Pakistan returns to SAFF Cup, face Nepal in search of elusive win [PREVIEW]

Pakistan returns to SAFF Cup, face Nepal in search of elusive win [PREVIEW]

by Faizan Liaquat

It was 23rd March 2015 when the Pakistan national football team last played a full international competitive game. It was a tame 0-0 draw against Yemen in ‘return leg’ played in Bahrain for 1st round Asian qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in which Pakistan were eliminated 3-1 on aggregate. Almost 3 years and 5 months in which the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) faced multiple political crises, Pakistan NT is finally back in action. That too in time for the SAFF Suzuki Cup 2018 that begins today 4 September at the Bangabandhu Stadium in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Pakistan kick off the event at 1500 PST today with a Group A class against Nepal, that will be broadcast live on DSport as well as the SAFF Cup official Youtube page. Host Bangladesh face Bhutan later that day in the other Group A clash. The three-team Group B includes defending champions India alongside former winners Sri Lanka and Maldives. Afghanistan, who finished runner up in last edition in 2015, will not take part having left SAFF to join CAFA that same year.

India, who are likely to send a young side this time, have already won the event a record seven times and are also highest ranked SAFF nation in FIFA rankings at 96th in the world. Pakistan is the lowest at 201st due to no international action for over 3 years.

Pakistan have had a disappointing SAFF Cup history. The Shaheens’ highest finish was way back in the 1997 SAFF Gold Cup held in Nepal when Pakistan finished 3rd after beating Sri Lanka 1-0 in 3rd place game. Last time Pakistan managed to go further from group stage was in 2005 edition as hosts when they reached the semis.  The subsequent 4 tournaments (2008, 2009, 2011, 2013) saw Pakistan remaining stuck in group stage whilst withdrawing in 2015 edition due to PFF crisis.

PFF announced the squad of 20 players on 30th August including recent Asian Games 2018 youth players who will be making their senior debuts, and senior internationals from both domestic and foreign leagues. Saddam Hussain who recently captained Pakistan U23 in the Asiad will also captain the senior team for the first time. Previous skipper Denmark-based striker Hassan Bashir is now vice-captain and currently top goal scorer in squad with 4 goals in 15 caps for Pakistan. Fellow Danish-Pakistani senior players in the squad are goalkeeper Yousuf Butt who was surprisingly not selected for Asian Games, and attacker Muhammad Ali with the trio having represented Pakistan in previous years.

Star player Kaleemullah, currently in Turkish lower league club, is not the part of this squad due to an ongoing dispute with PFF officials. Another Danish-Pakistani star who is expected to make his debut is 22-year old FC Helsingor winger Adnan Mohammad (aka M Adnan Yaqoob) though he is expected to miss out the Nepal game at least due to issues with his visa not allowing him to join the team in Dhaka earlier. Perhaps the most high profile return to Pakistan NT is experienced UK-born ex-Fulham defender Zesh Rehman after almost 5 years due to club commitments in Malaysia, England, and Hong Kong leagues.

Hassan Bashir with likely partner Saadullah up front, with goalkeepers Saqib Hanif (who played in Asian Games) and Ahsanullah likely to be backups to Yousaf Butt. NBP fullback Faisal Iqbal also returns to the squad where he and Zesh will likely try to help debutants in 21 years old WAPDA defender Umar Hayat, and Army’s Shehbaz Younis try to avoid the mistakes of Asian Games. Another defender in the list is USA-based Abdullah Qazi though he will likely be a back-up option.

WAPDA midfielder Fahim Ahmed will also be likely to make his debut as a substitute given Saddam Hussain will likely partner Mehmood Khan in midfield and Muhammad Adil, Muhammad Ali, and Muhammad Riaz, and hopefully Adnan being handy winger options for Pakistan coach Jose Antonio Nogueira.

Surprisingly, players like Murtuza Hussain, Umair Ali and Rajab Ali were left out of the final squad that would have made it 23-man as is usually allowed in international football. Murtuza, a proven goal scorer in domestic football, would have added extra boost to attacking options.

Pakistan has had a mixed record against Nepal overall. With 15 full international clashes between the two, both sides have won 5 apiece with 5 draws. Having gotten a lot of confidence beating Nepal U23s 2-1 in the Asian Games recently, Pakistan would be hoping for something similar in their opening game in SAFF Suzuki Cup. However, given many of the squad will be playing together after a very long time, the team should err on the side of caution and avoid being sloppy with possession.

Last time Pakistan won an opening game in the event was as hosts in 2005, and coincidentally that was also the last time the Shaheens reached the semi-finals. So winning the first game is very important, especially to have cushion for the pressure cooker tie against host Bangladesh in next game on 6 September.

Fun fact is, Pakistan has not had a good record at Dhaka’s Bangabandhu National Stadium either having had a miserable group stage exit in 2009 SAFF Cup that was hosted there, as well as a monsoon-ridden rain-ravaged 3-0 defeat to Bangladesh in 2011 for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers first round (Pakistan went out 3-0 on aggregate after a 0-0 draw in return leg in Lahore). Would the curse continue for the Shaheens?

Pakistan vs Nepal record in SAFF Cup is below:

July 16, 1993

Pakistan    1 – 1  Nepal


March 29, 1995

Nepal   2 – 0      Pakistan


September 4, 1997

Nepal   0 – 2      Pakistan


June 7, 2008

Pakistan   1 – 4         Nepal


6 December 2011

Pakistan    1 – 1         Nepal


3 September 2013

Pakistan     1–1           Nepal


The complete squad list is below:


GK          Yousuf Butt

GK          Ahsanullah Ahmed

GK          Saqib Hanif



DF          Mohammad Umar Hayat

DF          Mohsin Ali

DF          Abdullah Qazi

DF          Zesh Rehman

DF          Shehbaz Younus

DF          Naveed Ahmed

DF          Faisal Iqbal



MF         Bilawal-ur-Rehman

MF         Saadullah Khan

MF         Mehmood Khan

MF         Saddam Hussain

MF         Faheem Ahmed

MF         Muhammad Adil



FW         Muhammad Ali

FW         Mohammad Riaz

FW         Hassan Bashir

FW         Adnan Mohammad