by Mir Shabbar Ali
Pakistan goalkeeper Ahsanullah is in Karachi, preparing the Nixor College football team for the Karachi United School’s Championship as a coach. He could have been in Maldives right now, where all South Asian men’s national football teams are currently featuring in the SAFF Cup.
“The SAFF Championship we wanted to play in Maldives, unfortunately, we can now only watch it on television,” Ahsanullah told Samaa Digital.
Women’s national sides across Asia are competing for a place in the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup in its qualifiers. Pakistan are out of both tournaments.
Pakistan’s absence at the world stage in football is a result of a ban by FIFA.
It was imposed due to third-party interference after a group, led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah, took over the Pakistan Football Federation headquarters in March, while the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee was in charge.
The world’s football governing body termed it a “hostile” takeover, before suspending Pakistan’s membership.
One of the sanctions on a suspended member association is that it is barred from taking part in any international event, which makes Pakistan virtually non-existent in the sport’s world map.
At the last edition of the SAFF Cup in 2018, Pakistan made it to the semi-finals, before being eliminated by arch-rivals India. The national side wanted to improve on that performance this year.
“We reached the semi-final after 13 years and gave that performance, this time we wanted to do even better,” Ahsanullah said.
“But unfortunately, due to the FIFA ban, we couldn’t participate in the event and it’s very sad,” he added.
Ahsanullah, and others of his generation — including star forward Kaleemullah and Pakistan captain Saddam Hussain — have suffered due to the instability in the PFF due to political infighting.
Most of their time, since they took up football as a profession in the late 2000s, has been spent waiting for things to stabilise and see their careers prosper.
Since 2015, political infighting followed by two bans by FIFA cost the national sides’ participation in international tournaments, hence, hampering the development process of players repeatedly.
“When I started playing football in 2007, there was no FIFA ban and I had a goal of playing for Pakistan at age-group and senior level,” said Ahsanullah. “I was pretty successful because opportunities were in front of me and I used to prepare for them.
“We also took Pakistan’s ranking to a good level as well after winning series against India and Afghanistan and we were getting better. But for some reason we were banned again for three years and our ranking fell drastically,” he added.
When the recent ban happened, Ahsanullah and his colleagues were left further disappointed and questioning their life and career choices.
“When the last ban happened, I told my friends: ‘We’ve spent our whole lives only training, will we ever get competition? Will we be able to take Pakistan’s name forward step by step?’ because whenever we do a bit better, some kind of political issues rise, a ban happens and we come down to zero.”
After assuming the PFF charge, the Ashfaq Shah group organised an Under-23 Championship for men and is now holding the Pakistan Premier League. However, the tournaments carry no official legitimacy due to the FIFA ban.
Ahsanullah said football should not stop, but local events isolated from FIFA’s system are a goalless cause.
“Every effort is for a goal. When we study we have a goal to become a doctor or an engineer and we want to achieve a certain status in life. In the same way footballers also have a goal when they start playing,” he said.
“It’s not bad that the Pakistan Premier League is taking place, whoever is running it, but the best thing will happen when our relationship with FIFA is restored. That will give us a goal to work towards.
“The teams who want to win the PPL, will they make it to any Asian Football Confederation Event? No. If a junior is working hard to play for Pakistan Under-13s or 14s, will he be able to do that? No.”
The 28-year-old said Pakistan’s reputation in football cannot improve without international representation. “You can’t claim to improve the sport in Pakistan by believing that we’ll give the country a name without playing international football. This is impossible.”
“To make football in Pakistan better, to test ourselves, we have to play against other countries and to make it happen, we’ve to be with FIFA.”
Shah was elected as the PFF president in 2018 in polls conducted by the Supreme Court. According to FIFA statutes, a third-party cannot intervene in the functioning of a member association and if it does, the repercussion is suspension.
To avoid such situation, FIFA appointed the Normalisation Committee in 2019. Ashfaq, at that time, understanding that FIFA’s role cannot be written off, handed over the PFF charge to the NC.
The NC was appointed by FIFA to conduct fresh elections of the federation, which was ailing from political turmoil due to infighting between warring groups since 2015 after a highly controversial Punjab Football Association election.
After March’s takeover, Ashfaq justified his step by expressing mistrust in the NC’s intentions to conduct the elections. Currently, both the NC and the Ashfaq Shah group are trying to find an “amicable” solution to the resolution of the issues.
Ahsanullah said it should be one which ensures football goes on under FIFA’s watch.
“Political issues are common throughout the world, but whatever happens on that front, can’t there be solution through which the players stop suffering and football keeps going on,” he said.
“Why can’t we keep moving on under FIFA’s rules and let footballers, referees and coaches do their job? They can keep negotiating towards a solution but during that time football should not suffer and the connection with FIFA shouldn’t break.”
Women’s football continues to suffer
After making it to the Pakistan women’s national team camp in 2020, Aliza Sabir was eyeing her first appearance for the senior side. She earned her place in the camp after her performances for Army in the 2019 National Women’s Football Championship. In the 2021 edition, she continued to terrify defenses with her trickery and vision in the midfield.
It was not only her who was giving it all during the tournament. With multiple individual awards up for grabs and the Women’s Asian Cup qualifiers scheduled for September, Pakistan’s top women players were working hard to win a place in the national squad. However, the FIFA ban has shattered their dreams.
“The feeling during the championship was great and the girls felt that they are getting the opportunity to perform and prove themselves and due to the awards at offer there was a lot of hype,” Aliza told SAMAA Digital.
“Everyone was excited and competition was high. All of us were trying to play well so that they could make it to the Pakistan team. All players were taking things seriously.
“But due to the recent issues, everything has stopped and everyone is down.”
It was during the 2021 Championship only, on March 27, when the Ashfaq Shah group took over the PFF House, which led the NC to cancel the event citing seizure of funds by the former. Aliza narrated the story of the day it all happened.
“Our match was scheduled for the next day and everyone was excited and pumped about it,” she said. “When we came home and saw the news, first we couldn’t believe. All of us were waiting till 3-4am in the night for someone to tell us that everything is okay but after a few hours the it was postponed and cancelled.
“All players’ morale and hopes were down after that and we couldn’t understand what was happening.”
For the 16-year-old Aliza, despite what she had to face during the recent fiasco, playing for Pakistan is still a dream.
“I’ll never leave football, it’s my passion,” she said. “Whenever I get a chance, I’ll be ready to represent Pakistan. Who doesn’t want to do that? When things get better, we’ll definitely play.”
Frustrated by ‘political’ bans
Pakistan not being able to play football does not only affect players based inside the country. Based in Denmark and playing professional football there, Pakistan’s first choice goalkeeper Yousuf Butt’s disappointment is equal to that of Aliza and Ahsanullah.
“I have been with Pakistan national team for 10 years now. This is my third political ban!!” Butt told SAMAA Digital. “Politics have now stopped me/us for playing for five years out of the 10.”
Echoing Ahsanullah’s views Butt said politics have no place in football. “Unfortunately it’s all about that in Pakistan football. Even when the national team is up and running, you can feel and hear about all politics behind the scenes.”
Butt said being able to play football in Europe is a privilege and that he was gutted for his Pakistan teammates based in the country.
“I thank God I am not playing local football in Pakistan!” he said. “I would have been sitting at home and staring at a wall for five out of the last 10 years like a lot of my teammates and brothers have.
“We could have progressed a lot more! We have a lot talent outside BUT also in Pakistan. But that’s been killed by politics.”
Butt said Pakistan’s performance at the 2018 SAFF Cup was “smashing” despite the country getting banned for three years before that.
“We came up and “smashing” the SAFF [Cup] last time. We came in third. That’s crazy thinking about we had 3 year ban and 1 camp,” Butt exclaimed.
“But missing out on SAFF in Maldives just hurts. I try in these days not to look into media or television where all the rest of the national team plays.”