Why hasn’t football excelled in Pakistan?

Why hasn’t football excelled in Pakistan?

By Rehan-ul-Haq – Guest Author

Pakistan was part of the British Empire for a long time and like most common wealth countries it too had the basic infrastructure to support a cricketing team. It will not be wrong to say that Pakistan has outdone their former masters as far as the game of cricket is concerned as they have won the 1992 World Cup at England’s expense.

Similarly Pakistan took field hockey in their stride too, reaching the semifinal of the Olympics in 1948. Since then Pakistan has been one of the most successful teams in the world winning four World Cups and three Olympic Gold Medals. Furthermore, Pakistan has also produced arguably the best squash player ever; Jahangir khan, who won 555 matches in succession. However Pakistan has lingered behind most of the world when it comes to football.

The country has had a football team since 1950 and with a population of 200 million it is astounding to say the least that it is ranked 175th in the world (down from 164th). Teams across the globe can have different reasons for not being the best in the world. One of the major reasons for this can be a lack of infrastructure. Yes, Pakistan has not got the infrastructure when compared to Germany or an England side but it certainly has the infrastructure of let us say a Sudan (ranked 42 positions above Pakistan) or an Afghanistan (ranked 40 positions above Pakistan). So a lack of infrastructure can be a reason why Pakistan is not number one in the world but it is surely not the reason why Pakistan is 175th.

The Pakistan team have struggled to go up in the FIFA rankings.
The Pakistan team has struggled to go up in the FIFA rankings.

Another reason why some countries can lag behind is they have a small population. Pakistan surely has no such problems, with a population of around 200 million it is one of the most populous countries in the world. The success at other sports shows that the Pakistani people have the basic skills to do well in football.  The country has produced great players in hockey and squash, showing the people do not lack agility, stamina or nimble footedness. The country has produced great fast bowlers and kabbadi players, showing the people do not lack strength and endurance. Plus economically speaking at least on paper Pakistan’s FA spends more money on football than Costa Rica and the latter reached the World Cup quarterfinal.

So it seems that logically Pakistan should not be that far behind in the football world. So what is holding football back in Pakistan? After all it is cheaper to play than both hockey and cricket. One only needs a football to play it and anything from old broken bricks to school bags can work as goal posts. So if it is easy to understand and cheap to play and the general population seem to have the basic skill set needed to succeed at football then why has it not blossomed into something bigger?

It is true that football is really cheap to play and hence it is being played in almost all cities and villages of Pakistan but the problem is it does not pay to be a footballer. As a result most people do not see it as a profession that will put food on the table. Ed smith wrote on ESPNcricinfo that in America he was often questioned if people can earn a living being a cricketer and he usually responded by explaining that it is possible if one is a professional player. I am afraid one cannot say the same about football in Pakistan. Earning a living of more than a dollar a day through football was not possible for professional football players. Around 10 years back the conditions were so bad that the average professional or semiprofessional players got around Rs.200 (around 2$) per match. These have not improved dramatically over the last decade. I do remember a couple of my friends from school were being fast-tracked into the under -17 national team. Now these guys lived football and were very excited in the beginning but there parents looked at the economic side and were able to persuade them to not give up their studies to join the national camps.

One would ask why is the economic side of the most popular sport in the world is so bad? The simple answer is Pakistan never really paid much attention to football. I use the word Pakistan and not the authorities because no one in the society paid much attention to the sport, be it the sports ministers, the large multinational companies or the public. The early success in hockey meant it quickly became our national sport and cricket being the elitist game always had only about six to seven countries playing test cricket (so even if Pakistan was the worst side it was still the 6th best in the world). Not to mention the college and universities built in the British raj had their own teams and they were very good. As a result both these sports exploded as Pakistan began to bloom economically in the 1950’s and the 1960’s. It was a matter of pride for one to represent his country and hockey and cricket both gave a fair chance of winning things too. More and people wanted to play and watch these two sports and as a result the sponsors and television revenue went to these sports. This meant other sports were starved of funds.

The footballing talent of this country was majorly from the poorer sections of the society. Most of the good players hailed from Balochistan and the slums of Karachi. These people have loved their football for a long time but they do not have the resources to buy the products the multinationals sell. As a result not even the local tournaments in these areas attracted any sponsors. Not enough efforts were made to improve football by the government. One always sees the prime minister and the president taking personal interest in appointing the chairman of the cricket board. The head of the hockey federation was also a coveted seat and every now and then we have seen a senior government figure take personal interest in the game (after all it is still officially the national sport). I am yet to see any concern shown by anyone in government about football or the Pakistan Football federation (PFF). The PFF is not even self-sufficient and runs on the grants provided by FIFA.

PFF is headed by Faisal Saleh Hayat.
PFF is headed by Faisal Saleh Hayat.

Another reason why cricket and hockey flourished but football did not was because India flourished. I mean after all we started our nuclear program because India had done so. The rivalry between these two countries has had such an effect that we want to be good at whatever India is good at and India was not good at football. The big companies could sell a cricket or hockey match between India and Pakistan as a matter of life and death as they were two of the best sides around but they could never sell a football match because both teams were substandard in it. Even a “kabaddi” match between India and Pakistan could attract a higher crowd than a football match. As a result the big companies never came with millions of rupees of sponsorships.

All that said the future is not all gloomy and dark. In fact football has been one of the fastest growing sports in the country over the last decade. More and more schools have their own football teams; there are more and more amateur tournaments in the major cities of Pakistan but more importantly the PFF started its own league the Pakistan Premier football league. The now disbanded GEO Super League was another major milestone, with the matches being broadcasted by GEO Super. But at the moment, the Pakistan Premier League is main competition and players from this league have been signed up by Kyrgyz clubs and now they have a chance to improve further under better coaching and better facilities. This will surely improve the national side. PTV sports and Geo Sports had their own analysts during the football world cup and it seems that the country is finally embracing football. India is launching its football version of the IPL in the end of 2014, I expect it to be a big success in India and hopefully like the nuclear program we will follow suit and become a footballing powerhouse or at least will break into the top 100 for the first time in the FIFA rankings.

Tragically Pakistan is a country obsessed with following trends rather than setting them. From a very early age when a kid is growing up he is always compared academically to either his brother or his cousin, everything is about being better than the other person rather than being different.  There is a general resistance against change. So if you go to a multi-national company in regards to sponsorship  for a football tournament, the Pakistani heads sitting over there will not ask you how much traffic you can generate, they will ask which other company is interested in sponsoring the event. Have a look at the MOBILE network companies. One sponsored a musical concert and they all followed suit.  There is a general lack of information amongst the people who matter, for example European football is followed religiously in Pakistan and the number of fans who associate themselves with the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan etc is astounding. I ask you if we can show fanaticism for teams half way across the planet, from cities we have never even visited then why would we not support a local team from Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar etc?

With inflow of money and marketing heads showing a little more intelligence of what is growing on in this country, we could have a proper league structure starting from the grass root levels. If I get into the nitty gritty of where all the money went given by FIFA to open various youth academies in Pakistan, I would have to write a whole book about it. So I would rather restrain myself for the moment.

I encourage the government and marketing heads of financially capable companies to run a survey of how popular the sport has become across the country. If help is required I am sure they will find many volunteers such as myself to run the survey without even asking for money, not that there is a lack of it.

Rehan-ul-Haq is a football analyst for PTV Sports and tweets at rehan_ulhaq.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of FootballPakistan.com