by Shahrukh Sohail

For those who belonged to Islamabad’s fanatical football circle, Popo FC (Football Club) was a regular name that they had seen competing in various tournaments over the last decade or so. But 2020 was the year when the rest of the country stood up and took notice as the fledgling team made a maiden appearance at the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Challenge Cup.

The more experienced teams’ alarm bells really went off, however, when Popo FC overcame Saif Tex in a tight 2-1 win and earned a more than respectable 2-2 draw with Karachi Port Trust (KPT).

A little more than a year has passed since that moment, but one can feel the pride in founder Haris Haroon’s voice even over our patchy internet connection. The journey that saw the team make headlines has been full of blood, sweat and tears, but passion persevered in the end.

“So the name ‘Popo’ is actually my nickname, given to me by one of my students during my tutoring days in 2012,” reveals Haroon. “He formed a team with the name and went on to play a local tournament. The response was immense and we could not refuse a chance to carry the initiative forward.”

An academic by profession, Haroon has two master’s degrees and was lecturing at Islamic University’s business programme. But with football, he was hooked from the beginning. Initially the team took part in various local tournaments in Islamabad, but Haroon aimed bigger, and had his sights on setting up an academy for talented players.

Over the last couple of years, Popo FC has brought that dream to life and developed one of the few residential academy set-ups in Pakistan. It now operates multiple teams ranging from U-13s to U-19s, but there isn’t a senior squad. Most of these players are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Haroon’s hectic schedule now involves managing multiple youth teams and a residential academy to boot.

“We have 17 kids at our academy, who are from various places like Malakand, Pishin and Kashmir. We have a residential hostel in Islamabad where they are housed and we take care of all their expenses,” adds Haroon.

Popo FC’s efforts were already yielding results even before their Challenge Cup exploits. A number of players for both the Pakistan U-19 and U-16 teams, for their respective Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Championship qualifiers in 2019, were from the Islamabad-based club. But what really catapulted the club forward into a new era was the day Pakistan’s sole AFC Pro License holder, Shahzad Anwar, decided to join the club in a coaching capacity.

“To be very honest, I was never a fan of Shahzad Anwar. I had been misled by a few people in Islamabad football circles and he knew that,” says Haroon with a quiet laugh. “But I approached him after the AFC Qualifiers and asked him if he could do a little bit of virtual coaching to help my young players improve. That little bit eventually turned into six months!”

Anwar was initially sceptical about the entire model as well, but became hooked on to the project once he visited the set-up in person and joined hands in a bid to improve the football side of things. His influence and knowledge has been a massive uplift for the club and, as Haroon puts it, “gave them a deeper understanding of football and how tactics are structured.”

Managing a club in Pakistan is an arduous challenge despite the grassroots popularity that football enjoys. Sponsors and patrons are rare, the game is looked down upon mostly, and professionalism is non-existent. But sheer will, at times, has kept Popo FC going.

“We are forever indebted to our primary sponsor Bread and Butter, which allows us to manage most of the finances of the academy and teams now,” says Haroon. “But before this, all of this was coming mostly out of my pocket and even now I cover all the shortfalls myself.

“There is so much passion for football in Pakistan. I receive over 100 messages a day, asking to join our academy, and we try to give each player a fair trial. We assess them in their cities or invite them over for two months, where we give them ample time under Shahzad. If he is impressed, the player stays on for the academy and we bear the entire cost during this time period too.”

Popo FC’s work is actually how football is structured globally; clubs developing talent using their own resources and, in mature markets, selling developed players to bigger clubs and using the funds to repeat the process and manage expenses.

But for a country like Pakistan, that remains a wishful dream at the moment. Even with that obstacle, however, Haroon seems to have found an alternative way of promoting his players and helping them turn professional.

“We have a partnership with FC SKA of Brazil, where two of our players — Waleed and Rizwan — will be training for a few months,” he reveals. “We will then be working with FC SKA to help them trial at a number of Asian clubs, where they will have a chance to earn a professional contract.”

A similar strategy and partnership is expected in Spain, where some of Popo FC’s best and brightest could be headed to further polish their skills. But for Haroon, the country is utterly lacking in its approach to football development and vested interests threaten to destroy whatever remaining football there is left.

“Talent managers don’t exist in Pakistan,” laments Haroon. “No one really knows how to coach children and turn them into footballers. The majority of the players are wasted because our coaches tend to coach players starting at the Under-14 level mostly, but development starts well before that.

“Even then, most coaches just focus on fitness and no one is working to increase a child’s technical ability. It is a genuine tragedy and stakeholders of football simply don’t care,” says Haroon.

Administrative infighting has also derailed the beautiful game in Pakistan over the last seven years and it is likely these problems will continue to persist. Other individuals might have naturally given up; a few might have rethought their passion too — but not Haroon.

“When I look at the system and the structure of football in Pakistan, it’s non-existent. Political problems have practically destroyed the game. There are difficult days but, in the end, I always hope that things will get better and football will eventually have a future in Pakistan.”

The writer is a sports management and marketing expert. He tweets @shahrukhsohail7

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 6th, 2022