by Shahrukh Sohail

In what took 15 months but seemed like a century of agony, Pakistan was finally re-entered as a nation back into the global football governing body Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), after its ban was lifted on June 30.

It had been a long time coming and these few months have been the worst that Pakistan football has ever seen. The departmental teams, which have been the main employers for footballers and coaches here, had started closing shop on the directives of the government, because of which many players faced absolute financial ruin.

The heart-wrenching scene of the Pakistan midfielder Saddam Hussain bursting into tears on a television show recently was perhaps the ultimate display of the haplessness of our footballers. Thus, it was no surprise that FIFA’s decision to lift the ban on Pakistan was welcomed by everyone genuinely passionate about the beautiful game in the country. One ardent Pakistan football fan even likened it to another Eid for the entire community.

The credit in this situation must be given to the patience and perseverance of the FIFA-mandated Normalisation Committee, led by its chairman Haroon Malik, which even faced a physical takeover of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) House last March by Ashfaq Shah and his faction of the PFF. Haroon’s continued efforts, alongside a nuanced approach by the former Inter-Provincial Coordination (IPC) minister Fahmida Mirza, finally paved the way for Pakistan’s restoration.

However, the night is still dark and full of terrors. The state of the PFF House in Lahore was beyond belief. Like the beautiful game in Pakistan, it has been ransacked to the bone, quite literally. One genuinely wonders about the mental state of the individuals who thought it appropriate to run away with light bulbs and electrical sockets from a building that is technically a representative of the entire country’s football administration.

Naturally, the first logical step would be to get the PFF House in working order, as well as solving immediate financial problems, as the PFF accounts are the subject of a legal battle between the Normalisation Committee and the Ashfaq Shah group. With Pakistan’s restoration, FIFA should be able to provide access to funding to get the ball rolling even as the legal case goes on.

Administrative issues aside, what every fan really looks forward to seeing is Pakistan’s national team returning to the pitch and finally ending the immense loss that the players have faced in the last few years. Leading lights of the national team in previous years, such as Hassan Bashir, Mohammed Ali, Kaleemullah and Zesh Rehman, are all close to or have ended their careers, and a fresh approach for the newer generation is direly needed to revamp the team.

On the other hand, the women’s side has an even more unenviable history — it last played a game eight years ago and has been deprived of any international exposure since then. The system has truly failed players such as Hajra Khan, Mahpara Syed and Malaika Noor.

While you certainly can’t change the past, there is now an opportunity finally to rectify things and start building a future for football once again. The Shaheens, both male and female, have a number of events that they could be taking part in this year. The SAFF Women’s Championship is set to be held in Nepal in early September, closely mirrored by the U-15 Women’s edition in Bangladesh in the same timeline.

The senior men’s team also has FIFA dates to play friendlies in September (the last of this year) and the U-16 SAFF Championship is also right around the corner. With so much to do and so little time, the Normalisation Committee has an enormous task on its hands to get Pakistan back on the international arena.

There is also the matter of conducting the elections for the Pakistan Football Federation, which has been the root cause of all the problems in the country. Detractors have been calling for an immediate election. However, the current constitution and its limitations pose a serious hurdle to credible elections that are both fair and free.

The government’s decision to end departmental teams can also be an opportunity-in-disguise to finally revamp the stagnating standards of the Pakistan Premier League, which have been truly shambolic at times. Revitalising the league with private ownership and developing it into a product that fans can both watch and relate to, is the central idea that will power Pakistani football forward.

The league and the associated ecosystem that comes along with it, such as a top tier women’s league, youth competitions and coach education, are a must. All of this requires a functioning PFF and that is where the job for the Normalisation Committee begins, and it truly means going back to the literal basics, where you need to build up an organisational structure and hire qualified people to work within that.

Only with a competent PFF that is adequately staffed can Pakistan get the ball truly rolling. Alongside the elections, we also need to ensure that we stop the agonising situation of missing out vital international competitions.

The pinnacle of our team’s mission will be the FIFA World Cup qualifiers that are held every four years. After Pakistan’s exit in Cambodia in June, 2019 — amidst a fierce battle between the Ashfaq Shah group and incumbent PFF President Faisal Salah Hayat — actual football and the priority of winning the game were conveniently forgotten.

Now, the World Cup qualifiers are looming again next year. And while they may seem a daunting goal considering the current ground realities, at least the first few steps have been taken and the run towards the goal looks possible.

As a country, we have no footballing achievements to speak of. Any progress that could have been made, which could have allowed us to stamp our name internationally, was thrown away in 2015 when this entire soap opera of politics began. It’s been nothing but the ninth circle of Dante’s Hell for Pakistan football since then. But they say the night is the darkest before dawn. Let’s hold out hope the first rays of the sun are finally out, and the Shaheens can finally spread their wings.

The writer is a sports management and marketing expert.

He tweets @shahrukhsohail7

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 10th, 2022