by Shahrukh Sohail

A few years ago, had someone said that Italy’s European Championship-winning coach Roberto Mancini would be leading Saudi Arabia in a FIFA World Cup qualifier game against Pakistan in Islamabad alongside Barcelona legend Yaya Toure, it would have been laughed off.

But truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, and that’s how it unfolded on a windy Thursday evening in the capital, when the Shaheens played their namesakes, the Green Falcons (as the Saudi Arabia team is called), for the second round of the qualifiers. Pakistan’s

record until 2023 was unbelievably poor in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, having never progressed past the first round since 1989, with 32 games played, four draws and 28 losses.

That all changed under the new English boss Stephen Constantine who, despite having only a few days with the team, was able to carve out a narrow win against Cambodia — the same side that ended Pakistan’s hopes for progression in 2019.

It was uncharted territory against the biggest names in Asia, with the Shaheens being clubbed with Saudi Arabia (famous for their 2022 FIFA World Cup win against eventual champions Argentina), Asian Cup finalists Jordan and Asian Cup quarter-finalists Tajikistan.

No one expected Pakistan to pick up any points and the team was indeed put to the sword, but it did put up a brave fight in the fixtures. It started with Saudi Arabia away, where Constantine’s men put up a valiant display, despite missing captain Easah Sulaiman (Sumgayit FK) through injury, conceding two late goals in injury time to end things at 4-0.

Tajikistan at home went completely the other way, with suspensions causing Rao Umer Hayat (Wapda) and Shayk Dost (Wapda) to miss the starting XI and Hayat’s replacement Mohibullah (Karachi United FC) taken to the cleaners by the opponents. The game did see our first goal in the second round, through Rahis Nabi’s (Digenis Morphou FC) long-range stunner, but it remained a consolation and Tajikistan dominated in a 6-1 trouncing.

It was a baptism of fire and clearly Pakistan were out of their depth, but hosting Jordan in the middle of Ramadan in Islamabad did showcase the team’s grit. It managed to contain the visitors to 3-0, with Montpellier’s Musa Al-Tamari grabbing a hat-trick while being denied by Yousuf Butt (Ishoj IF) from the penalty spot.

Jordan away turned into another nightmare for Pakistan, with star centre-back Abdullah Iqbal (B.93) missing the game due to suspension. The Shaheens were unable to cope with Jordan’s attacking onslaught, resulting in a 7-0 trouncing in Amman.

Nonetheless, it has been a huge learning curve for the young Pakistan team that currently has an average age of 23.1 years and can essentially continue for the next seven to eight years. Stephen Constantine has done a fantastic job turning them into a gritty unit that is currently competing with the big boys in Asia.

Despite missing captain Easah Sulaiman — whose combination with Abdullah Iqbal looks like the greatest centre-back partnership the Pakistan team has ever had, and which resulted in our best performances when the team played Cambodia and Jordan at home — Pakistan still managed to keep the score respectable against Saudi Arabia.

Had it not been for the mix-up between goalkeeper Yousuf Butt and Iqbal, the score would have been 2-0, which is the same amount of goals Saudi Arabia put past Argentina in the 2022 World Cup — not a bad feat, considering the ranking difference between Pakistan and Saudi is 142.

Currently, it looks like the rebuilding process that started in 2022 for the team is nearly complete. After missing out on multiple games and competitions, the team has slowly started getting back into shape. But continuity at this stage is a must.

Home-grown talent such as Alamgir (Wapda), Rao Umer, Shayk Dost, Adeel Younus (Popo FC) and Fareedullah (Muslim FC) have become regulars under Constantine. These boys, despite not having even played the Pakistan Premier League (not organised due to constant political problems), have given their all for the team and have managed to impress against the elite of Asia.

Constantine has also been able to rely on the growing talent available in Europe and beyond, with Otis Khan (Grimsby Town FC), Imran Kayani (Whitehawk FC), McKeal Abdullah (Mansfield Town FC), Mohammad Fazal (Nordic United FK) and Harun Hamid (St Albans City FC) adding overall quality and experience to the side.

This is a team in process and it will take more friendlies and exposure as a unit before it starts delivering results, but the signs are evident that football’s time has come in Pakistan.

Over 20,000 fans watched the game at home against Saudi Arabia and it was the highest attendance so far in Pakistan’s Group G, despite being clubbed with ardent, developed football countries.

Pakistan’s average attendance in the last three games has been over 16,000 (despite two games being played in the afternoon due to a lights issue at the Jinnah Stadium) and the fans put up a brilliant atmosphere and genuinely got behind the team when Saudi Arabia came to visit. No one can deny that Pakistan loves its football — the numbers are just too obvious now, even for the seasoned critics.

Moreover, if Pakistan is able to get its political house in order at the Pakistan Football Federation and continue with Stephen Constantine in the longer-term, there is a genuine chance that the Englishman can lead a strong campaign for the 2027 Asian Cup qualification.

The writer is a sports management and marketing expert.
He tweets @shahrukhsohail7

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2024