Pakistan’s growing pains in Round Two of FIFA World Cup qualifiers were evident in a resolute performance against Saudi Arabia’s attacking intents.
If someone had told me at the start of October 2023 that Pakistan’s football team would beat Cambodia and then give their all against Saudi Arabia, I’d have asked them to tread lightly on the delusion. Turns out, that’s exactly what ended up happening. Pakistan indeed beat Cambodia 1-0 across 180 grueling minutes thanks to some resolute defending and Harun Hamid’s epic goal in Jinnah Stadium Islamabad to reach Round Two of the 2026 FIFA World Cup’s Asian Qualifiers.
First time Pakistan ever won a WCQ in 34 years, and that too under legendary boss Stephen Constantine! Wild scenes, and unrestrained tears, were had!
Pakistan now is in WCQs Round Two as the lowest-ranked team (193rd), playing home-and-away fixtures for Group G against Saudi Arabia (yes, THAT Saudi Arabia who famously beat Lionel Messi’s Argentina 2-1 in the 2022 World Cup group stage), Jordan and Tajikistan in the November, March, and June FIFA international windows.
Lo and behold, our first match in R2 would be against the Saudis, now coached by a certain Roberto Mancini (you remember him, right?), on their own turf on 16 November. This would be followed by a return to Jinnah Stadium for another 2 pm kickoff, now against Tajikistan on 21 November.
No one in their right mind would dare that Pakistan has what it takes to reach Round Three in such a group. Constantine was quick to point out that the real aim of playing these qualifiers is to gain experience against the much stronger teams to prepare Pakistan for the 2027 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.
The first lesson was quite a learning at the hands of Mancini’s Saudi Arabia, On a thunderstorm-affected evening at the brand-new Al-Fateh Club Stadium in the Saudi city of Al-Ahsa, the Green Falcons beat Constantine’s Shaheens 4-0. A brace by Saleh al-Shehri and a late goal each by substitutes Abdulrahman Ghareeb and Abdullah Radif made the loud home fans wild.
— قنوات الكاس (@AlkassTVSports) November 16, 2023
On the surface that seemed like a typical one-sided thrashing of a Round One qualified minnow on 16 November, but the scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, the Saudis were missing some very key players like Salem al-Dawsari, Salman al-Farj, and Yasser al-Shahrani due to injury or Mohammed Kano not being picked because Mancini wanted to give younger players a chance. But this Saudi team was always going to be favorites to top Group G based on the quality they produce in the Saudi Pro League – one of the best leagues in Asia even before the billions spent on getting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema, etc. to now play for Saudi clubs.
Pakistan, on the other hand, was missing its defensive mainstay and captain Easah Suliman who suffered a knee injury with his Azerbaijan club Sumqayit FK the week after the Cambodia triumph and won’t be back in action until the new year.
In his stead, Mamoon Musa had to partner with Abdullah Iqbal in defence. But one good news was Otis Khan was back in the team after FIFA finally cleared him to play in the WCQs having initially stopped the Grimsby Town FC winger from facing Cambodia over eligibility concerns. Imran Kayani, who plays for Whitehawk FC in the English 7th tier, was given his debut as a striker after Muhammad Waheed and winger Moin Ahmed were dropped from the squad over disciplinary issues by the no-nonsense Constantine.
Pakistan last played Saudi Arabia way back in 1978 when the legendary likes of Ali Nawaz Baloch, Ali Asghar ‘Tony’, and Ghulam Sarwar Sr. suffered a 6-0 thrashing by the Gulf giants.
They were always the underdogs regardless. Yet for 90 minutes, it was a performance of pure guts, determination, and heart by a Pakistan side whose entire domestic contingent still remains without a league at home due to nearly a decade of troubles plaguing the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). Constantine’s words before the team departed for Saudi Arabia were that Pakistan would not go down without a fight rang true. With Otis given the captain’s armband, the whole team hustled throughout. 4-0 suggests the winners created plenty of scoreable chances deserving a larger scoreline. That wasn’t the case.
Sure, Al-Shehri gave the home side the lead after just six minutes with the rain still pouring like mad when his left-footed strike shot past Pakistan’s Yousuf Butt in a scene similar to Al-Shehri’s equalizer past Argentina’s Emiliano Martínez in 2022 WC. But Pakistan managed to recover from the chaotic opening minutes to maintain a robust 4-4-2 to deny the home side and its loud fans any further delights for the rest of the half. Saudis had more of the ball and the passing stats, but Pakistan was here to be difficult to beat as they stuck to Constantine’s plan till the break.
Pakistan even created a chance to equalize when Abdul Samad Arshad, who plays for HIK in Denmark, delivered a great cross from the right to Muslim FC Chaman striker Fareedullah who unluckily headed over the bar. That chance appeared to have really shaken Roberto Mancini as he berated his Saudi players from the touchline for nearly conceding.
— FootballPakistan.com (@FootballPak) November 16, 2023
With a 1-0 deficit, Pakistan aimed to keep frustrating the Saudis in the 2nd half as they brought on Harun Hamid and debutant Kayani. However, conceding an unnecessary penalty allowed al-Shehri to make it 2-0.
Mancini had likely urged them to attack with more intensity, and they did for much of the 2nd half, forcing Butt to even make two world-class saves in quick succession to deny al-Shehri a hattrick. As the game gradually petered out, Pakistan even had the odd chance when Alamgir Ghazi’s header from an Otis’ cross went off target, before a Harun Hamid shot stung Saudi goalkeeper al-Owais’ hands.
Also, good to see likes of Rao Umer Hayat, Rahis Nabi, Alamgir Ghazi etc. not afraid of going into the tackle. Though care must be taken to avoid unnecessary yellow cards. #KSAvPAKpic.twitter.com/X0apaQmAQ0
— FootballPakistan.com (@FootballPak) November 17, 2023
This shot by Harun Hamid last night was a decent attempt. Just wish the rebound was a bit fortunate.pic.twitter.com/hjRU0ZSejI
— FootballPakistan.com (@FootballPak) November 17, 2023
It seemed a 2-0 loss was possible when 5 minutes of stoppages began. But Saudia made a final push against Pakistan’s tired defence as Ghareeb and Radif made it a flattering 4-0. Saudi Arabia was the deserved winner, but Pakistan’s gutsy performance against Asia’s Big Five deserved recognition.
Even Mancini praised Pakistan in the post-match presser for making Saudi Arabia work for that 4-0. With arguably the most difficult away fixture out the way so early, Pakistan now faces Tajikistan at home on the 21st.
Petar Šegrt’s Tajikistan were unlucky to be held 1-1 very late by Jordan at home in Dushanbe in the other Group G fixture. Tajikistan is a stubborn side that can strike when you least expect them, as shown when they recently beat home side Malaysia to win the Merdeka Cup in October.
Pakistan would again need to keep things tidy in front of a hopefully larger and louder Jinnah Stadium crowd that would now want to see international football be played again at home and end 2023 on an optimistic note.
The young fans and skeptics must remember that playing stronger sides shows just how much Pakistan is behind if it wants to be a footballing nation. If you want to show the world what you are made of, you first must work on meeting the world’s minimum standards to participate.
The team deserves patience, care, and full support at all levels. Stephen Constantine’s international pedigree thanks to what he did as India’s NT boss makes him worth his weight in gold. Listen to what he has to say and give him the patience and support to build a team that can compete better and qualify for the Asian Cup – a tournament Pakistan has also never qualified for in its history.
About the author: Ali Ahsan – Editor, FootballPakistan.Com.