ISLAMABAD: The first leg in Phnom Penh set it up and Pakistan now have home comforts to bank on as they look to erase an unenviable record to make history at the Jinnah Stadium on Tuesday.
A full house is expected to cheer Pakistan against Cambodia, the hosts chasing a maiden victory in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup which would see them advance to the second round of preliminaries for the 2026 edition of football’s showpiece tournament.
Fuelling their belief is Thursday’s goalless draw in the Cambodian capital which makes the second leg a winner-takes-all clash. That stalemate ended a run of 12 straight defeats stretching back to 2018 — with eight of them coming in the last year — and showed the difference incoming coach Stephen Constantine has made in less than three weeks at helm.
Pakistan showed defensive composure and solidity in the opening leg, which they will need again, with Constantine — who came in after the FIFA-appointed Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee finally lost patience with Shehzad Anwar — optimistic about his side’s chances.
“We hope to do better,” he told reporters at a news conference on Monday, adding that he expects his players to fire as Pakistan ends a long international football drought at home.
Pakistan’s last home game was a 2-1 win over Afghanistan in Lahore back in February 2015. In two World Cup qualifying campaigns since then, they played there home legs on neutral venues.
The first-round qualifier for the 2018 tournament against Yemen was shifted to Bahrain after unrest in Lahore while the home leg in the tie against Cambodia four years ago for the 2022 edition was played in Doha due to turmoil in the PFF.
“After eight long years, a big match will be played in Pakistan,” said Constantine. “Our focus is to win with the support of our home fans.”
Cambodia won 4-1 on aggregate against Pakistan four years ago but they’ve found going tough this time around despite their opponents missing the services of Britain-based winger Otis Khan, whose eligibility was put into question by FIFA.
“We have not received any confirmation from FIFA as yet,” said Constantine. “If we get the approval, he will be part of the team tomorrow.”
Goalkeeper Yousuf Butt, defender Rao Umar Hayat and midfielder Rahis Nabi are the only three Pakistan players who featured against Cambodia four years ago and the custodian, who made his first appearance for the national side back in 2012, was glad to be able to finally make his ‘home’ debut.
“It’s been a long time coming but I’m glad to finally be able to play in front of our fans,” the Denmark-based Yousuf told reporters.
A PFF NC official told Dawn that the stadium is expected to be at full capacity, informing that 3500 tickets had been sold at the 18000-capacity venue. “There is free entry for students of schools and colleges,” he added.
Rain in the capital, however, could prevent fans from turning up for the game. There was light drizzle throughout Monday and the downpour is expected to get heavier.
The drizzle left puddles on the Jinnah Stadium pitch on Monday evening with the venue having been renovated recently to be able to meet FIFA’s hosting requirements. It also saw teams carry out their training sessions indoors.
Earlier, Cambodia coach Felix Dalmas said he was concerned about the state of the pitch. “I have a few apprehensions about the pitch as it looks uneven,” he told reporters on Monday. “But we’re not complaining.”
There was uproar on social media over the way Cambodia were received at the Islamabad airport upon their arrival with images showing players loading their luggage in an open-top truck.
Dalmas, however, said his side had been “warmly welcomed”. “They have been very kind and as a guest I’m very happy,” he added.
Turning his attention to the match, he said: “The first leg was a tough game and we will do our best to win here.”
On offer for the winners of the tie is a place in alongside Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Jordan in Group ‘G’ in the second qualifying round.
“We’re hopeful of getting the result we need,” Cambodia goalkeeper Kim Huy told reporters. “We know what we need to do.”
With additional reporting from Umaid Wasim in Karachi
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2023