In the 1960s and 70s, Pakistan had a thriving football culture with the likes of Abdul Ghafoor Majna (nicknamed the Pakistani Pele) and Qayyum ‘Papa’ Changezi, gracing the national colours. However, a lack of funding, instability, and unsuitable infrastructure together with other misfortunes caused a real decline for the country’s football prospects and the sport remained amateur.
The sordid tale culminated in 2017 with Pakistan falling to 201 in the FIFA rankings and being slapped with a ban by FIFA because of third party interference. Little progress that was made on the field went out the window and despite a growing popularity for the sport; Pakistan’s football story is yet to truly begin.
Football is taught at a young level, with globally competitive sides beginning at five or six to train players. Subsequently, the right football education is very important at this level and while there have been instances of its implementation in Pakistan like Karachi United’s youth academies, which regularly tour Gulf state and play against top quality education, it hasn’t been pursued as a national curriculum, vital for football’s growth.
According to FIFA’s big count in 2006, Pakistan ranked in top twenty countries of the world when it came to the number of football players and with a sizeable growth in the recently conducted national survey, one can expect the 2.9 million figure quoted by FIFA will have only gone further up.
Another growing indication of the sport’s growth are the opportunities acquired by top Pakistani players such as Kaleemullah, Mohammad Adil, Saddam Hussain, Saadullah and Mohammad Ahmed, who plied their trade in leagues ranging from the United States to Bahrain. Equally refreshing is the pool talent coming out of the women’s side, with captain Hajra Khan leading the ladies and earning try-outs at multiple teams in Germany and impressing whilst on duty for her team in the Maldives. And whilst not household names, the likes of Kaleemullah and Hajra have had their fair share of media exposure; a simple fact that had been denied to the footballing fraternity since its inception.
As the fourth estate, the media plays a vital role in popularizing any sport and the broadcasts of the English Premier League, Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga and Serie A has catapulted the sport in terms of the audience share, ultimately resulting in a large pool of amateur players, who regularly turn out to play in privately-owned artificial pitches in cities such as Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.
Moreover, the organisation of Pakistan’s first major football project – Ronaldinho and Friends, paved the way for global stars to touch Pakistani shores for the first time and captured the imagination of the public. With national team stars Saadullah and Hassan Bashir grabbing goals alongside giants of the game such as Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs, Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka, it sent out a message of support that the beautiful game was finally here to stay.
Neighbouring giants such as India and China were woken out of their slumber by a wide range of projects with underlying corporate support. Provided with the right mix of corporate involvement, professionalization and passion, Pakistan too could well be on its way to waking up.