AL-AHSA: Pakistan will open a new chapter in their football history on Thursday (today) when they start playing in the second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.
This will be the first time Pakistan will play in the second round of the Asian Qualifiers.
Their first Group G rivals will be Saudi Arabia, who have played World Cup for six times. The historic game will be played here at the Al-Fateh Stadium. The match starts at 7:30 pm local time (9:30pm in Pakistan).
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia last played against each other in 1978 in a game at the latter’s backyard which the Shaheens lost 6-0.
Jordan and Tajikistan are the other teams in Pakistan’s group. These four teams will play against each other on home and away basis and then the top two nations will progress to the third round while the bottom two teams will move into the third round of the 2027 Asian Cup Qualifiers. Being a host country of the 2027 Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia have already qualified for the continent’s major showpiece.
Pakistan team, which arrived here on November 11, held six training sessions at the Al-Fateh Stadium’s reserve venue. They were joined by their foreign-based players who came here in two different groups. England-based winger Imran Kayani had joined the team in Islamabad and was part of the entire training duration in the federal capital under the English coach Stephen Constantine. The Whitehawk FC player is likely to make his international debut on Thursday.
According to team sources, overseas players Harun Hamid, Yousuf Butt, Abdullah Iqbal and Abdul Samad arrived here two days ago while Otis Khan and Rahis Nabi checked in at the hotel on Tuesday.
Constantine on Wednesday said that it would be a tough game.
“There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia are a tough side and we will try to make our best effort against them,” he told a pre-match news conference here at the Al-Fateh Sports Club.
He said that the time was short for preparation but whatever time they had at their disposal they tried to prepare well.
“We had a few good days here and a week at Islamabad and hopefully we will put in our best,” Stephen said.
He said that Pakistan will badly miss their defender Easah Suliman who has been ruled out for a few weeks due to an injury which he developed while playing in the Azerbaijan league. Constantine refused to disclose who will lead the side.
“When one is down the other comes to take his place,” he said.
He sees it as a big opportunity for Pakistani players to attract foreign scouts.
“They have to play well and when they do well then definitely they may get offers from professional clubs but it’s a great honour to represent one’s country first,” Constantine said.
The second round matches will be held in three phases with the second phase and third phase to be held in March and June respectively.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia were jolted before Pakistan’s game when their Al-Hilal’s winger Salem Al-Dawsari was ruled out of both the games against Pakistan and Jordan due to an ankle injury which he developed in a match against Al-Taawoun. Salem last month clinched the Asia’s best player award also.
Saudi Arabia’s Italian coach Roberto Mancini said that his team is ready for the show.
“It’s a first official game for us in the Qualifiers. We are ready and you know the first game is always difficult,” Mancini told the news conference.
“I think it is time to put youngsters in the team for the future because we saw many players in three months. And we believe that we have a good young players for the future and it’s important to give them a chance in the important game,” Mancini said.
“My target is to try to play good football. we started well but we played against tough teams and in future this team will progress well,” he said.
Since taking charge as Saudi Arabia’s head coach last August his charges have lost three matches of the four they have played. He said that Saudi Arabia will not take Pakistan lightly.
Alam Zeb Safi is a senior reporter for The News