On the right track [TNS]

On the right track [TNS]

by Alam Zeb Safi

This year is very important for Pakistan football. The national senior men’s team is scheduled to feature in the SAFF Cup as well as in the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

SAFF Cup will be held in Bengaluru, India, from June 21 to July 3 while the World Cup Qualifiers will be held in October.

The FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee is seriously targeting these events, especially the World Cup Qualifiers where it wants to see its brigade qualify for the second round.

Returning to the international circuit last year, Pakistan football team has played a couple of international matches — against Nepal in November and against Maldives only a few days ago in Maldives. Although the result in both matches was against Pakistan, the exposure was extremely needed for the national team which has mostly been inactive during the last seven years because of infighting among various factions which also forced FIFA to suspend Pakistan twice.

The authorities are mulling an option to avail themselves of the June FIFA window and it is expected that the team will tour Saudi Arabia for a few matches before moving to India to feature in the SAFF Cup the same month.

Most recently, on the sidelines of the FIFA Congress in Rwanda, NC’s delegation led by its chairman Haroon Malik also held a meeting with the representatives of Indian football governing body (AIFF) regarding SAFF Cup and the visa matter which is very important when it comes to India and Pakistan.

On the cricket front the relations between the two countries are too strained due to political matters. It is hoped that in football, India will facilitate Pakistan’s participation in the biennial event.

SAFF Cup participation is very important for Pakistan as the team will get a much-needed exposure ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers which is the biggest event for Pakistan.

The team is in rebuilding phase with mostly youngsters in it who have the spark to challenge tough teams but they need experience and exposure.

Head coach Shehzad Anwar is also diligently using foreign-based players which I think is the best option at a time when Pakistan football has passed through a long activity drought.

It would be of high value if foreign-based players joined Pakistan camp at least one week before any assignment in order to adjust to the team’s environment. This would boost their coordination with the rest of the line-up.

During an interview with me a few days ago head coach Shehzad Anwar was happy with the way the team is being constituted as the time progresses. He said that the team is almost complete, having all the required resources, adding that a few more diaspora players will be given chances in the June FIFA window.

“Our team is complete in every respect and what we need is exposure. I am confident we will be able to prepare a solid lot for the World Cup Qualifiers,” Shehzad said.

“We have six goalkeepers and of them three are seniors and three under-22. We have also approached UAE-based goalie Hamza Zahid, who plays for Al-Rams Club, and he will also be available for us for the June FIFA window,” Shehzad said.

“Easah Suliman, a defender who plays in Portugal, will also be available in June. He has completed his documents,” Shehzad said.

“Attacking midfielders Otis Khan from Grimsby Town, which featured recently in the FA Cup, and Adil Nabi, who plays in Athens, will also be with us in June,” the coach said.

“We have time at our disposal and in the meantime if we get any home-grown experienced player in his top shape then we will welcome him to the squad,” Shehzad said when asked whether there will be any room for experienced footballers to return to the side for the SAFF Cup and World Cup Qualifiers.

Shehzad said it is expected that his charges will be able to get ten to 12 matches before the World Cup Qualifiers which is the main target of Pakistan.

Having the assistance of a Brazilian trainer and a goalkeeping coach, Shehzad is expected to be able to form a fighting force for the World Cup Qualifiers.

NC is doing well for building a smart team and the best thing is that it has provided quality facilities to the players and is giving them enough incentives which are extremely needed if you are to develop the country’s football. After the Maldives tour players now are taking off in Ramadan and will reassemble in Lahore from May 1 to start preparation for the coming events.

As National Games are also around the corner and some players of Pakistan team will also represent their departments in the biennial event so I think a full-fledged camp will be only possible after these Games are conducted in Quetta — from May 15-23.

Meanwhile, Pakistan women football team is also set to feature in the AFC Women Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Tajikistan.

Pakistan have been placed in Group E with Philippines, Hong Kong and Tajikistan. The Pakistan team, which was in Dubai till writing of this article, is scheduled to face Philippines on April 5. This will be followed by their game against Hong Kong on April 8 and Tajikistan on April 11. All the group matches will be held at Hisor Central Stadium.


Published in The News on Sunday, 2 April 2023