Pakistan’s FIFA World Cup qualification history: Italia 1990

The FIFA World Cup is undoubtedly the most popular, and prestigious mega-event of a single sport in the world. Held every 4 years since 1930 (barring 1942 and 1946 due to WW2), it has been instrumental in making football a truly global team sport. Today, FIFA has 209 member associations from every major country and territory, even more than the UN (193).

Because of the large number of teams aiming to qualify for the World Cup, FIFA has always tried to find the right balance of teams representing all continental confederations and the big sides from Europe and South America. Each continental confederation (UEFA, CONMEBOL, CAF, CONCACAF, AFC, OFC) organises its own qualification rounds to decide its finalists. The 2018 World Cup in Russia will be the first time all 209 FIFA members have signed up for qualification, thanks in no small part to the record profits earned in the 2014 edition that FIFA will divide among all members to assist their national teams.

Pakistan has also signed up for the 2018 qualifiers for Asia and will play Yemen in the 1st round on 12-17 March 2015. However, our national team’s low ranking (188 when qualification draws took place in early Feb 2015) and even lower media profile meant no one seemed to notice, given all attention towards the coming ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. Football has also been a sport Pakistan has been in love with since early days though they haven’t had the luck or professional direction to realise this love into something of note given the popularity of Cricket and past dominance in Field Hockey and Squash.

Many casual observers of Pakistani football have often wondered, rather innocently, as to why Pakistan cannot play in the FIFA World Cup. Truth be told, qualification is not easy, especially for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) members who have to fight it out for limited World Cup spots. Despite being a FIFA member since 1948 and AFC member since 1954, Pakistan did not play a single World Cup qualification campaign until the qualifiers for Italia 1990. This was an era most AFC members abstained from committing themselves beyond regional tournaments apart from the usual suspects from East Asia and Middle East. Logistics, finances, and administrative issues for less resourceful associations have meant many have avoided taking part in qualification altogether in past.

Football popularity in Pakistan had surged following the global broadcast of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico that was won by Diego Maradona’s Argentina. However, the game at domestic level was poorly organised, with a lot of talented players across the country toiling in an amateur system that had zero facilities, poor awareness, and simply could not groom or train to keep with the fast-changing world of professional football.

For Italia 1990, FIFA allotted AFC two qualification spots and a total of 25 teams ended up playing the campaign that took place in 1989 following the withdrawal of Maldives, India, Bahrain, and South Yemen. The 1st round of Asian qualifiers had the teams divided into 6 groups, with the group winners playing in 2nd round to decide the top two sides for the 1990 World Cup finals. Pakistan was drawn into a tough qualification group of Middle East giants Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, with South Yemen originally also included in it.

Kuwait had previously qualified for the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and had a controversial moment there against France when the Kuwaitis protested against a France goal after they heard a whistle from the crowd thinking it was from the referee stopping the game. UAE, playing under legendary Brazilian player-turned-coach Mario Zagallo, had finished runners up in the 1988 Gulf Cup of Nations. Pakistan, on the other hand, had a rag-tag bunch of younger players selected from departments like Army, PIA, WAPDA, NBP etc and some local amateur clubs. Under German coach Burkhard Ziese, Pakistan lacked the obvious technical prowess and fitness levels of their rivals. While technical and tactical astuteness couldn’t be taught overnight, Ziese tried to make the players physically fit enough to last the 4 home-and-away games against UAE and Kuwait.

The team comprised of Mukhtar Ali (Captain) with Jamshed Rana, Mateen Akhtar as goalkeepers, Zulfiqar Hussain Dogar, Asghar Ali, Mohammad Naveed, Zafar Iqbal, Tariq Hussain, Babar Ali, Ejaz Ali, Abdul Wahid, Fidaur Rehman, Ghulam Sarwar “Teddy”, Mohammad Tahir, Abdul Majeed, Ghulam Sarwar “Sasa”, Sharafat Ali, Syed Ibrar Hussain Rizvi, and M. Saleem Patni. Hafiz Sohaib Butt was manager and Younus Rana as assistant coach under Burkhard Ziese.

Amid much fan-fare and a capacity crowd at Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad, Pakistan hosted Kuwait for their first ever World Cup qualifier on 6 January 1989. A 5th minute goal was enough for Kuwait to edge past the hosts. Kuwait then followed it up with a thrilling 3-2 win over UAE on 13 January in Kuwait City. The loss only made UAE more determined as they thrashed Pakistan 5-0 in Sharjah on 20 January. Pakistan again faced disappointment losing 2-0 away to Kuwait on 27 January and were effectively knocked out of contention for the 2nd round. UAE took revenge of their 3-2 loss to Kuwait by edging them 1-0 in Sharjah on 3 February and then beat Pakistan 4-1 in the final group game on 10 February in Islamabad to win the group in front of a 4,000 strong crowd and qualify for 2nd round on goal difference.

Pak - 1990 world cup group
Pak – 1990 World Cup group


UAE then managed to scrape its way to finish runners-up behind South Korea in the 2nd round to qualify for Italia 1990; the first and only time UAE has played in a World Cup till date.

The final group match was notable for Ziese being fired from his post as head coach and for PIA defender-turned-coach Tariq Lutfi taking charge just 2 days before facing UAE. Sharafat Ali became the first Pakistani to score a World Cup qualification goal as consolation late in the game that was also the debut of a 25 year old British-Pakistani from Lancashire, Jawaid ‘Jimmy’ Khan. Jimmy Khan, a professional footballer in the early 1980s, had gotten the attention of the Army football team when he was in Pakistan on vacations a few years prior and ended up in the squad to face UAE on the insistence of the coaching staff. Despite impressing in the defeat, this would end up being Jimmy Khan’s lone game for Pakistan (but not the last for expatriate Pakistani footballers).

Pakistan's line-up for the UAE game.
Pakistan’s line-up for the UAE game.

Pakistan itself gained a lot from the experience of playing tough opposition to win the 1989 SAF Games football gold medal as hosts later that year and then retain the title in the 1991 SAF Games under local coach Aslam Japani. It would be four more years before Pakistan would again play a World Cup qualifier, although the results would again be no different.