World Cup trophy returns to Pakistan, heightening the sense of longing for football resumption [Dawn]

World Cup trophy returns to Pakistan, heightening the sense of longing for football resumption [Dawn]

by Umaid Wasim

LAHORE: The FIFA World Cup trophy returned to Lahore. As did Christian Karembeu. And just like four years ago, when it made its first trip to Pakistan, the country remains a pariah for international football.

Pakistan has been under FIFA suspension since April last year, a prolongation of the crisis the country’s football has faced since 2015. Since the last visit of the World Cup trophy, the national team has played just seven international matches. Two of those matches put Pakistan out of the qualifying race for this year’s World Cup in Qatar, for which the Trophy Tour is being held.

Pakistan was one of 51 countries the iconic gold trophy will visit on its quadrennial tour and amid a smattering of fireworks, Karembeu, a World Cup winner with France in 1998, unveiled it to a small gathering at a plush hotel on Tuesday, unlike four years ago when over 10,000 members of the public got an opportunity to see it.

Originally, there were other plans. Organisers had initially announced that the trophy was due to come to Islamabad but the venue had to be shifted due to political uncertainty in the capital. Pakistan’s football future too remains mired in uncertainty and the arrival of the trophy offered a stark reminder of where it currently stands.

No members of the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee, appointed by FIFA in September 2019 to end the longstanding crisis in the sport, were present at the trophy unveiling. Instead, officials of the Pakistan Sports Board — Director General retired Col Asif Zaman and vice-president Ahmad Hanif Orakzai, who is also secretary of the ministry of Inter-provincial Coordination — were there to welcome it.

“Of course we at the PSB want to get the PFF matters resolved,” the PSB DG told Dawn ahead of the trophy unveiling. “That is why we asked for an election roadmap from the PFF NC. ”

Pakistan was suspended by FIFA after its appointed NC was thrown out of office by a group of officials led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah, who claimed that the Haroon Malik-led committee wasn’t sincere about holding elections.

Rounds of talks between the PSB and the IPC Ministry with officials of the NC as well the Ashfaq group and others eventually saw the NC return to the PFF headquarters after handing over an eight-month roadmap to hold the elections. But the suspension will only be lifted once the NC gets back all its assets, including the bank accounts — a case for which is being heard in the Lahore High Court.

With the suspension still in place and even though the PFF NC attended the FIFA Congress and the draw for the World Cup in April in Doha, persons close to organising the Trophy Tour told Dawn that they didn’t want to get into any dispute by inviting officials of the NC. They added that by bringing the World Cup trophy, FIFA wanted to emphasise on its connection with the people of the country.

“Pakistan has a growing passion for football and events like these will continue to inspire fans and the youth,” the IPC secretary said. But the question remains whether the arrival of the World Cup trophy will inspire the country’s youth to take up football.

Last week, Pakistan international midfielder Saddam Hussain broke into tears on live television when describing the plight of the country’s footballers. Saddam, who was made national team captain by the NC when it first took over, was invited to the trophy unveiling and afterwards said that players had nowhere to go at this point in time.

“All we want is the resumption of football activities,” he told Dawn on Tuesday. “Events like these are of course helpful for the soft image of the country but they should go hand in hand with regular football activities.”

Organisers of the Trophy Tour and its sponsors said they hoped that this visit as well as with the World Cup being held in nearby Qatar would be a tipping point for growth of football in Pakistan. Only time will tell whether that will be the case.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2022