Historic day as Pakistan take on Saudi Arabia [Express Tribune]

Historic day as Pakistan take on Saudi Arabia [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel


 November 16 will possibly go down as one of the most important dates in Pakistan football history because it is the first time that the country will play in the group stage of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers after they created history last month by winning the first round for the first time too.

They will be facing Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia on Thursday in their first Group G tie. Pakistan are playing in Saudi Arabia, and they are by all means not the favourites to win the match.

The other two teams in the group are Tajikistan and Jordan.

The first Group G fixture for Pakistan is almost poetic, after all, it has deep diplomatic, people-to-people ties with the hosts of the first leg of the fixture, and the Arab country holds an almost scary amount of historical socio and geo-political and religious influence on Pakistani society too.

It is not a surprise that the tickets for the game were sold very quickly and hence set the stage for Pakistan to be playing their biggest match as they are playing against a high-profile footballing nation that was featured in the FIFA World Cup finals and had defeated Argentina in the last edition.

“You can see that the Pakistani community is so excited, this is the biggest match for us, the result doesn’t matter, it is just an honour at this point,” Pakistan’s former national team midfielder Muhammad Adil told The Express Tribune from his home town in Bahawalpur, but his predictions in the first round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Cambodia had been freakishly accurate.

“This is the team that has defeated the world’s best side Argentina last year.”

Pakistan played a goalless draw in their away leg but sealed the win on a 1-0 aggregate when teenager Haun Hamid scored the winner in the home game in the 68th minute.

Saudia Arabia are a Goliath in this fixture, they have already qualified for the Asian Cup as hosts.

On the other hand, Pakistan national team head coach Stephen Constantine has realistic goals, and he sees Asian Cup qualification to be a more achievable target than qualifying for the World Cup main event.

FIFA 2026 World Cup qualifiers also serve as the second round of the 2027 Asian Cup qualification.

“I think Constantine knows what he wants, I feel average Pakistanis are a little bit over-excited when it comes to the World Cup qualifiers because they are still trying to understand that there is a thorough process. But this is the start of a new era.

“I think the football team did something so remarkable last month and people have really started to see what it feels like to support a football team that wins especially because all the nation was pinning their hopes on the national cricket team that was playing in the ICC World Cup. Now they can see that it’s not cricket that is end all and be all.

“I feel this is a great time for Pakistani football.”

The 31-year-old who has been closely following the local talent and the national team selection added that one of the biggest disadvantages would be former England U19 captain, Easah Sulaiman’s absence.

“Easah’s absence and him being out because of the injury is a setback because we do not have a player for his caliber in the squad or someone of the same quality in his position. But I am confident that even if the team loses to Saudi Arabia 3-0 or 3-2 then they will gain confidence. It’s about learning and for the coach to experiment with the team.

“If they play well tomorrow, we can definitely win against Tajikistan at home, or at least give them a tough fight,” said Adil.

He urged the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee to make sure that the team gets at least six to eight friendlies between November 21 (their match against Tajikistan in Islamabad) and March next year to ensure better preparation. He also emphasised that Constantine has to produce results so it is unfair to criticize his selection of players in the current situation.

Constantine had pulled the magic trick for Pakistan during the first-round preparations he took up the job just 12 days before the game on October 12 and even now he had to face a delay in joining the team due to visa issues.

Meanwhile, journalists who have covered the Pakistani football landscape closely with a collective experience of decades believe that this is the biggest game for Pakistan on the global stage.

Alamzeb Safi of The News, who is in Al-Ahsa to cover the first leg, PTV Sports’ Altamish Jiwa, and Dawn’s Umaid Wasim are excited beyond words on this blockbuster of an occasion for Pakistan football.

“It would be a new beginning for Pakistan to play against some top teams in the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers. This chapter will open tomorrow when Pakistan will face Saudi Arabia, which has a huge experience, also having played six world cups,” said Safi.

“It would also be a big challenge for our boys to flex their muscles against a strong side and the country investing heavily in football.

“And in fact, we needed eventually such openings and the second round in fact will also create opportunities for our home-grown boys to impress international scouts. So hopefully Pakistan will make their top effort under English coach Stephen to end the game with some grace. We will need to play the first half very close and it is the only to prevent the hosts from scoring more goals.

Saudi Arabia are very strong with their players are more agile and they also can put pressure on Pakistan even if they play defensively. Their headwork is splendid and Pakistan will need to play with a plan.”

“This game will be a real test for us and it will show where we stand in the game that suffered due to politics for the last eight years or so.”

In the meantime, Jiwa reminisced about the time Pakistani sports were at the forefront of bringing laurels to the country, he says last month’s win against Cambodia brought back hope and memories of good times as a supporter of Pakistani sports.

“Honestly feels like the early 90s when as kids we saw our national teams across sports being world beaters – seeing our Football team playing the second qualifying round is giving me the same joy personally given I know what never-ending storm these players and the whole system of football has had to endure,” expressed Jiwa.

“Seeing a huge audience at Jinnah Stadium and seeing so many young fans backing the team despite no success is truly heartening. Hope the momentum continues and the powers that be realize the potential this game and its ecosystem has to bring so much positive change in the country.”

Similarly, Wasim echoed the sentiment of his fellow journalists, “I’d say it’s the biggest game in the history of Pakistan football. Because of opposition like Saudi, we haven’t met too often in the past. They’re Asian giants and for us, a huge learning opportunity.”

Their unanimous opinion is that it would be a new beginning for Pakistan to play against some top teams in the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers. This chapter will open tomorrow when Pakistan will face Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan will play the second leg of their tie with Saudi Arabia in June, which is meant to be played at home, but the venue is not declared yet.

Pakistan had faced Saudi Arabia once before in 1978, they lost 6-0 in that match.

Published in The Express Tribune, 15 November 2023