by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: If losing in the first round of the joint-qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup wasn’t bad enough, the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the woes of competition-starved Pakistan football team.
Since falling to Cambodia over two legs in June last year, Pakistan haven’t played a single competitive match.
A lot has changed in the background, with FIFA appointing a Normalisation Committee to oversee the matters of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) after removing the body led by Faisal Saleh Hayat in a bid to end several years of crisis and controversy in the game in Pakistan.
Since taking over in September, the PFF Normalisation Committee was keen on arranging competitive matches for the national team but now the global virus outbreak means that the tournaments Pakistan was due to take part in this year risk postponement.
Pakistan was due to host the SAFF Suzuki Cup this year but after the Hayat-led PFF lost power, ceding it to the Normalisation Committee, their last move was to ask South Asian football governing body SAFF to shift the tournament away from the country. It was eventually shifted to Bangladesh, which was due to host the biennial tournament from September 19 to 30.
But with global football suspended due to the rapidly-spreading coronavirus, there remains uncertainty whether the SAFF Cup would be played on the set dates.
“It is too early to decide on the fate of the SAFF Cup,” SAFF secretary general Anwarul Haque Helal told Dawn on Wednesday. “However, once the situation becomes normal, we will call the executive committee to decide on all our competitions including the SAFF Cup.”
Pakistan lost out to arch-rivals India in the semi-finals of the last edition of the SAFF Cup, the tournament marking the national team’s first competitive fixtures in three years. It came after Pakistan had lost in the first round of Asia’s marathon joint-qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
It was the first time that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had introduced that qualifying format and for South Asian minnows it offers a chance to square off against the continent’s heavyweights while ensuring a bevy of competitive matches if they progress to the second round.
Pakistan have fell at the first hurdle on both occasions and while the AFC announced a tournament — the Solidarity Cup — for teams missing out on the second round, the national team missed out on the inaugural edition of that event in 2016 after the Hayat-led body withdrew the team with a dispute over the control of the PFF rife at that time.
Pakistan are among the teams due to take part in this year’s Solidarity Cup, due to take place from November 30 to December 2. But that tournament is very likely to affected with some participants still to be confirmed.
The 10-team Solidarity Cup not only features the six teams to lose in the first round of World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying but also the four worst teams from the second round of qualifying. But with World Cup qualifiers scheduled for March and June postponed, it seems highly unlikely that the second round of qualifying could be completed by November.
“At present, all competitions are on hold,” an AFC spokesperson told Dawn on Wednesday. “The dates [for the Solidarity Cup] are as stated.”
The four teams that drop into the Solidarity Cup are those that finish bottom of the eight groups in the second round of World Cup qualifying and then lose a playoff, which is the first qualifying playoff for the Asian Cup.
Asked if the AFC was confident it could rearrange the fixtures to ensure that the four teams can be known before November, the spokesperson said: “Nothing has been changed as yet other than March and June dates.”
Despite the uncertainty, the Pakistan team is trying to maintain fitness levels during the virus lockdown in case the situation eases and the tournaments go ahead as planned.
The PFF Normalisation Committee led by Humza Khan sent the national team to Malaysia for a training tour in January in a bid to help the players gel before the international assignments this year but for now, the players are training at their homes by themselves.
“The national team coaches have instructed the players to continue dynamic training at home and are monitoring their progress,” Pakistan team manager Ayaz Butt told Dawn on Wednesday. “Of course they can’t do any running or sprinting which will affect their fitness but if they continue training, they will reduce the sudden pressure that will be put on their bodies in case we have to play immediately after the situation brightens.”
The coaches, meanwhile, are hoping that PFF Normalisation Committee keeps on doing the good work it has done since it took over whether or not international competitions resume.
“At the very least, the officials of the Normalisation Committee are trying to put football back on track,” Pakistan’s assistant coach Gohar Zaman told Dawn on Wednesday. “I was very impressed with [chairman] Humza Khan who said that competitive domestic football, instead of camps, will help produce the results we need at international stage. That’s the vision we need.”