Dreams of nothingness [Dawn]

Dreams of nothingness [Dawn]

By Mohammed Shahnawaz

Every four years a phenomenon grips the Pakistani public that is the football World Cup with pockets of areas in the country with more serious interest in the tournament than others.

These areas include the troubled neighbourhoods of Karachi such as Lyari, parts of Balochistan and urban centres like Lahore, Islamabad and Faisalabad where vehicles and rooftops fly the national flags of participants.

Calm returns to many troubled and crime-hit areas just because people are busy watching football. A festive atmosphere is generated while young and old all enjoy the event. More recently locals have started to put the games on big screens too. This exercise is repeated again during the European championships but at a smaller scale as it is Brazil and Argentina that draw much of the support in Pakistan’s old football hotbeds such as Lyari.

With the introduction of cable channels, growth in viewership of European football leagues and Champions League has seen a new set of fan base in Pakistan away from the traditionally supported teams to more exciting teams with players from from big European clubs playing. These teams, to mention a few, include Chile, Portugal, Colombia and Holland.

Away from mainstream media, the recent rise in social media, too, has played an even bigger role in providing an outlet to Pakistan football fans in expressing their opinions on the matches and the 2014 World Cup has seen a very high level of active interest in the tournament. But in the midst of all this worldwide excitement there are the odd ones who wonder why we aren’t at the World Cup and when will we qualify for the global mega event?

Sadly these questions fade away shortly after these tournaments and things return to normal and the governing bodies for football go back to their ways of doing things, no questions asked.

Pakistan for over 60 years has never really got any where near the FIFA World Cup qualification purely because the game in Pakistan has been left so far behind that after 10 years of the current domestic league the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is aiming to upgrade it to semi-professional level.

Pakistan has always had an interest in football with areas as highlighted earlier dominating proceedings when it came to the domestic scene but it never got going at the international level.

Football in Pakistan has lacked investment in infrastructure and professionalism. Abdul Hafeez Kardar or Air Marshal Nur Khan, who helped transform a number of Pakistani sports, just didn’t get to football. Instead of visionary sports administrators, football fell into the hands of feudal landowners-turned-politicians and former servicemen and it is yet to break free from their shackles.

For over 40 years since the inception of PFF (in 1948 by Quaid-i-Azam) the national team never attempted to qualify for the World Cup by failing to take part in the qualification rounds despite having some of the most talented players ever to wear the green shirt in that era.

Since 1990, the Pakistan national football team has not managed to get beyond the first or pre-qualifying rounds of the AFC qualifiers and never managed a win 28 matches. The records tell a grim story with just three draws out of 28 matches, 11 goals scored and 115 conceded with a -104 goal difference. The last time Pakistan scored a World Cup-qualifying goal was on May 30, 2001 against Sri Lanka which Pakistan lost 1-2.

With qualification likely to start next year for the 2018 World Cup one doesn’t see Pakistan changing the above record and here’s why: Despite the rapid popularity amongst the urban masses for the global game, domestically, it has failed to catch up with the modern trends and cater to local demand. Pakistani football after six decades still reminds you of an old communist state with a governmental department system dominating the domestic football leagues with little interest from the general public or commercial sector. The PFF has been very slow to introduce any meaningful reforms in the football structure on and off the pitch. The problems that contribute to the repeated failure of the senior and junior national teams are multi-dimensional which, if addressed, will start to produce results in the long term and Pakistanis can dream of a World Cup appearance, but just not now.

The PFF’s senior leadership has been claiming of late that Pakistan will qualify for the ‘2022’ World Cup in Qatar but in reality things couldn’t be more different.

Football fell into the hands of feudal landowners-turned-politicians and former servicemen
Football fell into the hands of feudal landowners-turned-politicians and former servicemen

Currently, Pakistan has no proper football development systems where players are recruited from an early age and enrolled into football academies either under the national/regional football associations or clubs; in Pakistan they are non-existent. The PFF claims that its master plan called ‘Vision 2022’ will propel Pakistan to Qatar and beyond but the Greenshirts have no base to make that leap from.

The ‘Vision 2022’ document, which is not available for public scrutiny, has been labelled as nothing more than a ‘gimmick’ by those football insiders who have seen it. It is a document which somehow claims that Pakistan will reach greater heights of Asian football within eight years on a meagre expenditure of Rs10 million on youth football nationwide. The plan focuses on youth development centres funded by FIFA, yet to be completed and operated by AID-27 coaches backed by the Asian Football Confederation, a project no longer operational.

Whilst the football federations of India, Nepal and Bangladesh have multiple academies directly operated by themselves, the PFF has none. It has no national curriculum on youth football which can be followed by a handful of academies that privately operate in a number of cities. There are no youth leagues in which young players can have regular playing time in order to further their development. The national age group championships are held every two years (suiting the PFF management) and lasts for two weeks just ahead of the Asian U-16 and U-19 Championship qualifying rounds.

This is a key area where Pakistan has failed to introduce stronger competition and better coaching so players are properly trained.

The Asian teams that qualify regularly for the World Cup have strong youth development systems backed up with strong professional leagues for their players to progress into. The likes of Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Australia and Saudi Arabia all have strong youth national teams who play in the Asian Youth Championships (U-16, U-19 and U-22) and World Cups within these age groups which allows their players early exposure to such competitions.

For Pakistan, the last time its youth team made it to the finals of the Asian U-17 and U-19 Championships was in 2000 and 2002, respectively. Pakistan’s U-19 team has only managed to win one match in a decade. The U-16 team recently won the South Asian U-16 Championship but later failed to realise their true potential because the two key years of development (16 to 18) were not properly managed due to lack of systems of development as highlighted already.

Away from youth football the Pakistan Premier Football League after 10 years of its formation remains amateur with key modern necessities missing such as broadcasting of matches, commercial revenue, commercially-driven football clubs and sound infrastructure. The league has been chopped and changed at will with the standard of football failing to see significant improvement therefore leaving Pakistan behind even by South Asian standards.

In South Asia, India, Maldives, Bangladesh and even Afghanistan are all ahead of Pakistan when it comes to youth development and professional leagues. With India hosting the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup it is a good time for Pakistan to take youth development seriously.

A domestic league plays a huge part in a national team’s progression and Pakistan’s failure to even get a foothold in South Asia is evident of that where the national team has to date failed to make the final of the South Asian Football Federation Championship and not beyond the group stages since 2005. In the FIFA rankings, which the PFF uses a lot in its communication with media outlets, Pakistan has failed to move beyond 150 in the last 11 years of the current PFF regime.

Pakistan has a non-existent youth development set-up, a poorly-run football league with crash-bang football and a new coach starting with the national team from scratch with a majority of the players from the U-16 and U-19 sides. With just a year to go till the World Cup qualifiers start it would be foolish for anyone to even dream about a World Cup qualification.

At least this time some of us took pride in the Brazuca being there. Who knows what the next World Cup might bring. But it won’t be Pakistan national team.