Editorial: Learning from our neighbours

Editorial: Learning from our neighbours

By Hassan Azam – Guest Writer 

Why would we Pakistanis care about football? Yes, this is going to be one of those articles, like a movie; which shows you a scene close to the ending, asking you a question, and then taking you back to the beginning with you left wondering, well how did we get here? And then once you have gone through it and are at the same scene again, you are nodding your head going: “I get it now, hope the hero survives.” So let us find out.

The beautiful game of football is the most followed sport on planet Earth; and it’s not without its reasons. The pinnacle of sporting events for many, the football World Cup of 2014, was viewed by approximately 7 billion people around the globe. Cynics, however, question the authenticity of the sport, saying all they can see are some twenty two players trying frantically to get hold of the ball and put it between the two goal posts, saying there is nothing much to it.

As a pure sports fan and a football lover, I would like to give these people the benefit of the doubt due to their lack of knowledge, or ignorance if one wants to use a harsher term, of what the beautiful game really encompasses.

You see, football is about much more than putting the ball in the back of the net. Its encompasses the practices of ethics and morality, which one not only adheres to on the field, but can reap the benefits off it, in one’s daily life as well. Football teaches one effective team work skills, it instills passion in one’s heart, teaches one how to stay disciplined or face the consequences, strengthens ones belief in not letting go, not giving up, even if the odds are against you, even if the task ahead of you is mammoth and the summit seams insurmountable, it teaches us to fight on and keep that fire in your hearts burning.

There are countless score lines, countless stars of the game who validate all the points I have made above. Take the Brazilian Pele for instance, who grew up in poverty and earned money working at tea shops at one time, became a true legend of the game and one of the most inspirational personalities around the globe. Pele said, “Success is no accident, it is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

Football proved to be the emancipator for the legend, taking him out from the slums of Sao Paulo to the pinnacle of the football stage. And there are many a footballing greats such as Ronaldo ‘The Phenomenon’, who were captivated by what football had to offer and went on to become the inspirational personalities for the world to try and follow suit.

Now, I have briefly illustrated what football truly encompasses because Pakistan as a nation, renowned for its abundance of raw talent in every field of life, has yet to reap the full benefits of what the sport has to offer. There is not a lack of football culture in the South Asian country, far from it in fact. It is a nation in which millions tune in to watch their favorite clubs compete in the Barclays Premier League, The Spanish La Liga and German Bundesliga on a daily basis. Fans not only wear the jerseys of their beloved players, but idolize them in the way they dress and the way the play the beautiful game. A country in which you find teenagers vehemently questioning Van Gaal’s decision to start Ashley Young instead of Januzaj for a league match for Manchester United, sitting in a corner of a café after the game, depicts no lack of interest or passion amongst the fans. So what is it then which is undermining the propagation of the sport in a country filled with staunch football supporters? What is lacking for the budding footballers to follow their dreams and show case the best of their abilities on the world stage? Why is Pakistan ranked 182nd in the world?

Although a combination of several factors would suffice to answer the questions raised above, the most significant factor for the status quo is the lack of a strong domestic league system and that is what this article will focus on. Currently, there is a serious lack of knowledge about, and support for, the local clubs. And to further exacerbate the situation, there is a serious lack of local clubs as well. Let me give you an over view of the league to give a better understanding of the domestic league of Pakistan. The top tier consists of 16 teams, from 8 cities, most of which represent departments such as Army FC, HBL FC and KESC FC.

Now considering all the information given above, why would a youngster from Sialkot or Hyderabad have any interest in who wins the league?

There is no sense of ownership or pride when it comes to the results. No bargaining rights over the next door neighbors and a lack of opportunity to represent one’s district or city and become a local hero. Furthermore, there is a lack of clear cut rules regarding individual salary caps, the size of the squads and a limit of only 2 foreign players allowed per playing 11.

What we truly need is a revamp of the system in which a multi-tiered system is introduced comprising of clubs representing districts or cities to truly take the game national rather than it being restricted to specific departments. A system of relegation and promotion to be introduced for the clubs to fight over with funding coming in through sponsorship deals from private companies, with the games being broadcasted live on television. Local channels could show the games of lower divisions and national channels to show the premier division games.

We only need to have a look at neighbors to realize the global potential of the beautiful game. India has given new impetus to its national football through the advent of the Indian Soccer League. A country of over a billion, has finally realized what the beautiful game has to offer in terms of mass mobilization of the crowd and its monetary potential.

The idea of a new league was first put forward by the Indian FA of West Bengal in 2011 in which the six franchises were to all be a part of West Bengal with players such as Crespo, Cannavaro and Pires embracing the game. But due to the lack of funds, the seeds sown lacked the nourishment to grow in to a tree. However, The Indian Football Federation was successful in securing a deal with Reliance Industries, worth 700 crore Indian Rupees, in corporation with International Management Group of United States, for the start of a new league. The IMG-Reliance group was given the exclusive commercial rights for broadcasting, franchising, merchandising etc. This deal ensured a major push towards the right direction for the Indian Football ensuring local and foreign investment into their clubs.

The League so far has shown very promising signs; the Star Sports network aims to broadcast the league to 85% of the viewers across India, the league being shown in Hindi and English. Local clubs, such as Mumbai FC, are gathering support with the fans feeling a sense of pride and ownership. Some of the true legends of the game are involved with the ISL such a Robert Pires, Nicholas Anelka, David Trezguet (a world cup winner!) amongst a host of other foreign players and coaches. Why wouldn’t a fan want to be fascinated by the sheer skill and talent on display? The ISL and the clubs in particular have secured substantial sponsorship deals with the private companies to make it all possible.

But a major question remains; how does one ensure that the league and the clubs in particular will be followed and the stadiums will be packed with fans? Well here comes the true master stroke of marketing, which the ISL played, following the success of the Indian Premier League.

All the legends of the game, considered more than mortals by some in their country, have vociferously advocated their support for the ISL. Be it through Sachin Tendulkar or Amitabh Bachan, the glamour, fame and a true sense of adventure has been advertised to the local public and they have responded in full voice. Stadiums are packed with the fans not just shouting out the names of foreign players, but paying respect to their local heroes as well through chants and shirt sales. A platform has been provided for the Indian national players to learn and grow on, not just as footballers but as individuals as well.

All this is going to ensure that while the nation grasps on to a new dream of local and then international football glory, a stage is provided for the players and staff alike to truly build up on their experience and reap the rewards of such a league. The money involved would make sure that top quality coaches and players brace the domestic game in India and enlighten all around them. Pakistan can truly do with such a league to give impetus to the game of football on a domestic level. We have all the resources available to carry out such an event. Not only would we benefit from ensuring that players can take up football professionally through the influx of money in the game, but we would also give the public a chance to celebrate local heroes.

It will be an opportunity for our stars and celebrities to be a part of a welcome change in our society where our kids would have the local Zidane’s and Ronaldo’s to get inspired from rather than wasting away their talents watching Gullu Butts on television vandalizing and portraying negativity for all to see. Let us give our children a brighter future through the game that has emancipated millions around the world out of poverty, drug addiction and gangs. Let us work for the revival of the beautiful game in our beloved home land. With an introduction of a similar league for our domestic football, Pakistan could truly provide a nourishing environment for all the raw talent available to us.

The author tweets at @hassan_azam_

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect on the official policy of FootballPakistan.com.