Removing hurdles one by one [TNS]

Removing hurdles one by one [TNS]

by Alam Zeb Safi

Football in Pakistan has suffered a lot for political reasons. Despite brimming with immense talent, the country has never shown any constant growth in the sport because of such issues and lack of a strong and visionary leadership. And for the last seven years or so, the sport has been completely dead and the country is still facing international suspension despite efforts from the previous government to pave the way for the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee to regain its access to the PFF headquarters in Lahore. The task to regain its access to the headquarters was accomplished, but the second task, regaining access to the PFF bank accounts, remains to be accomplished as it is still under litigation.

Once the NC regains PFF’s accounts, FIFA will lift suspension and Pakistan football will become active. The NC also plans to hold massive club activities after Pakistan’s membership is restored.

‘The News on Sunday’ (TNS) conducted a detailed interview with Shahid Khokhar, a senior member of the FIFA-appointed NC. He talked about the current situation and what the NC plans to do when FIFA lifts the suspension. Following are the excerpts from his interview.

TNS: What is the current situation of Pakistan football?

Shahid Khokhar: In order to get an accurate picture of the current situation of football in Pakistan we need to have a brief overview of all important aspects of the matter. As you know on March 27, 2021, FIFA Football House, Lahore, was illegally taken over by the Ashfaq group, ousting the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee. Its unlawful and unethical act caused heavy damage to Pakistan’s football which had already been in deep crisis for seven years. This assault by the group on FIFA House resulted in Pakistan’s suspension by FIFA in April 2021. It is on record that FIFA’s warnings given before the suspension were totally neglected. Instead, the leadership of the invaders, while justifying their illegal invasion, claimed to have the ability to run the country’s football without the support of the international football community. Their claims brought not only another barren year for football in Pakistan but also damaged the image of the country. Football is the number one sport in the world from many angles and any little happening in this game is highlighted in the world immediately.

To lift the embargo, FIFA put the condition to return the FIFA House, PFF bank accounts and digital and physical PFF assets back to its appointed Normalisation Committee headed by its chairman Haroon Malik. Since that March 27 happening, the NC has worked tirelessly to bring the situation back to normal. It was a complex situation and hence a multi-pronged strategy was adopted by the NC. The issue was not just the return of a building. There were other factors too. For example, there was government’s involvement at the highest level and the NC had to present and win its case against many political and administrative odds. Eventually, FIFA House was returned to the NC by the then government authorities led by former minister for IPC Dr Fahmida Mirza who made her best efforts to resolve the issue. It is, however, not enough for FIFA to lift the suspension.

NC’s next task is getting the control of the PFF bank accounts back along with the digital and physical assets of the PFF to resolve the issue in total. In this regard I wish to bring into the knowledge of your readers, Pakistani authorities and the football community that we are still facing legal challenges from the same group of persons who have brought Pakistan into this embarrassing position. Everyone should be well aware of their nefarious designs to keep Pakistan away from the international football community. Despite their claims having been repeatedly rejected in the courts, they still claim to be the constitutional body of the PFF.

Recently, the Lahore High Court dismissed the Ashfaq group’s appeal against the FIFA normalisation committee. Earlier, when a civil court had restrained the Ashfaq group from using PFF bank accounts under a restraining order, it appealed against the order in the sessions court which was rejected. Against this, the group appealed in Lahore High Court. Given that the legal process in civil suits normally works at a slow pace, the NC had appealed to the honourable court to put the PFF case at a fast track to which I am pleased to disclose that NC’s request has been accepted and the case will now be heard on a day-to-day basis. It has given a positive hope to all those who want an end to the football crisis in Pakistan.

There are about seven million people in Pakistan who are somehow connected to football. There is great unrest in the country’s football community over this long-standing issue. The lovers of this beautiful sport want to see their national football teams play at international stages. Along with that, losing all football education, training and infrastructure opportunities due to suspension is another painful aspect of Pakistan’s football story. FIFA, AFC and NC are keen to remove hindrances and get the suspension lifted as soon as possible.

TNS: What is the significance of the resolution passed about Pakistan during the recent FIFA Congress in Doha?

SK: Yes, during the last FIFA Congress, 195 FIFA member countries voted in favour of the lifting of suspension on Pakistan after it has met the requirements. Only four votes were cast against us. This huge diplomatic success not only shows the concern of the international football family for Pakistan but also highlights the efforts of the NC at that level. Passing of this resolution with an overwhelming majority will hopefully result in an immediate lifting of the FIFA suspension once we have met the requirements.

TNS: What are the future plans for international football once the ban is lifted?

SK: It is extremely disappointing that the opportunities of international participation are slipping out of our hands one by one. Year 2022 is event-packed. There are a number of chances where Pakistan can make its comeback in the international community if the suspension is lifted in time.

There is great potential in youth and women events. But you have to send your entry till a specified time. We have already missed Asian Games but we are still hopeful and keen to compete in the remaining international events and raise the green flag in the world. Other than the competitions, after the restoration of our FIFA membership, we are anxiously waiting to grab the educational opportunities regularly provided by the FIFA and the AFC to their member associations.

TNS: What are NC’s plans for local football?

SK: The stoppage of international football halted the PFF local football activities of all kinds at all levels. It created a vacuum which is to a certain extent filled by the private directionless and goalless activities by regional organisers. Such activities don’t carry a national feel. The PFF NC under the leadership of its chairman Haroon Malik is committed to resuming the sport at all levels.

TNS: What will be the pinnacle of the NC’s local plans?

SK: I have remained a vocal advocate and admirer of club football development. To me, the only way forward for us is to strengthen the clubs which are the genuine and organic stakeholders of the sport along with some other entities. Also important are designing and holding of awareness campaigns, tailor-made education and training programmes with the help and support of FIFA and AFC. Education and training on administration at all levels including the PFF is of foremost importance. Apparently, this seems to be an ambitious agenda but we will have to work harder to at least set a direction for the future. The NC also desires to hold a massive club football activity after the restoration of the PFF which will be disclosed in detail by its chairman Haroon Malik.

TNS: The football community has repeatedly demanded that elections be announced immediately after the restoration of the PFF so what are the NC’s plans on that front?

SK: As the NC chairman has many times assured during his media talks, let me reiterate that the NC is committed to holding free, fair and transparent PFF elections which will be announced immediately after the restoration of PFF’s membership. And to ensure transparency, ‘FIFA Connect ID’ technology will be implemented.

TNS: What will be the status of the state departments in future?

SK: Departments have been abolished by the government. Being a club football advocate, I always remained on the opposite side of the existence of these government organisations. But I don’t appreciate disbanding the departmental teams overnight. Rather as a club licensing officer, I strongly believed that gradual transformation of departments into clubs through implementation of Club Licensing Regulations was the right path to follow.

The political role of the government departments in the PFF Statutes is another complex issue which needs to be settled after their stoppage while going into the elections as it has raised some constitutional questions.

Published in The News on Sunday, 8 May 2022