Pakistan’s national football team has been given visas for India, officials said, where they will take on the hosts in their first match on Indian soil since 2014.
The South Asian neighbours will kick off the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship on Wednesday.
The two countries rarely play home matches against each other in any sport due to long-running political tensions made worse by the Mumbai attacks of 2008 and the scrapping of Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status in 2019.
The participation of Pakistan in the Bengaluru event has raised hopes Islamabad will take part in the ICC World Cup cricket tournament hosted by India later this year, having earlier threatened to boycott the event.
Haroon Malik, the president of the Pakistan Football Federation, told Al Jazeera that the visa approval was “a great sign and very significant” and required getting “no objection certificates” from both the Pakistani and Indian governments.
“This is a very positive sign and shows at least some level of resumption of sporting ties,” Malik said, adding that the visas were received on Monday evening.
“We are very excited and looking forward to this tournament, and this really is the role of football – to unite the world and bring [people] closer.”
The last time Pakistan played football in India was in 2014, when they drew a two-match series, but they also faced off in the SAFF Championship in Bangladesh in 2018, with India winning 3-1.
Football is popular in both nations but is dwarfed in popularity by cricket.
Despite the millions in revenue bilateral cricket matches would earn, the last time they played cricket on home soil was when Pakistan toured India for five limited-overs matches in 2012.
The eight-nation SAFF Championship kicks off Wednesday, with Pakistan in Group A alongside India, Kuwait and Nepal, and Group B featuring Lebanon, Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The final is scheduled for July 4.
India are currently 101st in FIFA’s world rankings, while Pakistan is ranked 195th. Pakistani football has long been in turmoil over alleged political interference and violence.
FIFA lifted a 15-month suspension of the PFF in July 2022, which had been imposed due to third-party interference.
Ali Ahsan, the editor of FootballPakistan.Com, an online platform covering Pakistani football, told Al Jazeera that Pakistan’s current squad has an average age of just 21 and is a mix of domestic and foreign-based that have limited experience playing together.
“So this international football experience is crucial to get our proper starting lineup and squad ready for the October [2026 World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup] qualifiers … Pakistan remains the only AFC nation that has not won a single World Cup qualification match in its history,” Ahsan said.
“We need to end this streak that began back in 1989 for the 1990 World Cup qualifiers where we participated for the first time.”
Source: Al Jazeera