By Umaid Wasim – DAWN
KARACHI: In June next year, football fans in Pakistan will be mulling over which team to root for at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
In another four years, when the football extravaganza will be held in Russia, fans here would be faced with the same dilemma.
But Faisal Saleh Hayat is hopeful that fans of the beautiful game in the country would be supporting the Pakistan football team in the 2022 edition of the tournament which will be held in Qatar.
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) president believes that the national team’s improved performances of late and the increasing appeal of the game in the country mean there is no reason to be pessimistic about Pakistan’s chances of making it to world football’s top table in nine year’s time.
“I’m fairly hopeful about our chances to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar,” Faisal told Dawn in a wide-ranging interview in which he also discussed the possibility of the event being shifted to winter.
“The national team has made good progress and PFF’s investment in youth has reaped its rewards.”
Faisal’s disclosure comes despite Pakistan exiting the recently-held SAFF Championships in the group stage and the U-16 team failing to defend their SAFF U-16 Championship title last month.
Pakistan slumped to 170th in the FIFA rankings following the SAFF Championship in Nepal but Faisal believes that the quality of football played by the national team has improved.
“Sometimes you need luck on your side,” Faisal said. “At the SAFF Championships, we lost by the slightest of margins.
“We lost due to an own goal [in the 1-0 defeat] against India, conceded a late equaliser to Nepal [for a 1-1 draw] before beating Bangladesh [2-1] in the final game.
“But our overall performance was actually good. We dominated India and Nepal and showed great fighting spirit to come back from a goal down to win against Bangladesh.
“It is an indication that we can be amongst the top contenders in South Asia and if we continue improving in the same vein, we could be in contention for a spot in the 2022 World Cup.”
With Asia’s heavyweights Japan, South Korea and Iran getting increasingly competitive, Pakistan’s improvement would have to come exponentially if they are to compete with those sides in qualifiers for the 2022 event.
Faisal believes the inclination of the youth towards the sport, and the PFF’s focus towards developing youngsters will be a contributing factor towards Pakistan’s 2022 aspirations.
“We won the inaugural SAFF U-16 Championship [in 2011] but unfortunately our youngsters couldn’t repeat that performance in this year’s tournament,” he said.
“At junior levels, our boys can compete with any team in Asia so what we need to do now is to groom them into winners.
“Football has captivated the youth and there are many up-and-coming players. We’re trying to channel that talent in the right direction, work on their technical aspects and guide them thoroughly through several of our initiatives.
“That way, when the current crop of national team players matures, we’ll have another strong lot vying for a spot in the national team and further on. That’s our vision.”
If the Pakistan football team does qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, there are question marks regarding when the spectacle should be held.
Qatar’s searing heat has led to calls that the World Cup should be held in the winter, when the temperatures are cooler in the Gulf state.
European countries agreed on shifting the Cup to winter but that decision would have a big effect on the continent’s top clubs.
“It is a big decision,” Faisal, who is a member of FIFA’s Strategic Committee, said. “It would disrupt the European — and the world football calendar.”
The matter is set to come up for debate at the FIFA Executive Committee meeting in Zurich in October.
If a decision is taken in Zurich, the Strategic Committee will meet in Marrakech in December to decide on the modus operandi for that shift.
“The Strategic Committee will meet in December during the FIFA Club World Cup,” Faisal said. “The Qatar World Cup will be a major talking point there as European Clubs Association (ECA) president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who is against shifting the event, will be attending the meeting.”
The PFF president was also full of praise for FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, whose current term as chief of world’s football governing body ends in 2015 with the Swiss blowing hot and cold whether he will stand for re-election.
“Blatter remains the unchallenged leader of global football,” Faisal said. “His vision and approach has helped the game reach new heights and Pakistan is a beneficiary of projects initiated by him.
“When he leaves, he will leave a huge legacy and very big shoes to fill.”