A ‘very different’ Pakistan? National football team aim to end dire record

With new coach Stephen Constantine, Pakistan aim to break a three-decade World Cup qualifier duck and a wider five-year, 13-match losing streak.

India's Naorem Mahesh Singh and Pakistan's Ali Khan Niazi (R) fight for the ball
Pakistan's Ali Khan Niazi, right, fights for the ball with India's Naorem Mahesh Singh in a South Asian Football Federation Championship match in June [File: AFP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Last week, Englishman Stephen Constantine was named as the new coach of the Pakistani men’s national football team and tasked with ending a dire run by winning the country’s first-ever World Cup qualification match and, in the process, ending a five-year, 13-match losing streak.

Constantine’s squad arrived in Cambodia in the early hours of Monday for the first leg of a 2026 World Cup first-round qualifier, set to take place on Thursday.

Cambodia were also Pakistan’s opponents in their previous qualifying tie four years ago, which the Southeast Asian team won 4-1 on aggregate.

Pakistan are currently ranked 197th out of 207 teams globally, while Cambodia are ranked 177th.

Speaking to reporters in Lahore on October 4 after the 25-member squad was announced, Constantine said he realised the scale of the challenges.

“I cannot predict, nor will I predict what’s going to happen over the two games. But I think that people will see a very different Pakistan,” he said, referring to the return leg on October 17 in Islamabad.

Constantine – who was appointed by the FIFA-led Normalisation Committee (NC) currently running the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) – previously coached India’s national team. He led India from a rank of 173rd in 2015 to 97th in December 2018, while also helping them qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup.

However, the experienced coach will have a far bigger task on his hands with Pakistan. While India also has a well-organised domestic league in place, Pakistani football has long been adrift – despite the game’s popularity in the country.

The PFF has been suspended twice by FIFA in the last six years due to political interference, while the country of more than 240 million people has not had a functioning football league for more than a year due to a lack 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 football administration and hold transparent PFF elections.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on the day the squad was announced, Malik agreed that there are “plenty of administrative issues” but said the crisis in Pakistani football has been decades in the making.

“We also lacked broadcast rights and sponsorship, leaving us with barely any funds,” he said.

“However, we are gradually setting up infrastructure, we have started organising district level football championships across the country and the way things are moving, I am very hopeful we will announce a top-tier football league by March 2024 next year.”

Malik said since June 2022, when FIFA lifted a 14-month-long suspension on PFF, his aim was also to provide as many opportunities as possible for Pakistan to play matches.

After not playing an international game since June 2019, Pakistan played eight matches between November 2022 and June 2023, including five friendlies, but lost all – conceding 18 goals in the process and scoring just one.

“We acknowledge the challenges we have, and it is reflected in our team’s ranking and the performance in the field,” Malik said.

‘Constant in-fighting’

Ali Ahsan, the editor of FootballPakistan.Com, an online platform covering Pakistani football, says football remains “underdeveloped, fragmented, and poorly run at all levels” in Pakistan – a fact reflected in its fortunes.

“Despite it being the second most popular sport in the country after cricket, football has never professionalised domestically, nor has it kept pace with the sport across Asia, let alone the world,” he told Al Jazeera.

Since it first entered World Cup qualifying, for Italia 1990, the Pakistani national team has never won a qualification match; it has managed to draw only three of 32 games, scoring 10 goals while conceding 124.

Ahsan believes that one of the key issues hampering Pakistani football over the last three decades has been incessant political meddling.

“When there is constant factionalism and infighting, nobody cares for anything beyond grabbing power for their own self-image,” Ahsan said, adding that occasional FIFA suspensions halt any footballing progress in the country.

Football journalist Umaid Wasim concurs, saying the biggest problem with the sport has been its poor governance.

“The PFF has almost always been run by politicians who have been power hungry,” he told Al Jazeera.

“When the NC took over, it was hoped that things might improve but even their tenure has been found wanting.”

The PFF suspensions in 2017 and 2021 by FIFA were over “undue third-party interference”, and while both times the PFF was reinstated within about a year, the personal and political factionalism within board officials means players have suffered the most.

Former Pakistan captain Saddam Hussain, a 30-year-old defensive midfielder with 21 caps, currently plays in the second tier of Oman’s domestic league for Salalah SC but was not selected in the latest squad.

He told Al Jazeera that the “personal likes and dislikes” of players among the football administration have damaged the national team’s selection and performances.

“I am playing here in Oman; I am obviously fit to perform. But I was not selected. What more do I want as a football player than performing for my own country?” Hussain said.

“I am here in Oman because they think I can offer something and I have some quality. But I was not called up at all.”

Pakistani football console each other after losing to India
Pakistan’s players react after losing to India in Bengaluru on June 21, 2023 [AFP]

Kaleemullah Khan, another frequently capped player conspicuous by his absence from the latest Pakistani squad, says that lack of grassroots development and football officials’ self-interest have hurt the national team the most.

“Football was never the priority,” the striker, who has four international goals to his name, told Al Jazeera. “Funds given by FIFA were used for personal means.”

Malik said that Pakistan has not received FIFA goal project funds since 2015/16 due to allegations of embezzlement.

“However, since the time PFF has its suspension lifted in June last year, there are no such accusations and we are in fact working towards reviving the goal project funding from FIFA,” he said.

“The question about embezzling funds is obviously very politically charged, but it happened in the past and I don’t have any comments to make on it.”

Kaleemullah, who now plays for a club in Karachi, says unless the domestic football league is firmly established, the country’s performance will remain “substandard”.

“Our national team last played in June in South Asian games and our World Cup qualifier was scheduled for October. In the last three months, what have our players done?” Kaleemullah said.

‘Cambodia are far ahead of us’

While the Pakistan team has seven diaspora players, some observers are sceptical that their inclusion will help the country’s fortunes in the upcoming matches.

“The diaspora players who opt to play for Pakistan are often those who fail to make a mark in the countries they’re playing in,” Wasim, the journalist, said.

“For their inclusion to work, not only do we need to cherry-pick the top diaspora talent but also have a domestic structure which produces top quality players.”

So, with a less-than-ideal preparation for the all-important qualifiers against Cambodia, can Pakistan arrest their slide and make history?

Kaleemullah says it is possible, but he is not very optimistic.

“Footballing-wise, Cambodia are far ahead of us. They have a cohesive team practising together for some time. They have a domestic league structure,” he said.

“We don’t know how long our players can maintain stamina or deal with pressure.”

Football Pakistan’s Ahsan, however, remains cautiously optimistic, pinning his hopes on the appointment of Constantine.

“If we can keep things simple and play cautiously to emerge unscathed in the first leg, perhaps we can go all out during the return leg in Islamabad,” he said.

“That could hopefully lead us to qualify for the group stage of qualifiers.”

Source: Al Jazeera