Pakistan can take Afghan lessons in football – Featured

Pakistan can take Afghan lessons in football – Featured

Mohammad Shahnawaz, Director, Islamabad

On 20th August, Pakistan and the world witnessed Afghanistan host its first international football match in a decade. It was their first against Pakistan on home soil since 1977. The Lions of Khorasan trounced the neighbouring Pak Shaheens 3-0 and showed that their football was already ahead of Pakistan even after decades of inactivity.

Three weeks later, on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Afghanistan defeated India to lift its first South Asian Football Federation Championship which sent the country into frenzy, sparked night long celebrations and a homecoming party in Kabul. Afghan President Hamid Karzai sent three of his cabinet ministers to watch the final and received the victorious Lions of Khorasan at the airport himself.

So we take a look at how football compares between these two countries and what can Pakistan learn from its ambitious neighbour.
It has been ten years since PFF President Faisal Saleh Hayat took office and promised to improve the level of football in the country. We will look back at those ten years and how things have changed in the country and what more could have been done. How nations with bigger challenges have achieved greater success and reforms in football in much less time than Pakistan and what we can learn from them, will also be under discussion in the feature.

Over the Durand line in Afghanistan, the football activities resumed around the same time as PFF president took office in 2003. Afghanistan has seen rapid growth and rise in football popularity in the last decade as compared to somewhat minimal growth of football in Pakistan.

The success of Afghanistan can be attributed to various things but vision for betterment of football in Afghanistan is certainly the top one. Willing to work with each other at local and international stage, competent workforce, both in administration and football development, and the much needed corporate support has helped Afghanistan push forward faster than any other emerging nation in the region.

Afghanistan in the last decade has enjoyed support from the international community and especiallyPakistan can take Afghan lessons in footballfrom the German Football Federation and German Olympic Association. Germany provided Klaus Stark as national team coach and technical director, a role in which he served for four years before moving on, and currently, Ali Askar Lali, a former Afghan international player, acts as development coordinator with Afghanistan Football Federation which is supported by the German Olympic Association.

Similar offers made to Pakistan Football Federation have been rejected many times for the reasons best known to PFF.

Compare the national team’s performances, whilst Pakistan picked up SAF Games golds in 2004 and 2006, which hold no value in FIFA’s equation, with Afghanistan. The Afghanistan team has made significant inroads, qualifying for two AFC Challenge Cup final rounds to Pakistan’s none, making it to the final of SAFF Cup in 2011 at only their 5th attempt and, winning the event in 2013 whilst Pakistan are yet to make the final despite having played in all ten editions so far.

Pakistan have also failed to make it past the group stages for the last four consecutive editions, winning just two games in the process against Bhutan in 2009 and Bangladesh in 2013.
The Afghan junior teams have repeatedly beaten Pakistani junior teams in recent years; another indication of their quick rise in the region. The success of their national team’s credit is due to various people such as Klaus Stark and Askar Lali who laid good foundations followed by the current coach Yousuf Kargar.

Whilst in Pakistan, the likes of Tariq Lutfi and Akhtar Mohiuddin saw overseas based Pakistani players with cynicism, Kargar on the other hand has welcomed them with open arms. In Afghanistan’s AFC Challenge Cup match, nine out of the starting eleven players were overseas based. Some overseas based Pakistani players have thrived under foreign coaches but they are yet to be welcomed openly by everyone even after almost a decade since the first player from UK made his Pakistan debut.

Key aspects of the rise of Afghan football are the reforms and the right people working in the federation. Whilst Pakistan Football Federation is dominated by ex-servicemen in pretty much every influential position, it is the opposite and inspiring what the AFF has done. Secretary General of the AFF is a young 23-year-old Alireza Aghazada who is full of ideas, passion and love for the sport which is visible through the work being carried out; the Vice President of AFF is the national team coach Yousuf Kargar. Football related people with ambition and dedication are in key positions with merit being encouraged and all aspects of the sport being taken seriously such as youth development, coach development, futsal, beach soccer, women’s football and a professional football league.

The Afghan Premier League backed by the media house is on similar lines to the Super Football League Pakistan saw in 2007 and 2010, however, this is being done with serious planning and vision with nationwide TV and radio coverage, and a jam-packed Kabul Stadium for each game. The league is already making more money than the established I-League, B-League and the Maldives League whereas no commercial concept exists in the PFFL which it can be compared to.

PFF has made slight change to this season of PFFL with matches being held in Quetta for all of the Balochistan teams, keeping in mind the walkovers in recent years and the security situation of the province. However, the league still has no hope of attracting a sponsor or TV coverage even in its 10th season, which shows how much the game has truly progressed.

The women’s game is something of a fairytale that rose in Afghanistan which saw them beat Pakistan at the last edition of Women’s SAFF Cup in Sri Lanka with the Afghan team boasting a number of female players from Europe and USA. In Pakistan the game remains a tick-box exercise to meet AFC and FIFA criteria for continued funding. The national championship has been held every year but it is managed so poorly with no care for the players.

Pakistan national women’s team is another tick-box formality as they have only played in SAFF Championship at senior level, they have not participated in any junior AFC events or qualification rounds, neither have the ladies had any friendly matches at home or abroad. Pakistan will host the 2014 edition of Women’s SAFF Championship, with National Women’s Championship almost cancelled for this year and with no proper arrangements planned, it seems like the ladies in green will be up against the odds on their own turf.

So there are a few things that Pakistan can learn from Afghanistan; reform by introducing football and business related professionals into the administration at PFF instead of politicians and ex-servicemen who can only claim to have good ‘administration skills’ which are no longer the only thing needed for football.

There is also a need for reform on how the provincial and district FA’s operate, youth development and coach development should be key areas if football is to prosper at grassroots level. A foreign technical director and coaches for junior teams are also needs of the hour so the learning process starts early and players master the basics, youth leagues are required instead of ad hoc championships in order to have proper competition for youngsters with strict age testing mechanisms so no overage player abuses the system.

All this should be topped off by having a professional league which provides platform for the best in the country to play their trade and earn a respectable living and have a career in football. So if a war torn, foreign occupied Afghanistan with worse security situation than Pakistan can have a professional football league, attract corporate sponsorship and media coverage then why can’t Pakistani football attract something similar given that the game has huge popularity to broadcast on multiple sports channels and a much bigger corporate sector to support it. Pakistan must reform its football and do it quickly or get left behind even in the SAFF region and become a true minnow.

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