Time to scrap the premier league? [Dawn]

by Ali Ahsan for Dawn.com

ppfl, pakistam premier football league, ipl, sfl, spl, ppf, pff, pakistan football federation, footballpakistan, pakistan football, fifa, football

Mr Miyagi said in Karate Kid “Ambition without knowledge is like a boat on dry land” but what can you say when there is no ambition or knowledge but a lot power?

That is something being exhibited by majority of the sports bodies in Pakistan and in particular the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). Tall claims have been made by the federation repeatedly. They have been as absurd as qualification for 2020 Olympics and 2022 FIFA World Cup as part of its much vaunted ‘Vision 2020 Program’. But there are no concrete measures being taken to ensure that these lofty objectives are met.

There is no professional league, no comprehensive national youth development plan, no investment into infrastructure, and above all there is no effort being made to commercialise the sport.

According to source, a FIFA delegation that visited recently to assess PFF’s operations delegation expressed disappointment with the way the federation was running the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) and suggested changes. However, judging from the past, suggestions from players/coaches and even in-house research on the league, will fall on deaf ears because there is no vision or ambition as my previous article analysed.

More importantly there is shortage of sports related professionals who could transform the organisation. The sad reality of the PPFL is that it has been running for nine years and the standard of football has gradually declined instead of experiencing even limited periods of upwards mobility.

This has largely been due to fast expansion with little regulation and continued violation of rules such as walkovers, the inhumane four-month season in which teams play 30 matches, no TV/radio coverage and above all, the prize money for winning team is same as annual salary earned by highest paid footballer in the country.

There is much quantity but no quality as is evident by the fortunes of the national team, to which the PPFL should ideally be supplying. The shambolic performance of Pakistan U22s in recent AFC Asian U22 Championship qualifying round where the Greenshirts picked up one point in five games and failed to score a single goal, demonstrated the poor standard at the grass-roots level.

In a quick reaction to that and mostly to douse the flames, the PFF quickly turned to enforce a new rule where PPFL teams would be required to have a certain number of U19 players in their squads. But what can you achieve out of this when almost all of the PPFL teams do not have their own academies or youth development centre?

Therefore, the issue of polishing talent will persist because the players have not been properly coached from an early age.

The time has come for PFF to part ways with the rotten PPFL and set up a new league. This should not just aim to ‘tick the box’ to keep the FIFA/AFC grants flowing but be something productive that can rejuvenate football in the country.

Football clubs in Pakistan are not as strong to run a successful football league with TV coverage and garner the support of the corporate sector at the same time. On the other hand departments don’t have the appeal for the general public and 65 years of the same has proved to be a failure.

It is important for PFF to break free from the past and start a new league which is based on the franchise model belonging to major cities. Such a concept is not new to Pakistan.

The city-based Geo Super Football League was started by Geo Super with the help of PFF in the summer of 2007. Five teams all based in Karachi competed in the event that spanned over two months. The league attracted crowds in their thousands and good level of play was on display for a nationwide audience.

However, with a lack of long term support from PFF, the league was discontinued until summer 2010 when KESC stepped in to support the venture with another SFL season. PFF once again supported from the venture from the side-lines. The league was a success but it failed to materialise into something permanent. This was largely because Geo Super conducted it purely for commercial reasons while PFF failed to cash in on it for the long term betterment of football in the country.

Looking forward, because Pakistan does not have a huge history of club football it will be relatively easy to start with a city-based franchise model. This idea was adopted by Australia after the recommendations of the Crawford Report in 2003 calling for wholesale changes in Australian sports system, including football.

The A-League was set up as a separate entity as recommended by the commission, something the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has asked PFF to do with current PPFL but to no avail.

An eight-team city-based league would be a good starting point for PFF which could last up to five months on a home and away basis with a play-off system adopted for the top four to make the outcome unpredictable. The franchises should be auctioned off with strict criteria for the host cities and the potential buyers meeting financial standards set by the league authority.

The league could also adopt salary cap to ensure there is competitive balance within the league which is non-existent in PPFL as the likes of KRL and KESC pay big bucks but clubs like PMC Athletico and Baloch FC Nushki, and Muslim FC Chaman pay bare minimum to their players.

The PFF can enforce its youth promotion rules such as number of U19s and U21 players in the squad and make strict youth development programmes a prerequisite. It can even follow the Indian model of Pailan Arrows and form a team made entirely of young international players in the league.

Such development programmes shall follow a national football curriculum which should be devised by PFF and enforced on all participating teams and wider football community if it is to lift the standard of football collectively.

The incentive to participate in the likes of AFC Cup and AFC Champions League instead of the 3rd tier AFC President Cup will prove to be a motivating factor for the franchise owners and the league in general.

The league would require autonomy from PFF, with its own governing body under the patronage of PFF but constituted by the stakeholders and the franchisees who shall work for betterment of their teams and the support.

This could lead to following the Major League Soccer of USA/Canada and Australian A-League method with franchises setting up proper youth development centres and youth teams to develop local talent which the departments shy away from therefore not providing the opportunities for players to realise their full potential at an early age.

This set up would professionalise, commercialise and promote the game to the masses which has not happened in 65 years. Currently, footballers continue to play for departments but they offer permanent jobs. So the incentive is a job which would feed their family and not to nurture their football careers. They have no option. The departments do not play football for commercial or professional reasons or for the betterment of the sport.

A new, professional league could trigger a change in attitude towards sports in Pakistan and in particular, football. Awareness, participation in sport, talent identification and development, infrastructural development such as stadiums/training facilities and a move towards professionalism, will follow.

From the IPL example, the success of sport has spurred on the owners to diversify such as Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan rumoured to be investing in Indian football club Dempo SC. Billionaire Vijay Mallaya’s UB Group owns stake in Kolkata football giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Time has come for wealthy of Pakistan to contribute to the development of sport which can offer the youth a route out of poverty and frustration.

The success of IPL has shown that the franchise model is workable in the region, which has also been adopted by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for cricket whilst other sports in India are also looking to adopt it. Badminton and Basketball have such leagues in the pipeline while an American Football league in India has begun. Talks of a small franchise league for football are on too despite I-League gaining popularity.

Taking cues from this model of sport, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has decided to set up a Pakistan Premier League (PPL) starting from March 2013 and it shows changes in attitudes from being a body just to govern sport to moving towards promotion and commercialisation of sport. PFF too can take stakeholders on board, take the game to the masses, and free it from the stranglehold of lethargic government departments.

For all this to happen, there is need for urgent reform within PFF, it must appoint professional staff at least for the league if it wishes to continue with the current trend of retired servicemen running the PFF. The Crawford Report in Australia put forward billionaire Frank Lowy (Co-Founder of Westfield shopping centre chain) to head the interim board to reform football, which he did tremendously.

Pakistan certainly does have dearth of such people with a passion for sport and corporate enterprise to take football forward.

How more thought-provoking can it be that a war-torn Afghanistan can host a professional football league based on the city-based franchise model with nationwide TV and radio coverage and a packed stadium in Kabul, while nine seasons of PPFL have largely gone unnoticed.

The writer is Chief Editor, Forum Administrator, and Pakistan Correspondent at FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC)