Pick football over politics, says Saadullah [Express Tribune]

Pick football over politics, says Saadullah [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: Pakistan Football Federation’s (PFF) story is definitely not that of redemption, but the veritable Game of Thrones can change into one if only the parties involved transcend their self-centred goals, and that is what the players like Saadullah Khan are hoping for.

The Fifa suspension can still be lifted only if the Ashfaq Hussain Shah-led group vacate the PFF headquarters right after Eid and the PFF Normalisation Committee (NC), which was appointed by Fifa, can run the affairs again and hold elections on all levels.

“All they have to do is sit together and let football take the lead. I still don’t understand why they all can’t make it work, because a ban by Fifa will eventually mean death for footballers and football,” Saadullah told The Express Tribune last month while playing the Naya North Nazimabad Ramazan Night Tournament

He was enjoying it, but like the rest of the football community he was also trying to make sense of the events that unfolded from March 27, when Shah-led group staged a ‘hostile takeover’ as termed by Fifa, of the PFF House, completely undermining the PFF NC led by former rugby player and entrepreneur Haroon Malik, as he was harassed and so was the NC staff on that day in the power-play between the officials.

“We have had examples in other countries too, where NC has worked well. It is very hard for us players and I don’t understand what will the officials achieve if the Fifa funding stops, if we can’t compete internationally, if the game stops. I am still trying to understand that.”

But Saadullah can tell the consequence if the ban prolongs, as this is the second time that Pakistan is banned in the last five years: the first one came in October 2017 till March 2018, while the PFF house has also seen attacks on it twice so far.

“As a player, I have done my best to represent Pakistan. We still managed to go abroad. Like I played in the Maldives, but the first thing anyone asks in the market is what is the ranking of our country, how is the domestic setup, where are we standing. So even though we can technically play abroad, it only makes things a hundred times more difficult for us, and why, because our PFF can’t be run smoothly and politics come in the way/ I was looking forward to international fixtures too, but this ban is not going to help anyone,” said Saadullah on the day that his team Sui Southern Gas Corporation would go onto thrash a local team by a massive margin in the night tournament, where he was very impressed by the facilities and the pitch, but he fears the pitches will die too if Fifa ban continues.

“Players like myself we are coming out of this broken system, but we love football, we work hard and they are only killing our chances really, the local departmental teams will shut down too, and who knows which star footballer be on the road in poverty,” fears Saadullah.

The tide can still change

This year, the PFF NC was planning to field the team in a number of international events including South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Cup where midfielder Saadullah was even named as one of the most valuable players in the past. The men’s team was really looking forward to it and Saadullah calls it ‘our version of the world cup’ because so far substantially Pakistan have managed to shine through only on regional level. The men in green were semi-finalists in 2018.

Pakistan were to send the team to Saff championship, the women were to play Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U23 and U19 events, while men’s side was to play U23 tournament too.

The PFF NC were seeking to hold friendly matches with different Fifa Member Associations. As Malik told The Express Tribune last week, all of it can still happen if the occupants just vacate the PFF house.

“Few developments took place. The IPC Minister and Director General PSB are taking keen interest in it. It is good as the issue will get more visibility. They held meeting with two of our NC members earlier and then I had the opportunity to have a few minutes with the minister and explained the framework that Fifa has given. She is keen to resolve the issue talking to all the stakeholders and all the parties involved. I think it is a good thing for the long term, but I have told her that the PFF house needs to be vacated in order for all the conversations to further happen as clearly instructed by Fifa,” said Malik, adding that the minister has also agreed on the occupation of the PFF house by the group being illegal, and that the three-step process of conducting elections will at least take eight to nine months.

While the discussions on the federal level can go on, the bottom-line remains that the NC gets full charge of the PFF house and the mechanics of regaining full Fifa membership are simple.

“The thing is they can have all the meetings but we need the PFF house vacated unconditionally, so that at least when I attend the Fifa Congress this month I can say we have a full charge, and I am told by Dr Mirza that this can change after Eid ,”said Malik.

But mostly, when asked if he gets the full charge the possibility of having international participation for Pakistan was possible or not, he replied that the schedule included friendlies and international events, and so far Pakistan lost out on two Fifa windows, but one friendly for men and two for women can still take place if PFF house is given back to PFF NC, as their mandate was still intact according to Fifa till June 30.

In transcending we become ourselves

Rather insipid intrigues of the PFF political landscape, a field filled with incompetent officials with extremely questionable acts “for the greater good” trope from all the groups involved, including Hayat’s, it is truly a high time to submit to the betterment of football in order to even survive at this point.

The NC that saw three changes in its leadership since it was appointed in September 2019 is an uncomfortable fact, but Malik, is optimistic. While one of his predecessors told The Express Tribune that he was having trouble dealing with the political currents from all directions, Malik is taking each interaction positively.

“I strangely had no problem of this sort. I have welcomed anyone who wants to talk and I have been talking to everyone from all walks of life in Pakistan football, everyday almost, and everyone wants betterment,  everyone want things to improve  and  that is because I am very clear about what I want.

“There is a three step election process. One, have club registration and scrutiny. Two, district and provincial elections, also seeing women’s nominations and departmental nominations along with that, and three, hold PFF elections and make sure to consult the PFF constitution. It is not perfect but there is a framework for everything,” said Malik.

”We need to build the community and bring them together; I feel that is one of the things that NC should be able to do, more importantly.”

Fifa banned Pakistan on April 7 exactly in 11 days after the ‘hostile takeover’, as Shah’s group refused to vacate the PFF headquarters despite many requests from the football community, but Shah remained unmoved to it all as he was technically elected as the PFF president through the Supreme Court-ordered elections in 2018.

Shah is of course one of the players in the political saga, a repelling one with wanton power-plays by the officials. The drama has long been triggered from PFF controversial elections in 2015, where Faisal Saleh Hayat tried to get himself elected for the fourth term.

Hayat’s opponents emerged as the rival faction that also included Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Association chief Zahir Ali Shah. All the disgruntled officials finally saw their triumph  through the court-ordered elections, ousting Hayat, with the help of Sardar Naveed Haider, former PFF head of marketing, a controversial figure and Hayat’s trusted man, till he switched sides. As proven with time they were not too different from the mindset that Hayat represented. Ashfaq Shah is a relative of Zahir too, except that now the rival group has broken into factions too. 

Road to salvation

The ray of hope from the PFF fiasco is what Malik spells while explaining the three steps of holding fair PFF elections and that is implementing Fifa Connect ID programme.

And it surely is an exciting development, as it will allow the club and the players to register online and that will for the first time give an online data when it comes to football in Pakistan, a sport that is perhaps even more played and most definitely more diverse and rich in its culture than cricket.

“We are going to run a pilot for FIFA Connect ID on Tuesday with 10 clubs,” Malik told The Express Tribune on May 7. “Fifa connect ID is a tool that can help as the players, clubs, referees they can all register. Dr Mirza was quite interested in this when I told her. She said that other federations can also implement the same tools too.”

The Fifa Connect programme helps the stakeholders to register online, without paperwork and hassle, like experienced by international players before. Kaleemullah for example used the tool during his transfer to a club abroad.

The program allows the players, referees and coaches to have an ID code that can help the players in international transfers too, along with having a comprehensive data and history of the stakeholders. The system can help PFF in club scrutiny as well.

As positive as the meeting and conversations are for Malik he believes that at the end of the day all the people he talks to want to grow and play the sport.

“Building community is important, and so far 90 to 95 per cent of the people I’ve interacted with, they all want to play football and want it to grow and that is a positive sign,” concluded Malik.

Published in The Express Tribune, 14 May 2021