by Ali Ahsan
When it comes to any sporting mega-event, nothing comes close to the quadrennial FIFA World Cup. Its football’s ultimate prize that every country, big and small, wants to play (and win) every four years.
But remember, it’s the World Cup and not a local valima in your muhallah that you may want to crash for free roti and boti. You must earn your spot with limited places divided among the 211 current FIFA member associations that have to go through a long, convoluted qualification process based on their continental confederations.
In international football, nothing matters more than playing qualifiers for major tournaments at the continental and world levels. These competitive fixtures have the most impact on each national team’s FIFA world rankings. Rankings are then used to determine seedings and draws for future tournaments and their qualifiers.
Asia’s Road to 2026 & 2027 Events
Pakistan is in Asia, meaning the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in addition to being a FIFA member. AFC has 46 member countries, 47 if you include the Northern Mariana Islands which does not have a FIFA membership yet. Just like the last two qualifiers for 2018 and 2022, AFC has decided to merge its 2026 World Cup qualifiers with its 2027 Asian Cup qualifiers.
AFC’s 46 countries are to now contest 8 direct spots, up from 5 spots for previous editions, plus an intercontinental playoff spot. While most confederations like UEFA (Europe) and CAF (Africa) now have qualifying group stages for all their member teams, AFC continues to insist on having an initial playoff to first eliminate some of its lowest-ranked teams.
On 12 and 17 October 2023, the bottom 20 ranked AFC teams will feature in 1st round home-and-away playoff whereby 10 losing teams will be eliminated after just two matches while the winning 10 sides will go into the 2nd round qualifiers group stage of 9 groups of 4 teams each.
The 2nd round qualification groups will have each team play a total of six home-and-away matches between November and June. The top two from each group not only go through to the next round of World Cup qualifiers, featuring 3 groups of 6 teams but also directly qualify for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup while the bottom two of each group enter separate Asian Cup qualifiers.
The 10 losing sides of 1st round playoff from October, plus the Northern Mariana Islands, will go through another playoff round in late 2024 for the Asian Cup qualifiers whereby the best ‘loser’ of October’s 1st round playoff, and the 5 playoff winners in September 2024 will join the bottom 2 of the 2nd round groups for another qualifiers with 6 groups of 4 teams. So potentially another round of six competitive fixtures for each team with only the 6 group winners reaching the Asian Cup.
Pakistan’s Trials and Tribulations
Currently ranked an embarrassing 201st in the world, and 44th in Asia, Pakistan men’s national team remains the only AFC team to have never won a single World Cup qualification match in its history since its first attempt back in 1989 for the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Pakistan has also never qualified for the Asian Cup either. Low rankings and self-sabotaging preps over the decades have meant Pakistan always started qualifiers at a significant disadvantage.
For the 2026 qualifiers, the Shaheens got paired with 176th-ranked Cambodia for the two legs on 12 and 17 October this year. The winner of Pakistan-Cambodia will play in the 2nd round, Group G featuring Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tajikistan
This is a repeat of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers when Pakistan also faced Cambodia in June 2019, only for a squad depleted due to a divided PFF losing 4-1 on aggregate, and subsequently getting knocked out from both World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers. Pakistan even played its ‘home’ leg on neutral grounds in Qatar given the Pakistani government did not side with the FIFA-recognized PFF faction. I strongly believe that a full-strength Pakistan in 2019 would have overcome Cambodia with ease.
The 2019 Cambodia fixtures was also the last time Pakistan played senior international men’s football for the next three years. Disruptions caused by PFF infighting since 2015, a FIFA-appointed Normalization Committee (that remains in place since September 2019 until PFF elections can be done), COVID-19 closures of 2020-21, hostile takeover of PFF by a warring faction in March 2021, led to a 15-month FIFA ban that ended only in late June 2022.
Just like the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers in 2019, Pakistan’s preparations for FIFA World Cup 2026 qualifiers in 2023 have been dire at best. Since returning to international action in November 2022, Pakistan has played 8 matches, and lost all of them with only one goal scored under current head coach Shahzad Anwar. 6 of those fixtures were all squeezed into June 2023 – the Mauritius 4-Nations Series, and the 2023 SAFF Championship in Bengaluru, India. Pakistan last won a senior international fixture way back in 2018, a 3-0 win over Bhutan in the 2018 SAFF Championship. Painful.
Admittedly, restarting the national team after 3 years of forced inactivity – and having only 15 international matches since April 2015 when the PFF crises began! – was never going to be easy. Gross systemic faults of Pakistan’s domestic football structure, abject lack of professionalism, never-ending political crises in PFF, numerous FIFA bans, mismanagement, fragmented localized worldviews among the country’s numerous domestic football stakeholders and administrators, and hardly one officially recognized domestic league season in 8 years are some of the reasons that have contributed to Pakistan national team being consistently bad for years.
