by Shahrukh Sohail

For followers of Pakistan football, the last seven years have been agonisingly painful. Administrative infighting, bans by the global football governing body FIFA and the failure to win a World Cup qualifier — twice — are painful thorns that one is reminded of every time that one sees another national team play.

The question has always been ‘Why don’t we progress in the sport of football?’ We have all the ingredients that are prerequisites for success: a large football audience, an ample number of players, and even funding from the world’s governing body to get things going.

The answer, unfortunately, could not be simpler. It’s the fragmented stakeholders of Pakistan Football, the constant infighting and, eventually, the lust for power that has catapulted Pakistan back to the proverbial Stone Age. None of us actually thought it could get worse over the last few years, but then March 2021 came round and we saw a faction led by Ashfaq Shah seize control of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) headquarters the Football House and throw out the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee (NC) and its chairman Haroon Malik.

Dark times followed. A FIFA ban was unsurprising and it seemed that all was lost with Pakistan destined for international wilderness. In stepped inter-provincial coordination minister Dr Fehmida Mirza, who is also the de facto Sports Minister, armed with an order from Prime Minister Imran Khan to restore the PFF House back to its earlier custodians.

In a tale that reads like a Lollywood drama, the government eventually ousted Ashfaq Shah and his cohort, negotiating a return for Haroon Malik and what seems like the restoration of Pakistan’s international status with FIFA.

The road ahead, though, is bumpy and riddled with challenges. For starters, there is now an immense pressure on the Normalisation Committee to conduct elections and handover charge to the elected body — that, after all, is their primary mandate.

Maybe so, but what the average Pakistan football fan has failed to truly grasp is that the NC is also responsible for the Federation’s day-to-day running, and that means competitions must be held, the Pakistan national team must once again return to action and football affairs must be resumed throughout the country.

Reportedly, in order to get the FIFA ban lifted, certain other criteria also need to be met, including the handing-over of the PFF accounts (which contain close to $1 million as per the NC Chairman) and digital assets (verified social media handles, website, etc.). Those conditions are expected to be met in the next few weeks, though one can always expect complications in the land of the pure.

However, the important question is this: where does Pakistan go from here? We’ve fallen behind like no other nation on the planet. Our failure to develop our football system stands out like a sore thumb in Asia, where we hold the notorious record of never winning a FIFA World Cup qualifier, despite trying since 1989. To put this into perspective, Guam, which has a population probably less than a crowded mohalla in Karachi, has achieved this feat.

Doom and gloom, the situation maybe. But hope is also on the horizon, and NC Chairman Haroon Malik has made no secret of his desire to improve football as a whole, starting with recruitment in the PFF, which has been poorly understaffed in its entire existence.

A competent PFF can look forward to a rousing combination of international football events for both men and women teams this year. We’ve missed the U-18 Women’s SAFF Championship that recently concluded in India, but the U-15 and senior events are far enough ahead to sort out the details for our participation, once the ban is lifted.

For the men’s team, it is a chance to break the jinx and raise the spirits of an entire nation. The SAFF Championship is next year and the FIFA World Cup qualifiers will make another return too. If the team has sufficient preparation and friendly games, coupled with the induction of our talented diaspora players, we have a solid chance of winning our first game and possibly challenging for the SAFF Championship title as well.

A resumption of the political process and, ultimately, a democratic transition of power to the election winners is also a must. However, holding elections in a transparent manner and addressing the outstanding issues of the electoral list and, crucially, handling the government department votes (which are set to become void with a winding up order of the government teams) must also be dealt with.

The disbanding of departmental teams is also an ideal chance to redevelop the Pakistan Premier League with private ownership, and relaunching the top tier into a modern product that can act as the hub of our ecosystem.

The task is unenviable. The football fraternity is as divided as ever, the path to elections is riddled with challenges, and football development is a concept non-existent in the country.

However, if the NC Chairman Haroon Malik can manage to recruit the right troops, motivate them into battle and pull off a Normandy-esque skirmish, then perhaps, whenever the Pakistan national team plays at the ageing Punjab Stadium in Lahore, in the dusty stands, his name, too, shall echo in positive murmurs.

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

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 27th, 2022