by Muneeb Farrukh
Football is arguably the most popular sport in the world but the game faces a lot of challenges in Pakistan.
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is currently banned by FIFA due to third-party interference. Although, the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee (NC) — which is tasked with holding elections at district and provincial level — regained control of PFF headquarters, in March, after being forced out by Ashfaq Hussain Shah group almost a year ago but the ban won’t be lifted unless they get access to PFF’s bank accounts and digital assets. The hearing about the ongoing court case regarding PFF accounts will take place on June 4 at the District Courts, Lahore.
Apart from the PFF fiasco, the changes in sports policy, during former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tenure, which saw the end of departmental sports in Pakistan was another blow to footballers in Pakistan especially due to absence of proper transition to a regional structure.
With their jobs no longer secure in departments, many footballers in Pakistan are now looking to quit the game in order to earn a livelihood for themselves and their family.
Lack of departmental football
While talking to SAMAA Digital in an exclusive interview, Pakistan national football captain Saddam Hussain shed light on the sorry state of the game in the country.
“During Imran Khan’s government, departmental sports was shut down which made life difficult for athletes in Pakistan,” said Hussain. “Even my department [SSGC] terminated contract of some of the players, who I have tried to support, especially during Ramazan, from my own pocket. The children of these players were also kicked out of schools because of their financial situation. But this can’t go on forever as I have to manage my personal expenses as well.”
“We [players] were not even consulted before scrapping the departmental system. The higher authorities took that decision without taking into account the ground realities,” he added. “The new system does not give any guarantee about income or leagues which makes things even more complicated.”
After the regime change in Pakistan saw Shehbaz Sharif replace Imran Khan as the prime minister, Hussain is hopeful the departmental teams will be restored.
“We have heard rumours that the current government is keen on reviving departmental sports but we are yet to receive an official notification in this regard,” he said.
Clubs or franchise football?
Another issue that haunts Pakistan football is the lack of a proper clubs-based league, which takes place throughout the year. However, Hussain is more tilted towards a Pakistan Super League-type league, based on franchises, as it can provide sustainable income.
“I have always been in favour of a professional football model, something which is similar to PSL or other leagues around the world. We need sustainable income and if a PSL-like football league offers us Rs.6-8 million per season, we would be more than happy to play,” he said.
“We would love to see foreign players and coaches come and play in Pakistan with such a league in place. This will also add value to lifestyle of footballers, just like cricketers of Pakistan,” he added.
It must be noted that the NC, headed by Haroon Malik, is thinking on the lines of organising a club championship, in the future, in order to satisfy the criteria for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Club Licensing. This will also ensure that Pakistani clubs can participate in continental football.
However, Hussain believes that clubs in Pakistan can’t meet the AFC criteria. It must be noted that the license is given after a club meets the criteria in five different categories – Sporting, Infrastructure, Personnel and Administrative, Legal and Financial. Some of the salient features of the criteria includes development of youth football, owing a ground and coaches requiring AFC validated certificates.
“I welcome this idea of NC but my concern is that who will fund this system and how will the clubs meet AFC criteria. Players need proper training and diet to compete properly. The appointment of coaches is also an issue at the grass root level because there are question marks over their qualification,” he said. “Even our national team doesn’t have a proper ground, then how will the club meet those standards.”
Players can’t go abroad
The FIFA ban on PFF is also a major hurdle for Pakistani footballers, who have opportunities to go and play abroad.
“The ongoing PFF crisis has been extremely damaging for footballers in Pakistan. I had to go overseas for league but I couldn’t get NOC due to FIFA ban on PFF. I have offers from Brazil and Poland but I haven’t been able to sign contract with them so far because I’m not sure if PFF issues will be resolved by the time the transfer window closes” he said.
Hussain was also disappointed to see that it’s always the players that suffer the most due to the turmoil surrounding PFF.
“None of the officials come forward and take responsibility for this turmoil and it’s only the players who suffer. I don’t care who is in charge of the federation, I just want our players to get back to playing football in Pakistan and internationally. We are very far behind at the moment,” he concluded.