If Pakistan and Japan fail in France; China and Malaysia fail in New Zealand, then only South Korea and hosts India will represent Asia in the 2010 World Cup.
By Khalid Hussain.
KARACHI: Hopes were high as Pakistan’s hockey squad flew out of Lahore for Paris in the early hours of Sunday to launch its campaign in the World Cup Qualifiers getting underway in the northern French city of Lille from October 31.
Pakistan — record four-time world champions — who have never missed a World Cup since its inception in 1971 are facing a do-or-die situation after coming agonisingly close to winning a direct berth for the 2010 World Cup to be played in New Delhi from February 28-March 13.
The Greenshirts could have made the cut for the World Cup by winning the Asia Cup in Malaysia last May but lost in a close final against Korea, who won a ticket to New Delhi.
Now the Pakistanis will have to win the six-nation Qualifiers in Lille which feature Japan, Poland, Russia, France and Italy to confirm a World Cup spot.
Pakistan won the inaugural World Cup in 1971 (Spain) before clinching three more titles in 1978 (Argentina), 1882 (Bombay) and 1994 (Australia).
Their preparatory plans for the Lille assignment received a major blow when they had to cancel a warm-up tour of Europe last month due to visa delays. They had planned to play eight matches in Poland, France and Belgium but had to scrap the tour after being told by the French authorities that they will take their time before processing the team’s visa applications.
However, there was finally some good news for the Lille-bound squad, when the French authorities issued a visa to young forward Abbas Haider on an urgent basis.
Pakistani officials were left looking for a replacement when it was learnt that Abbas — who returned home after playing professional hockey in Europe — needed a visa for the Lille assignment. Abbas’s German visa was due to expire on October 30, a day before the start of the Qualifiers.
Team officials had spotted Sibtain Raza as a possible replacement for Abbas but were relieved when the youngster was issued a French visa.
“It’s quite a relief for us,” Shahid Ali Khan, the Pakistan coach, told ‘The News’ on Saturday. “Abbas is a pretty good player and we will need him in Lille,” he added.
Pakistan are scheduled to arrive in Paris early afternoon and would be leaving for Lille right away.
“We will be in Lille tomorrow evening and will be carrying out a series of training sessions there over the next five days,” he said.
According to the training schedules provided by the organisers, Pakistan will train daily from October 26 till their tournament opener against minnows Italy next Saturday.
Shahid said that the team officials will try to line up a couple of warm-up matches with some of the participating teams.
“Our biggest task is to acclimatise with the cold conditions in Lille,” said Shahid, a former Olympian who has been told that northern France is already freezing under an early winter this time of the year. “That is why we really want to play a couple of practice matches before the start of the tournament.”
Shahid said that his team is confident of winning the title in Lille and confirm a place for the World Cup. “We are leaving with high hopes and I’m confident that the team will not disappoint hockey fans back home,” he said.
A total of 15 players left for Paris from Lahore early Sunday while the other three — Wasim Ahmed, Rehan Butt and Salman Akber — will join their teammates directly in Lille Sunday night. The trio has to feature in their league matches in Holland on Sunday and will leave for Lille after featuring for their respective clubs.
PAKISTAN: Zeeshan Ashraf (captain), Salman Akbar, Nasir Ahmed, Sohail Abbas, Mohammad Imran, Mohammad Irfan, Waseem Ahmed, Sajjad Anwar, Fareed Ahmed, Mohammad Rashid, Rehan Butt, Shakil Abbasi, Haseem Khan, Abbas Haider, Akhtar Ali, Waqas Sharif, Shafqat Rasool, Mohammad Zubair. Asif Bajwa (manager), Shahid Ali Khan (coach).