions although that could be a few months down the line.
Given the legal complexity of a divided PFF holding their own camps, many domestic players followed the directives of the SC-mandated faction as well as their parent department’s to report to the Islamabad camp. Only a mere handful of domestic players like Umer Hayat, Muhammad Riaz, and Mehmood Khan etc (8 in total) were able to quietly leave the country prior to the camps being announced while senior starters like captain Saddam Hussain and none of PPL title winners KRL players like Umair Ali, Izhar Ullah, Iftikhar Ali Khan could leave the country. Those who joined the camp in Bahrain face threats of disciplinary action by Ashfaq’s faction over disobeying its call-up even though Islamabad camp was always going to be a pointless exercise meant to merely force most domestic players to stay at home.
This meant that for the first time, Hayat’s PFF had to call up a significant majority of overseas Pakistani players (13!!) whereby in past they remained hesitant of not calling up more than a handful. The sole exception, of course, being Kaleemullah Khan who was banished from national team by Hayat over exchanging criticisms and angry words this past year despite Kaleemullah now plying his trade in Iraq Premier League side Al-Najaf FC.
On paper, Pakistan now has a credibly potent attack with striker Hassan Bashir upfront and supported by attacking threats of fellow Danes in Adnan Mohammad and Mohammed Ali behind him. Off the bench, Guiseley AFC’s Tabish Hussain – who turns 18 on 6 June – and WAPDA’s Ahmed Faheem can be good attacking threats. The two Nabi brothers in Rahis and Samir – younger brothers to former England youth international Adil Nabi – have switched to Pakistan and could well be starting in midfield and defence tomorrow. Veteran defender Zesh Rehman (ex-Fulham) will be captaining the side tomorrow with Rahis Nabi partnering him with Yousuf Butt in goal as always and his brother Yaqoob marshalling the midfield.
However, Cambodia having a mixture of youth and senior players, will be a tough side to beat at home due to an expected loud support under newly appointed coach and ex-Japan superstar Keisuke Honda. Cambodian players may not be as physically imposing as some of our expat players, but they will quick and pacey that can cause a lot of troubles to Pakistan’s defence. Lack of proper fullbacks on either flank means added pressure on Zesh and Yousuf to play out of their skins to deny Cambodian attacks that would likely involve a lot of wingplay. One wonders why Hayat’s PFF did not search for viable fullback options given even the domestic lot will likely struggle in keeping defensive shapes. Another Danish winger, Shabban Hussain, had to be sent home because he could not get his Pakistani passport sorted otherwise he could have been used as a right-back for both legs, while KRL’s Umair Ali has shown promise as a makeshift left back but he remained stuck in Islamabad camp. WAPDA’s Umer Hayat and USA-based Abdullah Qazi could be handed fullback duties though they will have to work harder against an opposition whose quality would be much higher than the level they are used to playing.
Given many of this new look Pakistan team will be playing together at such a level for the very first time, it will be a game of nerves and holding possession and slowing the pace of the game will be key. Hosts Cambodia should be treated as favourites given their home advantage and playing regular match experiences, with this Pakistan team merely playing a few practice matches involving the Bahrain U23s and a local second division club. The physicality of our players and any chances must be availed if we are to overturn 30 years of embarrassment, humiliation, and frustration in World Cup qualifiers. Too many times has Pakistan seen the first leg decide matters in the opposition’s favour (Kyrgyzstan for 2006, Iraq for 2010, Bangladesh for 2014, and Yemen for 2018). Sneaking in an away goal and keeping the scoreline in check is necessary to ensure Pakistan has something to play for in the home leg and have a shot at not only breaking the duck of no WCQ wins but also move to the second round where the team can play a guaranteed eight qualification matches at minimum.
Prediction: Cambodia 2-1 Pakistan
Speculated Pakistan line-up tomorrow:
Goalkeepers: Yousuf Butt, Ahsanullah Khan, Muzzamil Hussain
Defenders: Zesh Rehman (c), Rahis Nabi, Umer Hayat, Abdullah Qazi, Ali Niazi
Midfielders: Yaqoob Butt, Samir Nabi, Mehmood Khan, Ali Uzair, Muhammad Riaz, Navid Rahman
Attackers: Hassan Bashir, Adnan Mohammad Yaqoob, Tabish Hussain, Mohammed Ali, Ahmed Faheem