A great opportunity [TNS]

A great opportunity [TNS]

by Alam Zeb Safi

Pakistan, who missed the 2020 Olympic qualifiers last month, have been drawn with Cambodia in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 preliminary joint qualification round-1. The first leg of the qualifiers will be held on June 6 and the return leg on June 11.

These matches are held on home and away basis. It’s good that Pakistan featured in the draws held in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on April 17. It was the first step. But it is important to think about the second step and that is Pakistan’s participation in the biggest event.

It is the dream of footballers to play in the World Cup. Pakistan are not yet capable of featuring in World Cup. For our players playing in qualifying round for the global event is a big thing. We should respect interests of our players. There are issues as FIFA has decided to send a joint fact-finding mission of FIFA and AFC to Lahore on May 28 and 29. It is expected that the world body will be able to resolve the issue which has inflicted an unprecedented damage on Pakistan’s football.

FIFA recognises Faisal Saleh Hayat as the president of Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). On the other hand a new PFF has been formed as a result of the Supreme Court-ordered elections. Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is its President. Ashfaq-led body cannot send Pakistan team abroad because it is not recognised by FIFA and the AFC. Faisal-led body can send the team but it may face legal issues at home. If the two parties don’t sit together, Pakistan’s participation issue cannot be resolved.

Sources have told me that some senior people in the Ashfaq-led PFF have conveyed a message to Faisal Saleh Hayat that although there are issues between the two groups, they should think of the footballers. The sources said that Faisal has been told through a senior most person that a committee, carrying members from both factions, should be formed to set up a training camp so that Pakistan’s participation could be ensured. The sources said that it was not yet known whether the initiative would work.

Both the federations will have to set aside their differences and ensure Pakistan’s participation in the qualifiers. After contacting the mainstream footballers of Pakistan it has been learnt that they are both happy and sad at the same time. They are happy because Pakistan were drawn with Cambodia in the World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers draws and sad because they don’t know whether they would participate in the important event.

Footballers of Pakistan team are in good shape as they feel that anything can happen. “I am training hard. It’s good that Pakistan was there in the draws and I hope both the groups will set aside their differences to ensure our participation in the qualifiers,” a key player told ‘The News on Sunday’.

Footballers also feel that time is short and if anything is to be done or any final decision is to be taken it should be taken as soon as possible.

They also suggest that if any agreement is made between the two groups regarding participation of Pakistan team then a camp should be held on foreign soil as doing so the team would get some practice matches ahead of the qualifiers.

But issues are compound. It is not that easy for the two groups to sit together and sort out such issue. They did not bother to do so in the past. We missed Olympic qualifiers last month and missed both SAFF Cup and South Asian Games a couple of years ago in India because of the same issue. No body bothered.

But let’s forget the past. It’s time to feel the pain of the players who have sacrificed their education and have adopted football as their profession. Football is their bread and butter. Those involved in the whole conflict should think if anyone snatches from them their bread and butter how they would react. They would not keep silent. But salute to the players who have been tolerating all the damage to their careers for the last four years with great patience. Because they have the hope of a better future and this is the only thing which gives them power.

If Pakistan are to feature in the World Cup and Asian Cup joint qualifiers then the authorities will have to decide quickly. Cambodia should not be under-estimated. They have been investing a lot in the game during the last few years.

But no doubt there is a great winning chance for Pakistan who last year played some good football. Faisal-led body not only managed to field the team in the Asian Games in Indonesia but also in the SAFF Cup in Dhaka where the Green-shirts finished third. The team then played a FIFA friendly against Palestine in Al-Ram. It then headed to Doha to prepare for Olympic and World Cup qualifiers at a time when Supreme Court-elections were being held in Islamabad in December. After the headquarters and accounts of the PFF were handed over to Ashfaq-led body, Pakistan’s international engagements were stopped. It is pertinent to mention here that the apex court disposed of Pakistan’s football matter on March 13 and allowed the aggrieved parties to avail themselves of the remedy available to them at the appropriate forum.

For the FIFA and the AFC delegation it would not be an easy task to resolve the issue which emerged in early 2015 as a result of the controversial elections of Punjab Football Association (PFA). Let’s hope FIFA is able to resolve the longstanding dispute. But one thing is clear. FIFA will not compromise on its principles and Pakistan may face a tough decision.

Published in The News on Sunday, 21 April 2019