by Shahrukh Sohail
After years of agony that has involved multiple bans, a complete lack of football activity and destruction of careers for footballers and other stakeholders, Pakistan burst back on to the global football stage in November 2022 with a friendly against Nepal.
Though the team lost the game 1-0 in Kathmandu, it was a much-needed return to the international game after three and a half years in the wilderness. Since then, a new hope has emerged in the shape of a young, but talented team, led by head coach Shahzad Anwar, who is also the country’s only AFC Pro License holder.
After the initial 1-0 defeat that saw a drastically revamped team that has undergone a generational change (only four players had played senior international football in the squad), Pakistan took on Maldives in March and gave a good account of themselves against a seasoned home side that ultimately came out on top with a 1-0 win.
The year 2023 is significant for Pakistan Football. It follows the conclusion of the 2022 FIFA World Cup and is when the globe again competes for a slot at the 48-nation 2026 event, with qualifying rounds being run by FIFA’s regional bodies, including the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), of which Pakistan is also a member.
Unfortunately, the Shaheens have a notorious history when it comes to qualification for the game’s biggest competition. Despite trying since 1989 and playing 32 matches, Pakistan remains the only country in Asia that has never won a qualifying game.
While history can’t be undone, the Shaheens do have a chance to make it once again. In October, Pakistan will play a two-legged qualifier for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in the first round of the AFC qualification phase, which also doubles as qualifiers for the 2027 Asian Cup.
As a team that is ranked 195 in the global standing, Pakistan has no choice but to play a do-or-die game against the 22 lowest-ranked teams in Asia and confirm its slot in the second round of qualifiers that begin the next month.
It isn’t the 2026 FIFA World Cup place that Pakistan is chasing, even with the increased slots for Asia going up to eight. World Cup qualification is a distant dream for the Shaheens. But moving past the first round offers an opportunity to mingle with top Asian countries in competitive games over the course of three to four years and get rounded exposure that can propel the team forward.
If Pakistan makes it to the second round, the country will get a chance to compete in a four-nation group that will also include a top-ranked team such as Saudi Arabia, Australia or South Korea, with six matches being played on a home and away basis.
The prospect of Asian stars such as Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min or Saudi’s Salim Al-Dawsari playing in Lahore is an absolutely mouth-watering one and the international exposure from the round can be a potential catalyst to light up the game that has long been in the shadows.
The way the qualification is structured, even if Pakistan were to finish in the bottom of their group, they would be able to continue the adventure with the 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers, which again would offer a group stage and six international competitive matches, with a possible chance to make it to the continent’s biggest competition.
THE REVAMPED TEAM
Competing against the big boys and ending 34 years of constant losses isn’t an easy challenge, but one which head coach Shahzad Anwar has taken in his considerable stride. The Sargodha-born coach has made it no secret that the country’s fortunes in international football in the next few years and an entire generation of footballers’ careers are dependent on making it past the first round.
Young players such as Abdullah Shah (SSGC), Alamgir Ghazi (WAPDA), Mohammad Waheed (KRL) and Mamoon Khan (CAA FC) represent the best the country has to offer at the moment, and coach Shahzad has blended that with the experience and exposure of the diaspora community.
Pakistan has included overseas Pakistanis since 2005, when former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman made his debut in the 2005 SAFF Championship. Since then, a number of players have gone on to make their debuts for the Shaheens.
But similar to the locals, there has been a shift from the previous generation, with only the likes of Hassan Bashir (Taarnby FF), Yousuf Butt (Ishoj IF) and Adnan Mohammad (Ishoj IF) being retained. The duo of Hassan and Yousuf have 39 international appearances between them, and add a shot of experience to a squad whose average age hovers close to 21, with most players having only played the two recent international games.
Adding more depth and quality to the team was imperative, and coach Shahzad has done exactly that with the induction of Harun Hamid (QPR), Abdullah Iqbal (B93) and Abdul Samad (HB Koge) against Maldives. Call-ups to new recruits, such as Easah Suliman (Vilafranquense) and Otis Khan (Grimsby Town), is particularly exciting.
Easah has been capped 46 times for the England Youth teams and has won the 2017 U-19 European Championships as captain. Meanwhile, Otis is a seasoned campaigner in England’s League Two and led his team’s charge to the FA Cup quarter-final against Brighton this season.
Furthermore, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) are continuing to eye targets in Europe, with Etzaz Hussain (Apollon Limassol FC), Adil Nabi (Athens Kallithea) and Mohammad Fazal (United IK Nordic) expected to make their debuts once their documentation is complete.
There is also a possibility that Pakistan may eventually be able to call up Norwegian-striker Ole Saeter, who has Pakistani heritage. The prospect of a 6’4” striker who has destroyed defences and scored 14 goals in the Eliteserien for Rosenborg would add a completely different dimension to the team.
THE WAY FORWARD
With a solid pool of players to build on, featuring the best of our local and diaspora talent, what Pakistan needs are competitive international games to shape up this squad into a cohesive unit that can compete with whatever team lady luck hands them in October 2023.
The PFF have done their part, having secured Pakistan’s entry into a 4-Nations Cup in Mauritius, featuring the hosts, Kenya and Djibouti, which runs from June 8 to 18 — a perfect preparation for the South Asian Championship starting on the 21st against India.
Having been clubbed in a difficult group with India, Kuwait (invited as a guest team) and Nepal, getting out of the group and on to the semi-finals does look unrealistic for Pakistan at the moment. But coach Shahzad is using this fantastic exposure opportunity and a minimum of six international games to whip his squad into shape.
These six games are a monumental feat for a country that has played only nine games in eight years and has the potential to give the squad a definitive boost before October. The month of June is crucial in terms of exposure.
Of course, this being Pakistan, there is always some last-minute problem. The latest spanner in the works is an ongoing tussle between the PFF and the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB), who have not issued a No-Objection-Certificate (NOC) to the team (till the date this article was written). Considering the delicate relationship with India, the PFF are stuck in a last-minute quagmire.
If Pakistan misses out on this opportunity to play six games and prepare for the World Cup qualifiers, the chances of going past the first round will go down the drain for all practical football purposes.
Once again, Pakistan is at a moment of its own football history. Will the Shaheens soar or will the empire of sports politics destroy the beautiful game once again? By the time this article is read, that question will surely have been answered.
The writer is a sports management and marketing expert.
He tweets @shahrukhsohail7