PHNOM PENH: A draw that felt like a win. This was what Stephen Constantine was brought in for, and the Englishman is halfway towards helping Pakistan create history.
Pakistan produced a gritty defensive performance to hold Cambodia to a goalless stalemate in the opening leg of their first-round qualifier for the 2026 FIFA World Cup at the National Olympic Stadium on Thursday, although they still need to end a woeful record in the return leg in Islamabad on Tuesday if they are to advance to the next round.
At least, Pakistan are still very much in the tie. And the performance will raise hopes that if they could snatch a goal in five days’ time — and hold on like they did in the Cambodian capital — for a maiden victory in qualifying for football’s showpiece tournament, they could make the second round where the likes of Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Jordan await in Group ‘G’.
The 60-year-old Constantine, who previously coached India, had spoken about the need to show a “positive attitude and fight” and his players gave it their all to repel Cambodia’s relentless pressure.
There were last-ditch tackles and the players put their bodies on the line with Pakistan also having several half-chances on the counter.
“I think we played extremely well considering we’ve only been together for 12 days,” Constantine, who was only appointed a couple of weeks ago, told reporters.
“The players gave everything and deserved to take something from the game … and we could’ve probably even won it. Cambodia had a lot of the ball but I think we had more clear-cut chances. But it’s only one half, we have another game to come.”
Pakistan had the first attempt on target when Moin Ahmed cut inside from the right and fired a low shot that was parried away by Cambodian goalkeeper Hul Kimhuy on eight minutes before Shayek Dost flashed wide with a first-time shot in the 15th.
Constantine’s side had goalkeeper Yousuf Butt to thank in the second-half when he collected a cross from Yudai Ogawa that seemed destined for the feet of Reung Bunheing and the Denmark-based gloveman then collected Ogawa’s long-range effort late on.
Cambodia ramped up the pressure in the closing stages but Pakistan’s defence, led by captain Easah Suliman, held on.
There was a surprise earlier on when England-based winger Otis Khan was not named in the starting line-up or among the substitutes.
The Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee later clarified that FIFA had raised an issue with the players’ eligibility that didn’t allow him to feature in the game.
The 28-year-old made his international debut for Pakistan earlier this year and featured at a four-nation tournament in Mauritius as well as SAFF Championship.
“Previously, both the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had cleared Otis for eligibility to represent Pakistan,” the PFF NC said in a statement. “This led us to believe there would be no issues in his participation.
“However, we received communication from FIFA this week regarding a unique matter related to Otis’ eligibility. The issue revolves around a specific requirement that one of Otis’ grandparents must have been born in Pakistan.
“In his case, his grandfather was born in Delhi, British India, prior to the partition and subsequently migrated to Pakistan, like millions of others. “FIFA has neither confirmed his ineligibility nor definitively declared him eligible, and their decision remains pending. We want to emphasize that we are actively collaborating with FIFA to address this matter comprehensively.”
Elsewhere as Asia’s 20 lowest-ranked teams began the continent’s journey to the World Cup in North America, Lwin Moe Aung had the honour of scoring the first goal of qualifying to set Myanmar on their way to a 5-1 home win over Macau at Yangon’s Thuwunna Stadium.
Indonesia also have one foot in the second round after they cruised to a 6-0 victory over Brunei Darussalam thanks to Dimas Drajad’s hat-trick in Jakarta while Michael Udebuluzor’s brace powered Hong Kong to a 4-0 home win over Bhutan.
Chinese Taipei will also take a 4-0 lead into the second leg after they crushed Timor Leste in Kaohsiung City while in Singapore, the hosts edged Guam 2-1.
Two other ties finished 1-1 with Maldives and Bangladesh exchanging late goals in Male and Nepal coming from behind to hold Laos in Kathmandu.
While the aggregate winners of the 10 ties advance to the second round, the top-ranked losing team will progress to the third round of qualifying for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia.
The remaining nine teams will join the Northern Mariana Islands in the playoff round with five winners of the home-and-away ties reaching the third round of qualifying for the Asian Cup.