By Usama Mushtaq Bhutta
Even participating after 3 years in any FIFA recognised event, Pakistan football team not only impressed its own fans but also surprised the world with its performance in SAFF Cup. The Pakistani seniors defeated Nepal and Bhutan in group stage to advance for semi final where they were ultimately knocked out by traditional rivals India.
All teams participating in the tournament were ranked above Pakistan and hence, this brilliant run will help Shaheens improve their global ranking. Despite the fact that Pakistan will leave the spot of 200s in FIFA ranking, the team will still have to play the first round of combined 2023 AFC Asian Cup and 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers which is expected to take place in the first quarter of 2019 assuming that the format of previous editions of respective events is maintained. Green shirts’ only chance to avoid this first round is to come out of last 12 teams of AFC which seems impossible right now. However, if the SAFF Cup semi finalists are able to come out of last 6 teams ranked in AFC, then they will be put in the Pot 1 of first round which means they will face a comparatively less tough team in the aforementioned round.
Though Pakistani team will face a risk of not playing any competitive football at senior level for next 4 years in case of a loss, yet it is a blessing in disguise. The first round of qualifiers is a two legged stage i.e. one home and one away. This means that we will see international football return to Pakistan in next 6 to 8 months. Lahore, which was unable to host the leg of same qualifiers in 2015 due to security reasons, may get to host a glorious game in history of Pakistan football. The only question remains whether PFF will repeat its history of not marketing the events or this time there will be something different.