Islamabad, Pakistan – Final week, Englishman Stephen Constantine was named as the brand new coach of the Pakistani males’s nationwide soccer group and tasked with ending a dire run by profitable the nation’s first-ever World Cup qualification match and, within the course of, ending a five-year, 13-match shedding streak.
Constantine’s squad arrived in Cambodia within the early hours of Monday for the primary leg of a 2026 World Cup first-round qualifier, set to happen on Thursday.
Cambodia had been additionally Pakistan’s opponents of their earlier qualifying tie 4 years in the past, which the Southeast Asian group received 4-1 on combination.
Pakistan are presently ranked 197th out of 207 groups globally, whereas Cambodia are ranked 177th.
Talking to reporters in Lahore on October 4 after the 25-member squad was introduced, Constantine stated he realised the dimensions of the challenges.
“I can’t predict, nor will I predict what’s going to occur over the 2 video games. However I feel that folks will see a really totally different Pakistan,” he stated, referring to the return leg on October 17 in Islamabad.
Constantine – who was appointed by the FIFA-led Normalisation Committee (NC) presently working the Pakistan Soccer Federation (PFF) – beforehand coached India’s nationwide group. He led India from a rank of 173rd in 2015 to 97th in December 2018, whereas additionally serving to them qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup.
Nonetheless, the skilled coach could have a far larger process on his palms with Pakistan. Whereas India additionally has a well-organised home league in place, Pakistani soccer has long been adrift – regardless of the sport’s recognition within the nation.
The PFF has been suspended twice by FIFA within the final six years as a consequence of political interference, whereas the nation of greater than 240 million individuals has not had a functioning soccer league for greater than a 12 months as a consequence of a scarcity of funds and infrastructure.
Its footballing affairs are run by the NC, headed by Haroon Malik, a Canadian-Pakistani businessman, since 2020, with the mandate to strengthen soccer administration and maintain clear PFF elections.
Talking to Al Jazeera on the day the squad was introduced, Malik agreed that there are “loads of administrative points” however stated the disaster in Pakistani soccer has been many years within the making.
“We additionally lacked broadcast rights and sponsorship, leaving us with barely any funds,” he stated.
“Nonetheless, we’re step by step establishing infrastructure, now we have began organising district stage soccer championships throughout the nation and the way in which issues are shifting, I’m very hopeful we’ll announce a top-tier soccer league by March 2024 subsequent 12 months.”
Malik stated since June 2022, when FIFA lifted a 14-month-long suspension on PFF, his intention was additionally to supply as many alternatives as attainable for Pakistan to play matches.
After not enjoying a global sport since June 2019, Pakistan performed eight matches between November 2022 and June 2023, together with 5 friendlies, however misplaced all – conceding 18 targets within the course of and scoring only one.
“We acknowledge the challenges now we have, and it’s mirrored in our group’s rating and the efficiency within the subject,” Malik stated.
Ali Ahsan, the editor of FootballPakistan.Com, a web-based platform masking Pakistani soccer, says soccer stays “underdeveloped, fragmented, and poorly run in any respect ranges” in Pakistan – a truth mirrored in its fortunes.
“Regardless of it being the second hottest sport within the nation after cricket, soccer has by no means professionalised domestically, nor has it stored tempo with the game throughout Asia, not to mention the world,” he instructed Al Jazeera.
Because it first entered World Cup qualifying, for Italia 1990, the Pakistani nationwide group has by no means received a qualification match; it has managed to attract solely three of 32 video games, scoring 10 targets whereas conceding 124.
Ahsan believes that one of many key points hampering Pakistani soccer during the last three many years has been incessant political meddling.
“When there’s fixed factionalism and infighting, no one cares for something past grabbing energy for their very own self-image,” Ahsan stated, including that occasional FIFA suspensions halt any footballing progress within the nation.
Soccer journalist Umaid Wasim concurs, saying the most important drawback with the game has been its poor governance.
“The PFF has nearly at all times been run by politicians who’ve been energy hungry,” he instructed Al Jazeera.
“When the NC took over, it was hoped that issues may enhance however even their tenure has been discovered wanting.”
The PFF suspensions in 2017 and 2021 by FIFA had been over “undue third-party interference”, and whereas each occasions the PFF was reinstated inside a couple of 12 months, the non-public and political factionalism inside board officers means gamers have suffered probably the most.
Former Pakistan captain Saddam Hussain, a 30-year-old defensive midfielder with 21 caps, presently performs within the second tier of Oman’s home league for Salalah SC however was not chosen within the newest squad.
He instructed Al Jazeera that the “private likes and dislikes” of gamers among the many soccer administration have broken the nationwide group’s choice and performances.
“I’m enjoying right here in Oman; I’m clearly match to carry out. However I used to be not chosen. What extra do I would like as a soccer participant than performing for my very own nation?” Hussain stated.
“I’m right here in Oman as a result of they assume I can provide one thing and I’ve some high quality. However I used to be not known as up in any respect.”
Kaleemullah Khan, one other often capped participant conspicuous by his absence from the most recent Pakistani squad, says that lack of grassroots growth and soccer officers’ self-interest have harm the nationwide group probably the most.
“Soccer was by no means the precedence,” the striker, who has 4 worldwide targets to his identify, instructed Al Jazeera. “Funds given by FIFA had been used for private means.”
Malik stated that Pakistan has not obtained FIFA objective venture funds since 2015/16 as a consequence of allegations of embezzlement.
“Nonetheless, because the time PFF has its suspension lifted in June final 12 months, there aren’t any such accusations and we’re the truth is working in the direction of reviving the objective venture funding from FIFA,” he stated.
“The query about embezzling funds is clearly very politically charged, nevertheless it occurred prior to now and I don’t have any feedback to make on it.”
Kaleemullah, who now performs for a membership in Karachi, says until the home soccer league is firmly established, the nation’s efficiency will stay “substandard”.
“Our nationwide group final performed in June in South Asian video games and our World Cup qualifier was scheduled for October. Within the final three months, what have our gamers finished?” Kaleemullah stated.
‘Cambodia are far forward of us’
Whereas the Pakistan group has seven diaspora gamers, some observers are sceptical that their inclusion will assist the nation’s fortunes within the upcoming matches.
“The diaspora gamers who decide to play for Pakistan are sometimes those that fail to make a mark within the international locations they’re enjoying in,” Wasim, the journalist, stated.
“For his or her inclusion to work, not solely do we have to cherry-pick the highest diaspora expertise but additionally have a home construction which produces high quality gamers.”
So, with a less-than-ideal preparation for the all-important qualifiers in opposition to Cambodia, can Pakistan arrest their slide and make historical past?
Kaleemullah says it’s attainable, however he’s not very optimistic.
“Footballing-wise, Cambodia are far forward of us. They’ve a cohesive group practising collectively for a while. They’ve a home league construction,” he stated.
“We don’t know the way lengthy our gamers can keep stamina or cope with stress.”
Soccer Pakistan’s Ahsan, nevertheless, stays cautiously optimistic, pinning his hopes on the appointment of Constantine.
“If we are able to preserve issues easy and play cautiously to emerge unscathed within the first leg, maybe we are able to go all out throughout the return leg in Islamabad,” he stated.
“That would hopefully lead us to qualify for the group stage of qualifiers.”