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.
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.
Source: Pro Pakistani