by Ed Aarons
When Pakistan face Cambodia in the second leg of their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday in Islamabad, the memories will come flooding back for Adnan Ahmed. It is almost 16 years since the Burnley-born former Huddersfield and Tranmere winger, who came through Manchester United’s academy, made his international debut in a 7-0 defeat by Iraq in Lahore.
“I had mixed emotions because it was my first game for Pakistan,” Ahmed says. “It was a bittersweet experience to finally represent the country but the result obviously wasn’t what we wanted. There were quite a few of us who had never played [together] before so we were still getting used to each other and it was a bit of a nightmare really.
“By the second leg we had developed more of an understanding and managed to hold out for a 0-0 draw against the team that had just won the Asian Cup. That was the first draw Pakistan had ever managed at a World Cup qualifier so although we had nothing to show for it, it was a significant step.”
A bitter power struggle that has since blighted football in Pakistan means that was also the last time that the country played a World Cup qualifier on home soil. But the team secured a surprise 0-0 draw in the first leg against Cambodia last Friday under their new manager, Stephen Constantine, to end a 12-match losing streak. There is optimism that they could make history by reaching the second qualifying round, comprising nine four-team groups.
“It’s well within their grasp so hopefully they players can keep their nerve in the pressurised situation,” says Ahmed, who won 27 caps and runs the One Stop Sports Management agency with the former Wigan and West Brom striker Nathan Ellington. “If they can go one step further it would be an unbelievable achievement for the country.”
A crisis within the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) led to a suspension of domestic leagues in 2015, a few weeks after Pakistan had beaten Afghanistan in a friendly. That has turned out to be their last home match for more than eight years after the dispute at the PFF led to several sanctions from Fifa citing “undue third-party interference”, with a normalisation committee still in place more than four years after it was set up in 2019. That had coincided with Pakistan slumping to an all-time low of 205 in the Fifa rankings after two defeats by Cambodia. After that they did not play until last November’s friendly against Nepal.
“There’s been debates and issues with the ruling parties and to be honest it has spoiled it for the whole nation,” says Ahmed. “I feel sorry for the local players because their livelihoods depend on playing. It’s literally a hand-to-mouth scenario for some of them so it’s really sad to see what has gone on. Things have gone backwards really over the last few years but the only positive could be that this team can get some momentum behind the sport.”
The journalist Ali Ahsan from FootballPakistan.com says: “Football is very underdeveloped and there are not enough coaching opportunities for players at youth level so it has never been able to take off professionally. It’s just about having a stable Pakistan Football Federation because the last eight years have been disastrous. It’s been almost a lost decade.”
Ahmed is part of an independent review group of former players and officials drawing up ideas to develop a 15-to-30-year plan for Pakistani football. “It can’t be achieved overnight – we have to create the basic infrastructure and try to build on that,” he says. “The whole point of the plan is trying to find out how we get more participation at grassroots and provide quality coaching and facilities. It’s just a case of how do you execute that plan.”
The appointment of Constantine, a Londoner who has managed India in two previous stints during a globetrotting career, has given millions of supporters hope that things could be about to change. He inherited a largely domestic-based squad that had been thrashed 4-0 in successive matches against India and Kuwait but an inspired defensive display in Cambodia led by the captain Easah Suliman, a former England youth international, secured a creditable draw. Constantine’s future could now depend on whether they can book a place in the first group stage, where they would face Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Tajikistan.
“Constantine has a list of over 50 players from the diaspora at different age levels from clubs across Europe that could play for Pakistan one day,” says Ahsan. “He said that 10 or 11 are committed but they need to be supported.”
Pakistan look likely to be without the Grimsby winger Otis Khan again against Cambodia after Fifa ruled hours before the first leg that he was not eligible to play. A dispute over whether he qualifies through his paternal grandfather – who was born in Delhi but moved to Pakistan after the partition in 1947 before settling in Manchester – is understood to be ongoing.
Ahmed believes players such as Suliman, who was born in Birmingham, came through the youth system at Aston Villa and is now with Sumgayit in Azerbaijan, and Khan can help inspire the next generation of South Asian players.
“In the UK there is a lot more participation in academies but there’s still a gap that is missing,” he says. “Pakistan needs players like Easah and Otis because they can be figureheads for the future. It’s so important to have a strong backbone for the next generation to help the rest of the squad. Hopefully Otis can play a part in that in the future.”