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One thing that would certainly improve the standard of the PPFL would be the inclusion of foreign players. -Photo by White Star/Stephan Andrew

Since its inception in 2004, the PPFL has been under intense scrutiny. And as the ninth edition of the country’s top-tier league draws to the close there has been scything criticism that it has done little to improve the standard of the beautiful game in Pakistan.

It stems from coaches, players and the officials.

Mohammad Essa, arguably the best playmaker the country has produced, reckons the league isn’t fair considering the high number of walkovers awarded throughout the season.

“It isn’t fair,” Essa says, referring to the matches in Balochistan where many teams avoid traveling to due to security reasons. “A good league shouldn’t have such easy points on offer for teams of specific regions.”

There has also been serious criticism over the duration of the league which packs 30 matches for each of the 16 participating clubs in just four months.

Tariq Lutfi, the country’s most experienced coach, reckons that it is high time for a change.

“The duration of the league should be extended to seven months,” recommends Lutfi. “That would ensure the players’ fitness levels are up to the mark and ensure that there is even better competition.”

The PFF, though, remains unmoved. According to PFF Secretary Col (retd) Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi, they are utilising the ‘scant’ resources they have in the best possible way. “We’re trying to implement a proper footballing structure in the country,” Lodhi said. “We want to develop the game from the grassroots and try to bring youth into the game.”

Lodhi’s vision has a distinct similarity to that of former Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard.

Rijkaard, who now is the head coach of the Saudi Arabian national football team, is trying to establish a set up in the Gulf country that would see it recover its lost glory.

“What we needed was a new philosophy, working with the younger age groups in clubs at the domestic league level to lay the foundations for producing top-quality professional players,” Rijkaard told in a recent interview.

“But we cannot expect to see the benefits tomorrow. It will take another decade before the results come through.”

Saudi Arabia already has a professional league whilst the PPFL is far from being professional. So what does the PFF actually have in mind?

“We are looking at the establishment of a professional league with clubs who have their own youth academy with the help of FIFA and the AFC,” Lodhi says.

“But in Pakistan, there are a lot of problems. Privately-owned clubs cannot give to the players what departments can.

“The departments offer good salaries, benefits and a good post-retirement package. An average player gets Rs25,000 in salary.”

Even if the league features departmental teams along with clubs, club teams can barely compete with the departments which lead to lop-sided matches.

The greatest example is that of Wohaib FC, one of the country’s first privately-owned teams, who were the whipping boys of the ninth edition of the PPFL and were relegated after collecting a meagre eight points.

There have been calls for reducing the number of teams so as to make the league more qualitative but the PFF, at present, has no plans to do so.

“Reducing the number of teams wouldn’t improve the quality of the league in any way,” Lodhi says. “That would only result in lesser number of games so where is the competition? How can you have a few teams playing each other and deciding a top-tier championship?”

And he also refuses to extend the duration of the league. “In the current scenario, it isn’t possible,” he says. “We have a limited budget to work with and so do the departments.

“Once they arrive in a city, they want to get done with their fixtures as soon as possible so as to avoid accommodation fees.

“Similarly, they cannot afford to travel week in-week out if we try to hold games on the weekend.”

Lodhi, however, argued that the PFF has tried to help the teams by asking them to increase the number of players on their roster.

“We tried to increase the number of players each team could have but FIFA refused to allow each team to have that many number of players.” He also shot down allegations that the current PFF set-up is interested in holding the PPFL only to the extent that they ensure grants from FIFA and AFC.

“Pakistan has been receiving grants from 1995 but the league started in 2004,” he says. “The grants will keep coming whether we hold the PPFL or not.”

One thing, though, that would certainly improve the standard of the PPFL would be the inclusion of foreign players.

KESC coach Hasan Baloch has been interested in signing a couple of Brazilians who he hopes would not only help in improving the league but also start a trend that would see other teams go into the market for foreign players.

“It would start a trend,” Hasan Baloch says. “I’m looking at two Brazilian players to bring into the team and that would not only help our team become technically better but also improve the standard of football in the league.”

In order to pay the fee for those players, however, the teams would require support from the PFF just like the ‘designated player’ rule in Major League Soccer (MLS) and the A-League.

However, a cash-strapped PFF refuses to offer any financial support. “We’ve allowed every team to sign up to two foreign players and we are willing to help them in bringing them to the PPFL but there would be no sort of financial support,” Lodhi says.

One thing that could, however, help the PPFL is getting sponsorships and earning money through broadcasting rights. And it would eventually help the clubs in paying the fee for foreign players.

That, in itself, though, is a huge problem. When the PPFL was launched in 2004, it was named the KASB Premier League but after just one season, the bank withdrew its sponsorship as it did not get the monetary benefits it was aiming to get through the country’s first football league.

Similarly, a private sports channel broadcast the league last season but the country’s economic conditions and lack of sparkle in the league meant it, too, did not get the advertisements it was hoping to get in the live broadcast of the league. That has certainly disheartened the PFF. “Now we have PTV Sports, a government channel, but it also refuses to broadcast the league as it would not get them the mileage that cricket offers them,” laments Lodhi.

Although the PPFL has failed to live up to the promise it showed when it was launched nine years ago, there is still hope that times will change.

Next season will see Pak-Afghan Clearing Agency (PACA), a hybrid of a department and a club, which is owned by Essa and consisting of up-and-coming young players from Chaman competing in the league.

Such hybrid teams represent the way forward for an ailing PPFL which seems to have lost its way in the last nine years.

by Umaid Wasim [Dawn] for ‘Images on Sunday’ magazine, 13 January 2013