Pakistan Football Federation, courts, and sports autonomy [Nation blogs]

Pakistan Football Federation, courts, and sports autonomy [Nation blogs]

by Ali Ahsan

Pakistani football’s ongoing crisis is now entering its second year. 2015 saw controversial elections causing the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) to split into factions, as serious allegations of corruption also emerged at the end of the year.

Football writers like Umaid Wasim, Natasha Raheel, and Azhar Masood Khan decried how badly things went in Pak football with zero national level leagues, and the Pakistan senior and junior teams missing out on important events like the SAFF Suzuki Cup in India as well as the AFC youth level championships.

The only good news so far is that the Lahore High Court (LHC) appointed PFF administrator Justice (retd) Asad Munir is now organising the 2016 PFF Cup scheduled for later this month involving 24 teams from the top tier Pakistan Premier Football League and second tier PFF League. But the PFF crisis took another twist.

After the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) started investigating PFF accounts last year for alleged corruption during the 12 year reign of Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, it raised hue and cry over ‘government interference’ in PFF claiming it’s a ‘private entity’ over which neither FIA nor LHC had jurisdiction.

After several months of court proceedings, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) accepted a PFF petition challenging the FIA investigation and ordered it to be stopped as PFF is a private entity answerable only to FIFA, and only FIFA can investigate any malpractice in PFF. This decision certainly will be celebrated as a minor victory by the Faisal Saleh Hayat faction, but it light of football developments worldwide it raises only more questions.

For decades, sports governance bodies have been able to avoid, challenge, and even overturn any government investigations on misconduct or corruption allegations. International sports organisations have often sided with national sports bodies against what it dubs as ‘government interference’ and have suspended many member countries from taking part in international sporting events to force ending of such actions. But continued crisis facing the likes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), and FIFA has led to calls for drastic reform, accountability, and transparency.

The under-fire FIFA is already reeling from numerous arrests, indictments, and suspensions of its once untouchable executives for racketeering and corruption by the FBI and Swiss authorities, while world football governance faces high profile investigations in many countries.

FIFA’s former supremo Joseph S. Blatter, his general secretary Jerome Valcke, as well as FIFA presidential aspirant Michel Platini have been banned/suspended for corruption. Many federations worldwide, including football powerhouses Germany and Brazil are also under investigation by local authorities on similar charges. The façade of ‘sporting autonomy’ is collapsing more and more.

One wonders if the Court would have been made aware of the recent developments in world sports (including football); by the government attorneys. Also, one can only speculate if and how IHC’s decision impacts on the LHC cases involving the PFF, especially after the Supreme Court of Pakistan also declining to entertain a PFF petition against LHC involvement.

While its status as ‘private entity’ remains up for debate – it is not even a properly registered ‘legal entity’ – the PFF, for all intents and purposes, is a national sports body of Pakistan. PFF’s own constitution makes it a fully affiliated member of the Pakistan Sports Board. Funny enough, PFF under Faisal Saleh Hayat refuses to implement the National Sports Policy amid legal battles with PSB given the latter’s term restrictions of sports federation heads comes in the way of Hayat’s continued hold on Pak football.

It is well within the right and jurisdiction of the FIA to investigate PFF as a national sports body for any allegations of corruption and mismanagement like the rest of the world. The conduct of NGOs in Pakistan is often investigated by federal and provincial authorities, so PFF isn’t exactly any different. It is recipient of significant annual aid money from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for developing football in Pakistan. PFF has been accused of embezzling funds, illegally selling 2014 FIFA World Cup tickets, manipulating football elections and other examples by opposing factions, insiders, and investigative journalists.

To stop any ongoing investigations just because it calls itself a ‘private entity’ will only continue the Pak football crisis. PFF, at the end of the day, still has to follow national laws and cooperate with the law-enforcement agencies – rather than arguing over their jurisdictions. It has to properly address and investigate all corruption allegations levelled against its various officials rather than using the ‘private entity’ label to evade and deflect from open scrutiny.

FIFA has to intervene of course, but it cannot simply try protecting officials it once held dear because the pressure on them to reform football governance is immense. It now has to cooperate with the national governments to clean house of its member associations, and it has avoided taking sides in government investigations worldwide over the last few months.

FIFA will definitely have to action on PFF, and this time it may have to cooperate at some level with the government and the courts – particularly the LHC. The impact on IHC judgement will have to be seen, especially the responses of the FIA and government attorneys. Justice is blind and its decisions have to be respected by all parties, but it cannot ignore the changing reality of sports governance and its global crisis.

Rather than argue over its status, PFF should instead cooperate with authorities the way sports bodies worldwide are now doing to clean their tarnished image and save their respective sports from disrepute and misconduct. The FIFA Ethics Committee is already looking into PFF and examining evidence of the serious allegations it faces. This crisis is far from over, and as always football still loses as each day comes and goes.

Published on The Nation Blogs, 25 January 2016