By Umaid Wasim – DAWN
KARACHI: Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) secretary Col. Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi disclosed the country’s football governing body never had qualification to the 2018 FIFA World Cup on its agenda but admitted featuring in the qualifiers would go a long way in team development.
The PFF has outlined its ‘Vision 2022’ plan through which it hopes to reach the finals in Qatar, Lodhi said, adding that it is working to improve the national team’s dismal FIFA ranking of 188 — well below its average position of 169 and just four above its lowest ever placing of 192.
Their FIFA ranking means they are 43rd in Asia, only above Mongolia, Brunei Darussalam and Bhutan and with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) set to make the 2018 qualifying draw according to the ranking, Pakistan will be facing a qualifying playoff to get into the main draw as early as March next year.
The provisional date for the first round playoff draw is Feb 10 and had Pakistan maintained their position of 159 in May 2014, they would’ve avoided the playoff and gone straight into the second round which sees eight five-team groups.
The likelihood is that Pakistan will be one of 12 teams in the playoff round with potential opponents — if the rankings were to stay the same till Feb 10 — being India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Chinese Taipei and Nepal.
Pakistan have never made it to the second round of World Cup qualifying. Add to that the fact that the World Cup qualifying campaign also serves as qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup, next year is crucial for Pakistan football.
“Our ranking has gone down because our senior team hasn’t played many games recently,” Lodhi told Dawn in an interview on the sidelines of the second-division Pakistan Football Federation League (PFFL) final at the Dr Mohammad Ali Shah Stadium on Saturday.
“Our focus over the last year was mainly on the U-23 team especially with the Asian Games taking place. That is in fact our senior team but of course since we were playing U-23 matches, and obtained good results, it didn’t count in the rankings.”
So how about improving the ranking before Feb 10 by organising a series of friendlies?
“We will play two matches against Afghanistan in the first week of February,” Lodhi said. “But we cannot have anything more than that. It is certain that we have very less time and there is no chance of escaping the bottom 12 of the rankings.
“I’m hopeful though that the team, especially if we call our foreign-based lot, can get through to the second round. But our main aim is to prepare the team for the 2022 campaign.”
Calling up the foreign-based players represents a U-turn on the part of head-coach Mohammad Al Shamlan who in the last year refrained from calling them up instead focusing on players from the local teams.
“Shamlan has said that if the foreign-based players can confirm their availability for at least ten days of the training camp [which begins from Jan 10 till March], the will be considered,” Lodhi informed.
“We’re hopeful we’ll have Zesh Rehman, Adnan Ahmed, Hassan Bashir, Mohammed Ali, Shabir Khan and Nabil Aslam for the qualifiers.”
The training camp will also see the team touring Qatar after the PFF inked a deal with the Qatar FA earlier this month, Lodhi added, saying if the team were to the reach the second round of the qualifiers it would help in team development.
Qualification to the second round might see Pakistan face the likes of Asian giants Japan, Iran, Australia or South Korea.
“Playing against the continent’s best always helps in players getting great exposure,” he said. “Rubbing your shoulders with top players always increases the players’ confidence and helps in team development.
“We’re building this team for 2022 and it will certainly accelerate our progress. 2018 was never our aim.”
Barring a miracle, Pakistan have no chance of finishing top of their group in the second round or even amongst the four best-placed runners-up in the eight groups.
Those teams will advance to the third round of the 2018 qualifying and secure a berth for the 2019 Asian Cup. The next best 24 teams will then fight it out for the remaining 12 slots with the 2019 edition being expanded to 24 teams instead of the usual 16.
“If the team becomes solid, I don’t think there could be a reason why we can’t start winning and achieving more,” Lodhi added.
What if that winning run takes them to the Asian Cup? “That would be a bonus,” Lodhi concluded, “… because the 2018 World Cup or the 2019 Asian Cup was never on our agenda.”
Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2014