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AFC U23 Championship Qualifiers: Uncertainty creating anxiety among players, coaches

By Alam Zeb Safi
February 11, 2019

KARACHI: With the cloud of uncertainty looming over Pakistan’s participation in the 2020 AFC Under-23 Championship Qualifiers, coaches of teams in Pakistan’s group have started raising questions.

“What about Pakistan? Is Pakistan coming to the event,” a coach of one of the central Asian nations which are in Pakistan’s group asked this correspondent on Sunday.The qualifiers are also the first stage of the qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In the 44-team qualifiers, Pakistan have been clubbed in Group F with the arch-rivals India, hosts and defending champions Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The qualifiers will be held from March 22-26.

The 11 group winners and four best second-placed teams will qualify for the finals to be held in Thailand next year.The 2020 finals will serve as qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with the leading three nations qualifying for the world’s most prestigious event.

Pakistan’s issue is that FIFA still recognises Faisal Saleh Hayat as the head of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). Last year PFF elections were conducted under the instructions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in which Ashfaq Hussain Shah was elected its president. The last few matches of the Pakistan Premier Football League were also held under the new body at Karachi.

As the accounts and the PFF headquarters in Lahore have been handed over to Ashfaq-led body, Pakistan is highly likely to miss the AFC Under-23 Championship Qualifiers as the new body is not internationally recognised and will not be able to send the team to the event.

A former foreign coach of Pakistan told ‘The News’ that missing AFC Under-23 Championship qualifiers would destroy the country’s investment it had made for preparing the lot. “It will kill all investment and will hurt the players who were aiming to appear in the qualifiers,” the coach said.

“I think it would be better if the issue was resolved as quickly as possible,” the coach said. Another former foreign coach showed surprise over the infighting in Pakistan’s sports.“I think such issues are always there in Pakistan’s football. I don’t know why Pakistanis don’t go to the court of FIFA,” the coach wondered.

“If Pakistan missed Olympic Qualifiers (AFC Under-23) and the subsequent World Cup qualifiers to be held next summer then it means that one generation will lose the opportunity to showcase its talent in the biggest events. It would be huge injustice with Pakistan football,” the coach said.

Knowing the seriousness of the situation, former Pakistan captain Mohammad Essa said the conflicting forces should think that without FIFA’s consent nobody would be able to continue the country’s football.

“Better sense should prevail. We know that without FIFA we cannot run football, then why don’t we respect the world body,” Essa said while talking to this correspondent from Chaman.

“In the past too we faced huge damage and again we are on the brink of missing AFC Under-23 Championship Qualifiers. And next summer Pakistan also have to appear in the World Cup qualifiers. Setting aside the personal interests we should think about our players, their future and above all the game which is playing a major role in Pakistan’s international recognition,” the former play-maker said.

“In the last few months PFF invested heavily in football. Pakistan sent its teams to several international events within a very short period last year. A marked improvement was seen in national team’s growth but a halt to everything is now damaging football. Prime Minister Imran Khan himself is a sportsman and knows the regulations of the International Cricket Council (ICC). He can resolve the issue if he checks the rules of FIFA,” Essa said.

Because of the issue, Pakistan remained in isolation for three years from April 2015 to April 2018. The country also did not hold its Premier League for three seasons.