by Alam Zeb Safi
LAHORE: Pakistan’s football coach Stephen Constantine has said that the six games which the Green-shirts will be playing against better oppositions in the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers second round will be a “steep learning curve” for his charges.
“I think these six games for us are going to be a steep learning curve,” Stephen told ‘The News’ in an interview. “We have not played for many many years and we are not playing regular football. When you add all of these things up and of-course it is going to be more difficult and if we had ten games together,” Stephen said.
He said that his charges will be making top effort in a difficult round in Group G which will be carrying Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Jordan. “Yes we will go and will fight. Pakistan will now fight in any game when I am the coach and that’s the best we can hope for,” said Stephen, also a former India coach.
Pakistan will begin their journey in the second round with their game against Saudi Arabia in Dammam on November 16. Pakistan will host Tajikistan in Islamabad on November 21.
On March 21, 2024, Pakistan will host Jordan; on March 26 Jordan will host Pakistan; on June 6 Pakistan will host Saudi Arabia; and on June 11 Pakistan will travel to Tajikistan to play their last game of the round.
The top two teams from the group will qualify for the third round. Stephen is very confident that he will be able to get the best out of his charges. “I am very confident that we get the best out of our players,” he said.
“Obviously Saudi Arabia will be a very very difficult opponent and we must be fairly disciplined and make sure to make the minimum amount of mistakes because they will punish us whenever they can,” Stephen said.
He said that the overseas players will join them in Saudi Arabia. “The overseas players will mostly meet us in Saudi Arabia as the window is so tight,” the coach said. “It does not seem a point to bring them to Islamabad for one day and then another flight, more travel, more airports so we will try to get them in Jeddah as early as possibly can,” Stephen said.
Stephen also hinted that a couple of new faces may be seen in the squad for the second round. “Look, I thought most of the players did well in the short time that we had. I will call some other players who were in the previous camps. Maybe one or two new faces. There will be some changes. Its upto to the players to prove that they have something more to offer than some of the other players but we will see when the camp starts,” Stephen said.
Initially there were some doubts over Stephen’s involvement in the second round as the authorities had brokered a short-term contract with him for the first round against Cambodia. However, a huge success by the team in the first round against Cambodia forced Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Normalisation Committee to keep Stephen engaged. According to insiders he will handle the camp which begins at the Jinnah Stadium Islamabad from November 1.
In the first round away game in Cambodia, Pakistan held their hosts to a goalless draw on October 12 before they conquered them 1-0 in their home leg in Islamabad on October 17. This is the first time that Pakistan have progressed to the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers.