Balochistan’s boundless passion for football has nowhere to go but an event is keeping the flame alive [Dawn]

Balochistan’s boundless passion for football has nowhere to go but an event is keeping the flame alive [Dawn]

by Umaid Wasim

QUETTA: To trace the history of football in Balochistan, and the province’s unflinching passion for the game, one needs to only look at the present.

As Quetta’s Baloch FC took on Muslim FC of Chaman in the final of the Ufone Balochistan Cup at a packed Ayub Football Stadium on a blustery Thursday evening, it’s pretty clear why the affinity to football in Balochistan is unparalleled to the rest of the country.

Loyalties were fiercely split between the fans in attendance. The crowd was asked to keep their emotions in check. Muslim FC’s most popular player Hayatullah had to make an appeal to his club’s fans to not disrupt the game. After all, it was just a game. But for fans of the game here, it’s a part of faith.

Football tribalism is akin to the one in the society here by and large. Balochistan is a working-class society and football has historically been a working class game.

The seeds of the Quetta-Chaman rivalry have long been sown. It’s about bragging rights in the province. Regardless of what tournament it is, this is about supremacy. Then, there is a difference of ideals and beliefs too as well as how football found its way into different regions of Pakistan’s biggest province.

Quetta, which Pashtuns have for long claimed to be as part of its Southern frontier, most historians believe, got its taste for the game from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North West Frontier Province, where British evangelist Theodore Leighton Pennell introduced the game in the 1880s.

Chaman’s proximity to Afghanistan, where football is wildly popular, is believed to have played its part in the propagation of the game in the border town. The Makran Coast was until the 1960s a territory of Oman. The mining towns of Dukki and Panjgur learned about the game thanks to the British miners who played the game during their leisure time.

It has meant Balochistan has been a breeding ground for some other country’s greatest players. From full-back Jumma Khan, who pre-partition was the province’s greatest export to Mohammedan Sporting Kolkata and was part of five Calcutta League-winning squads in six seasons, to Qayyum Changezi and Mohammad Essa, and Pakistan’s biggest star of the social media age, Kaleemullah.

But while the players have broken new ground, Balochistan’s top clubs haven’t. And it’s largely down to the fact that in a department-dominated national league, the Pakistan Premier Football League, they cannot match the spending or retention power to really make a mark. Most of their top talents — Essa and Kaleem, for example — get snapped up by departments which can offer regular salaries and benefits even during the off-season.

“For us, the PPFL is only a stage whereby the players we pick up from the community can express themselves and get picked up by the departments where they can have a better future,” Baloch FC Quetta manager Imran Ali told Dawn after the final.

This year, though, having won promotion back to the country’s top tier after a seven-year gap, Baloch FC — which has been in existence since the country’s independence — decided not to participate in the PPFL due to the long-running dispute in the Pakistan Football Federation.

Pakistan remains suspended by FIFA after the court-elected PFF led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah took back control of the PFF headquarters from the Normalisation Committee appointed by the global football body. It was the latest incident which has hampered the growth of the game in the country. And Balochistan, it can be said, has suffered the most.

“Players need a chance to play … especially the players here,” Kaleemullah told Dawn. “It is one of the reasons why Balochistan looks forward to tournaments organised by private companies.”

Lots of talent that has come over the years has only participated in tournaments like the one organised by Ufone, which was first organised in 2016 and is now in its fourth edition. In its first edition, it clashed with the Pakistan Petroleum Limited Balochistan Cup which was held for three years until 2017.

At least, these tournaments have shown more consistency than the PPFL. This season’s PPFL — held after a near three-year gap — was organised by Ashfaq Shah’s group, meaning it was always a disputed one. The edition before that was held four years ago, just before the battle over the control of the PFF began with a controversial election in 2015.

“It’s caused great damage to our players … there has been nothing to look forward to for the players,” former Balochistan Football Association secretary Haji Saeed Tikko, who is organising the tournament with Ufone, told Dawn. “We have a tournament here where we have participation from the whole province and we can see new talent but where do they go.”

At this tournament, Tikko organised talent hunts across every district in Quetta. Previously, this was done by the organisers of the PPL Cup and the Ufone Cup would only see clubs taking part. “The club teams have come out on top here because they have been in existence while the district teams had players who have never played together. Despite that, we’ve still seen promising talent in the districts.”

As Tikko spoke, his gaze turned to the FIFA Goal Project behind the Ayub Stadium. What could’ve left a lasting legacy, and a token of contribution from the global football body to the football-mad Balochistan stood in the darkness. It was supposed to be a training centre for emerging talent. Over the years, it has only changed ownership but hasn’t had any tenants — the players.

After the NC was appointed in September 2019, the group led by Haji Khalil, the rival group to Tikko’s which is led by Abdul Rauf Nautezai, was made the caretaker of the Goal Project. Member’s of Khalil’s group had been named on the provincial committee for Balochistan but change at the helm of the NC, and its subsequent restructuring, meant Nautezai and Tikko now have control. “The NC hasn’t done anything to revive it really,” Tikko rued.

In the shadow of the Goal Project, Muslim FC lifted the trophy amid fireworks into the night sky at the floodlit Ayub Stadium after winning the final 2-0. Muslim FC had participated in the PPFL season which came to an abrupt halt after the government sealed the PFF headquarters due to the non-payment of its lease for three years, throwing Ashfaq’s PFF out of office.

They were in fifth place after 14 matches played but realistically, in the face of the challenge from the departments, they weren’t title challengers. On their own turf, in their own province, though, they are the kings. And their fans made sure they celebrated every bit of it.

The government has moved to start the closure of departmental sports by early next year and instead move to a regional system. There, however, seems to be no roadmap for how clubs like Muslim FC and Baloch FC will feature in it. For all their history, and the fan culture they bring, they need to be in the system. For now and with the PFF imbroglio stretching on, it seems they will have to participate in tournaments like these to prove they are the best team in a province where passion for football knows no bounds.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2021