by Shahrukh Sohail
With a population of 220 million, most of them cricket crazy, football was always going to play second fiddle as a sport in Pakistan. But no one could have imagined that, one day, Pakistan would be the only nation among the 47 members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) without a single win in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
By comparison, even Bhutan — with just 700,000 inhabitants — has progressed to the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualification system. But why has Pakistan, a country which averaged two million viewers per game in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and which is ranked in the top 20 countries for its number of footballers, underperformed in such a fashion?
The reasons range from chronic political disputes to a severe lack of funding. But take a deeper look and you realise the missing piece is a top-tier professional football league, which acts as a hub for the entire football ecosystem. Player development, infrastructure, funding, grassroots and clubs are the pillars on which countries have built footballing dynasties, but Pakistan has missed out badly here.
The Pakistan Premier League (PPL) was revamped in 2003 upon Faisal Saleh Hayat’s election as president of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), but it hasn’t changed much in the last 17 years. The league takes its roots from the National Championship that started in 1947 and, apart from a short revamping stint that saw Lifebuoy become the title sponsor under Hafiz Salman Butt (1990-93), it remains practically unchanged for the last 73 years.
Departments rule the roost and teams include the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the Pakistan Army and other government entities, which use investment in sports as evidence of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with little desire to develop talent or professionalise their set-ups. The few clubs that are present are primarily from Balochistan, where the fierce Chaman derby between Afghan FC and Muslim FC commands crowds in the thousands. Most of the league, though, is played silently, without any fanfare.
The entire system reeks of the Soviet Union era, where sports were essentially represented by various government entities competing against each other and offering jobs to athletes. The world moved on. Even state departments such as CSKA (Russian Army) and Lokomotiv (Railways) Moscow have become huge brands in their own right. But Pakistan has stayed put.
In 2007, a breath of fresh air arrived in the shape of the Geo Super League, with teams based on cities and live broadcast of all the games. It gave live coverage to domestic footballers for the first time and merited a second attempt in partnership with K-Electric in 2010. But the league did not continue because the organisers and sponsors reportedly did not want to work with the PFF again.
Subsequently, the Pakistan Premier League (PPL) has never bagged a regular sponsor (a five-year-deal with KASB fell through after a single season in 2009), runs on an ad-hoc basis for four to five months, and has never been broadcast on television.
You needn’t look far for inspiration. Bangladesh, after their independence in 1971, has managed to professionalise legacy football clubs and mould them into the Bangladesh Premier League, where historical names such as Dhaka Mohammaden, Sheikh Russell and Sheikh Jamal are at home with newcomers such as Bashundhara Kings, who earned their first title in 2019.
A corporate-owned team by a real estate group, the Bashundhara team has now turned their attention to the Bashundhara Sports Complex, which will be one of the first private sports infrastructure projects in the country, and can go a long way in developing grassroots talent and building up a sports eco-system.
Such success stories were made possible because the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) has consistently managed to rope in sponsors such as TVS and Grameenphone, while the games are shown live across multiple channels, with the latest being Bangla TV.
On the other hand, our feisty rival, India, isn’t even our competition in terms of local progress. They are so far ahead in terms of their league development that the distance could be measured in decades. The Indian Super League (ISL), since its inception in 2014, has managed to capture the imagination of the public, bring hefty sponsorships into the game and produce a quality football broadcast that hasn’t been seen before in South Asia.
But it too has had its fair share of problems. The ISL was thrust to the top of the Indian football pyramid just when the I-League (the old top tier in India) had started a revamping process with new, privately owned clubs. This led to massive differences with legacy institutions such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (the Kolkata derby between the two still attracts over 120,000 spectators), while others such as Pune FC and Minerva Punjab disbanded due to the ongoing tussle.
This brings us to the key question: what should Pakistan’s league look like? Should it be a franchise-based model like the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in cricket, or should it take a route similar to Bangladesh’s?
The answer is strategic and is based on the fact that Pakistan, unlike Bangladesh and India, does not have a strong football culture or legacy clubs — even the best players from historic hotspots Chaman and Lyari plied their trade in Kolkata and Dhaka before independence. This means that club culture needs to be created from scratch. However, a PSL-like franchise system will not do.
Since a PSL team is extremely expensive ($6.2 million per year for Multan Sultans, for example) and while football will be cheaper, it is crucial that the money be spent on football and infrastructure development rather than paying team costs. An alternative route is revamping the PPL with an immediate phasing out of departmental teams and their replacement with city-based teams that can be acquired through one-off payments or low franchise fees with long-term installment plans.
Most of the club identities would be freshly created in this scenario, but existing clubs including the two Chaman favourites, Baloch FC Nushki and even the well-run Karachi United can be used as vehicles for investment, and be given a chance to organically expand their fan-base.
This approach allows for the marketing and hype associated with a franchise model but also prevents a completely new league from being at odds with the football pyramid. As a result, the entire system, including a second tier league and below, can be remodeled to ensure promotion and relegation, a fundamental principle of global football that the franchise model ignores.
Even more important is ensuring that a league is indeed a league. What the ISL in India faced was its existence as a mere tournament in the books of FIFA and AFC, and thus it had to endure a long battle to attain top tier status as competition to the I-League. A revamped PPL will have no such problems, and allow it to qualify for the AFC Cup League criteria where Pakistan currently receives the lowest possible allowance. Pakistan has to start from the lowest level in that, a pre-playoff place in Asia’s second tier continental competition.
Meeting requirements for the AFC Cup will require organic growth from clubs and the league, but the long-term aim should be qualification for the AFC Champions League (Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League). This requires a host of features, including 14-15 teams in a league, 27 minimum games for each side and a maximum of two teams sharing a single stadium. The list is extensive, covering everything from ticket pricing to club administration. It’s a lofty dream, but one which can be achieved with the right vision and strategic planning.
A football league is a certainty in Pakistan in the next few years and the PFF recently made it clear that they hold the rights to such a venture, not any third party. However, for Pakistan to truly realise its potential, what’s needed is harmony between the private sector and the federation. Most importantly, it needs to have a league model, where the priority is football.
The writer tweets @shahrukhsohail7