KARACHI: It’s a road Pakistan have never been on; one on which reaching the next destination would be an extraordinary achievement.
On Wednesday, the national women’s football team makes its maiden appearance at the Olympic qualifying tournament and the first-round preliminaries for next year’s Paris Games will see it face opponents from Central, Southeast and East Asia for the first time since its inception over a decade ago.
As the lowest-ranked team in Group ‘E’ — with only the winners progressing to the next round of qualifying, Pakistan have little chance on paper.
Their opener against Asian champions Philippines will see teams at the opposite ends of the rankings clash in Hisor, Tajikistan.
Hong Kong are their second opponents in the group with that match coming on Saturday with Pakistan wrapping up their group commitments with a clash against the hosts on April 11.
Philippines created history last year when they won the AFC Women’s Asian Cup; a victory that saw them qualify for this year’s Women’s World Cup and one achieved thanks to a heady mix of local and foreign-based players. It’s a model Pakistan are looking to adopt successfully here but it hasn’t been easy.
Pakistan are missing England-based forward Nadia Khan, who’s been on the team’s last two international assignments since its eight-year international isolation ended last year but is out after her documentation — including her Pakistan passport — was not completed with the Asian Football Confederation.
They do, however, have Isra Khan in their ranks with the US-based striker set to deputise for Nadia.
Separated by 112 placed from the Philippines, ranked 49th in the FIFA rankings, Pakistan’s chances of getting a result seem minimal.
For a team that has now undergone extensive training — and with no expense spared — since it broke its international drought at the SAFF Women’s Championship last year, it needs to show some progress.
For the Philippines, who went past the first round of qualifiers for the Olympics last time around, the three matches in Tajikistan are a chance to fine-tune their preparations ahead of the World Cup, these coming after they squared up against Iceland, Scotland and Wales at the Pinatar Cup.
Victories in Tajikistan will be important to build the morale of a side that lost all three matches against European opposition in Spain.
“We’ve said time and time again, we’re not going there to participate — we’re going there to compete,” Philippines defender Hali Long told the Philippine Daily Inquirer last week, looking ahead to their participation at the World Cup. “And to compete, we have to win games. We have to set goals for ourselves.”
The fact that the Philippines are the team to beat in the group is not lost on Hong Kong head coach Ricardo Rambo.
“The Philippines will be the favourites as they will also be using the tournament as preparation for the World Cup,” Rambo was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post last week.
“We lost to them 2-1 in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in 2021, and so we are not totally without a chance this time.”