A generation of players – Saddam Hussain, Kaleemullah, Saadullah to name a few – is now past their best due to limited football since 2015 and unfortunately seem to be no longer in contention. A new generation – Abdullah Shah, Mamoon Musa, Shayek Dost, Alamgir Ghazi, Muhammad Waheed, etc. – has come of age lacking competitive experience and only a small number briefly experiencing international football at any level. The experiences against supposedly weak sides like Nepal and Djibouti have surely rattled them over how tough it is!
A significant chunk of the current team is from Pakistan’s diaspora, who have remained regulars in their European domestic leagues. Some, like Captain Hassan Bashir and Yousuf Butt from Denmark, made their debuts over a decade back and are now at the twilight of their careers. Some new high-profile ones like Otis Khan and Easah Suliman from England have only just started their Pakistan careers, while some more are expected soon like Adil Nabi and Etzaz Hussain. So, the players used since November 2022 have varied levels of individual skill sets and competitive experiences. Also, we lack a proper goal scorer – be it domestic or diaspora!
Yet, on paper, this squad potentially had enough in it to win some games and give tough time to stronger opponents by being hard to beat. That could have been the confidence Pakistan needed to enter this 2026 qualifiers with a stable starting XI, a proper plan to handle Cambodia, and aiming at least to reach the second-round group stage.
That wasn’t the case as seen in June 2023 under Shahzad Anwar. Repeatedly attempting to play a back three in defence with many clearly not used to the system, constantly changing starting line-ups on a whim, poor usage of substitutions and player positioning (especially at fullback positions), and of course a very timid approach towards making tactical changes across each match. No wonder we lost all 6 in June.
Anger and resentment poured in our football circles, bashing the PFF NC and Shahzad for their selections, calling any international matches a ‘waste of time and money’ (just imagine!), and demanding quick PFF elections, etc. Many were eager to scapegoat diaspora players or lob ethnic slurs at the whole team; a common habit among our insular-minded football people who refuse to accept the realities of modern international football.
Yet despite losing eight games in less than a year, Shahzad Anwar continues as head coach with no credible foreign coaching replacement identified or approached. Many have questioned that other coaches would have been fired much earlier and replaced with more capable ones who have a better understanding of international football and can utilize the actual strengths of this squad to grind out crucial results and give confidence to the team.
Taking Cambodia Seriously
The few Pakistani football fans now fear the absolute worst against Cambodia in October. But we cannot stress enough how extremely vital it is to take those two matches seriously. We must stick to the very basics of football, become compact and hard to beat, and try to score by any means necessary.
We need to play our strongest XI available and take the game to Cambodia, to not only avenge the humiliation of four years prior but also overcome a crucial hurdle of going beyond the playoff stage! That said, the question remains if Pakistan will be even able to play its home leg on 17 October at home given almost all stadia in the country – all controlled by government sports boards – are likely not even meeting the minimum FIFA/AFC requirements to host international matches.
At this stage, it does not matter how we do it but going through to the 2nd round is paramount, not only for Team Pakistan but also the PFF NC whose very legitimacy is always questioned whenever something goes wrong on and off the pitch. Beating Cambodia can mean a further six guaranteed competitive fixtures for Pakistan, something we’ve never had for over a decade.
Being in Group G containing Asian giants Saudi Arabia as well as solid teams like Jordan and Tajikistan, would be epic. Just imagine playing against Saudi Arabia home and away, facing the likes of Salem al-Dawsari who, in the 2022 FIFA World Cup group stage, famously scored the winner against eventual champions Argentina.
If we reach the 2nd round, it would be an absolute miracle to finish in the top two to directly qualify for the Asian Cup and go through to the 3rd round of World Cup qualifiers. Though it’s very likely that Pakistan may finish bottom of Group G given how strong the other teams are.
Yet, Pakistan can still go through to the other Asian Cup qualifiers groups that have a further 6 guaranteed competitive games. That’s potentially 14 competitive games – seven of them at home! – between October 2023 and late 2025. We may be able to finally have a stable starting XI, allow new players to earn their spots, get the best out of our diaspora and domestic talents, and just show the folks back home how much we need to improve to even dream of competing with the best of the continent!
Again, all that depends on overcoming Cambodia in October. The preparations for that have been frustrating, with Pakistan likely to miss out on the September FIFA window to play a full international friendly. The reason is that much of our current squad has a lot of U23s and NC would rather ensure our participation in the AFC U23 Championship qualifiers happening at the same time, only for them to likely lose to Japan, Palestine, and hosts Bahrain in their qualification group.
Losing to Cambodia in October would mean further NC bashing, and further scapegoating of our players in bad faith, and the perpetual negativity would continue. On the sporting side, the national team would have to wait a full year for competitive fixtures in the remaining Asian Cup qualification groups at least. Off-the-pitch, the crises of the PFF can derail even that from happening, especially when the PFF elections are held, who takes over, and what kind of populist policies they decide to impose to gain some level of legitimacy among our fragmented and insular-minded stakeholders.
The next coming weeks are crucial. A lot of things off the pitch must go right before Pakistan can even think of overcoming Cambodia on the pitch. One can hope, but hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive anyone insane. But when it comes to Pakistani football, insanity is the norm.