by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: The schedule for this year’s SAFF Championship might have been finalised but Pakistan may yet have a chance to participate in the South Asia’s premier football tournament provided the FIFA suspension on the country is lifted.
The biennial tournament was initially slated to be held in Bangladesh last year but was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and eventually shifted to the Maldives, where it will kick off from Oct 1.
The South Asian Football Federation, last week, announced a revised schedule with the tournament’s final shifted to Oct 16 from Oct 13 and dates of some other fixtures of the round-robin stage changed.
The absence of Pakistan, which was suspended by FIFA in April this year, and Bhutan, which opted out due to Covid restrictions, meant the seven-team field was reduced to five and forced the organisers, who in the past divided teams into two groups, to use a round-robin format for the remaining teams with the top two to contest the final.
But Pakistan, who haven’t played a single competitive match since June 2019 when they lost to Cambodia over two legs in the first round of Asia’s joint qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, could still take part.
“I will have no objection to include Pakistan [if the suspension is lifted],” SAFF president Kazi Salahuddin told Dawn on Friday.
However, with just over a month before the SAFF Championship kicks off, it seems it will be a race against time with FIFA insistent that the ban will only be lifted once the headquarters of the Pakistan Football Federation are returned to the Normalisation Committee appointed by the global football body to put football back on track in the country.
The NC had confirmed Pakistan’s entry to the SAFF Championship back in March, days before it was forced to vacate the PFF headquarters after the PFF of Ashfaq Hussain Shah, which came to power after an election held by the Supreme Court, seized control.
Even if the situation changes dramatically, and Pakistan’s ban is overturned, the general feeling remains that preparing the team and putting the logistics in place would be difficult.
“I think it’s too late now to consider,” SAFF secretary general Anwarul Haque Helal told Dawn on Friday. “However, the Executive Committee will decide on this.”
Ashfaq’s PFF had initially handed over control of the headquarters to the NC upon its initial appointment in September 2019. It cited the NC’s failure to hold fresh elections during its 18-month tenure as the reason for taking over control. NC members continue to hold talks with the government to free the headquarters but no headway has been made on that front.
The crisis has also been exacerbated by FIFA seeking nominations from the warring groups of the PFF for NC members instead of selecting neutral ones and further appointing a chairman with commercial interests in Pakistan football.