Is Pakistan really a sleeping giant of football? [FOX Sports Asia]

Is Pakistan really a sleeping giant of football? [FOX Sports Asia]

by Shahrukh Sohail

Thousands of kilometres from the glamour of Madrid, Manchester and Paris, Ronaldinho dances past defenders (samba style, of course) and attempts a cheeky chip past former England International David James. The crowd jumps to its feet, eyes in awe of the Brazilian god strutting his magic in front of them.

This isn’t the glamorous Indian Super League (ISL) penned by Indian behemoth Reliance Group, rather it’s in the most unlikeliest of places – Lahore, Pakistan; just a stone’s throw away from India.

Pakistan is arguably more famous for its footballs than its football team but on a hot, humid day in Lahore, fans are overjoyed.

And why shouldn’t they be? Ronaldinho is accompanied by former toasts of European football; Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, Arsenal hero Robert Pires and French ace Nicolas Anelka lead the line-ups, with Ronaldinho’s team securing a 2-0 win over Giggs’ side.

The game attracts global interest and everyone asks the same question; why hasn’t Pakistan progressed in football?

The answer to that is simple, says Mohammad Shahnawaz of “We haven’t invested anything notable into Pakistani football, so expecting the national team to do well is just wishful thinking.”

Pakistan are currently ranked 200 in the world and, even by the Green Shirts standards, this is below-par.

The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has been under a court battle between Makhdoom Faisal Salah Hayat and his former ally Zahir Ali Shah. Whilst Faisal Hayat has the blessing and backing of the world’s governing body, FIFA, Shah is at the centre of a court battle in Pakistan that claims the PFF president misused his authority during the 2015 elections and swung votes in his favour.

Subsequently, Pakistan last played a 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifier in March 2015 and have been out of action for nearly two years.

The 200 million giant

Pakistan’s latest survey revealed that the country’s population exceeds 210 million. By comparison, reigning World Cup champions Germany have a total population of 82.67 million; three times less than the South-Asian nation.

And it’s not that the game isn’t popular in Pakistan. According to FIFA’s big count in 2006, Pakistan has 2.9 million football player,; a figure that would have only grown in the past 11 years. Clearly, the Shaheens could take flight as the numbers indicate, but they haven’t.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been efforts. The national team has competed in the World Cup qualifiers since 1990, but the Shaheens are yet to win a single qualifying game (their clash against Yemen in 2015 resulted in a 3-1 loss).

One of the reasons constantly mentioned for the performances is a lack of professionalism. Pakistan’s top flight – the Premier League – only runs for an odd three months, where fixtures are congested and crowd support is virtually nil because of the department structure in place.

Departmental teams are often run on an ad-hoc basis with the players only being compensated during the season and forced to look for work elsewhere during the break. As a result, there is no concept of player development and, ultimately, without an assortment of talent coming through, the performance of the national team can hardly be faulted.

Finances are also pitiful in the Pakistan Premier League, where players earn anywhere from $200 to $300 per month, although some outstanding talents take home figures of over $750. However, outside of Pakistan, even smaller leagues in Central Asia have no qualms in paying $1,500 plus benefits.

The gulf in finances is cited as one of the main reasons why Pakistan hasn’t utilised its population to become a potential football nursery. Even arch-rival and neighbor India seems to have learned a thing or two about commercialism from Cricket. Taking a leaf out of the cricket book gave rise to the Super League, which has seen top stars such as Indian captain Sunil Chhetri earn $300,000 a year.

In Pakistan, though, players struggle to stay afloat and any injury usually means game over for the rest of their lives.

Business first

Ronaldinho and Friends, whilst not exactly a league, was Pakistan’s first major football project that saw worthwhile investment and aimed to target the growing football fanbase that has blossomed courtesy of broadcasting Europe’s top leagues. Subsequently, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar are all household names, much like everywhere else in the world, alongside Pakistan’s plethora of cricket stars.

“We saw the potential Pakistan has in football and wanted to get into the action early. The barriers to market entry are lower compared to cricket and given the right mix of professionalism and talent, Pakistan can go a long way in football,” added Ishaq Shah, the COO of Leisure Leagues, who brought ‘R&F’ to Pakistan.

Similar views were echoed by Shaji Prabhakaran, FIFA’s former regional manager for South and Central Asia, who is a now consultant for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Prabhakaran, who has closely monitored the progress of South-Asian nations, is optimistic when it comes to Pakistan and predicts that it could play an important role in achieving FIFA’s own the ‘The Future is Asia’ mantra.

Football’s governing body in the last decade has poured in $2.6million for FIFA ‘Goal’ Projects; a setup that includes artificial pitches, hostels for players and working space for officials.

Controversially, none of the ‘Goal’ Projects except the PFF House in Lahore have been made active yet and, despite its ambitious statements, the federation is yet to see the light of their claims.

Shaji is quick to add that nothing will be possible without “proper future planning and a long-term vision”. Vision is what drives the PFF forward as well and, although they have yet to win their first FIFA World Cup qualifier, the PFF claims Pakistan will play in Qatar 2022.

Published on FOX Sports Asia, 15 September 2017