by John Duerden
Pakistan’s national team was scheduled to face the host India on Wednesday in the opening game of the 2015 South Asian Football Federation Championship, but it won’t play after Pakistan’s soccer federation withdrew from the tournament in November.
It was the latest soccer-related turmoil for Pakistan, whose biggest rival seems to be itself at the moment and where most action takes place not on the field, but in the courts.
The national team has not played since March, and the withdrawal from the eight-team SAFF tournament means the inaction will continue well into 2016. Ranked No.184 in the world by FIFA, Pakistan has never won the competition, but the decision not to participate at all was met with fierce criticism at home.
“It’s a great loss for football and the players,” acknowledged Sardar Naveed Haider Khan, the vice president of the Pakistan Football Federation. “I feel sorry for them. It hurts as these games are opportunities to be seen by scouts by clubs.”
Khan is instead preoccupied with legal issues. “We are hoping our situation will be resolved early,” he said.
In June, Faisal Saleh Hayat was suspended as president by the P.F.F. after allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities. Hayat went ahead with an election on June 30 anyway and won a fourth term.
FIFA recognized Hayat’s victory, but the Lahore High Court did not and appointed Asad Munir, a former judge, to run the P.F.F. in August, though FIFA did not recognize the move and in September threatened sanctions over what it sees as government interference in the sport.
Munir currently controls the federation’s funds but does not have the authority to send teams to international tournaments. The P.F.F. does have the authority to send teams, but Khan said it does not have the financial means to do so. “If the accounts are restored in our name, then we can move forward, and it takes money to organize training camps and games, but that is under the control of the administrator.”
Umaid Wasim, a sports reporter for the national newspaper Dawn, said he believes that the federation could have sent a team to the SAFF Championship had it been inclined to work with Munir.
“The Hayat faction claims that it didn’t have funds to send the team,” Wasim said. “SAFF is a fully paid trip by the organizers, so money shouldn’t have been an issue. I strongly believe that the P.F.F. never intended to send a team.”
Wasim said that after poor results in March, after the team was eliminated by Yemen in the first Asian qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup, the federation was wary of more criticism.
At the moment, the national team is without a coach after Mohammed al-Shamlan returned to his native Bahrain in June.
His predecessor, Zavisa Milosavljevic of Serbia, was head coach from 2011 to 2013 and has mixed memories. “I can only say that the P.F.F. did not pay me my last salary payment from my contract and money for food for two years. It is about $15,000. Where that money went, I do not know.” He said other coaches were awaiting payment, too.
For Wasim, this is just one example of mismanagement and even worse. The journalist said that of the eight projects in Pakistan under FIFA’s Goal program — initiatives that help nations develop facilities — only one ever came to fruition: the P.F.F.’s headquarters in Lahore.
“The one in Peshawar — awarded in 2006 — is canceled, and it isn’t mentioned on the FIFA website anymore. They did construct a building there, but that facility now lies in ruins,” Wasim said.
“The Karachi Goal Project was also given in 2006 and till now it doesn’t have a playing field,” he added, “although a deserted building stands.”
Wasim also disputes the P.F.F.’s assertion that the money went directly from FIFA to contractors. Amid numerous other allegations, earlier in December, Dawn reported that officials sold their allocations of World Cup tickets at inflated prices.
Other allegations center on a $400,000 donation made by the former FIFA vice president Chung Mong-joon and $250,000 from the Asian Football Confederation to help rebuild facilities damaged after floods. According to reports in Dawn, the project was never started.
Khan denied any wrongdoing. “Whenever there are two factions and they are fighting, one side spreads allegations. Whatever financial assistance was provided by the A.F.C. and FIFA, it was all audited. They don’t release the second installment until the first stage is completed. If it is not done properly, future funding is stopped.”
Khan blamed the reports on “outsiders who are passing this to the media.”
“FIFA and A.F.C. have paid the money but are not complaining; they are satisfied,” Khan said. “What proof has been put forward?”
All the while, Pakistan soccer continues to fall behind regional rivals. Milosavljevic believes the problem lies with the leaders. “Where is Pakistan in the FIFA ranking list?” he asked.
Of the 46 A.F.C. teams ranked by FIFA, only six are ranked lower than Pakistan’s 184th. Immediately above Pakistan in the rankings are Chinese Taipei and Bangladesh (tied at 182) and Cambodia (180.)
For Milosavljevic, there is potential in the country. “All children in the world have the same potential and talent, but talent without professionalism and long-term work, very quickly disappears. When the federation changes the system of youth development and brings in professional coaching staff, we can expect football progress.”