The case of a missing passport [Express Tribune]

The case of a missing passport [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: There are very few things that trump the goodness of pure efficiency, among the things that do trump it are honesty, integrity, inclusivity, and most of all equity.

All the traits that are missing from what looks like the Pakistan women’s national football team that has played two tournaments since making its historic come-back to the international stage in the last six months.

Why is it so hard to get behind the Pakistan Women’s football team, I had been wondering, I have been covering the game for more than a decade, but there has been something unsavoury, something devious.

The way women’s football is being used to embellish the image of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Normalisation Committee (NC) as I have come to learn setting the women’s game backwards not only for Pakistan but for the South Asian region too.

It all started to taste gamey when back in August when the PFFNC had been preparing to send the women’s team to the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Championship 2022 that was taking place in Nepal.

PFF NC’s penchant for focusing on overseas players more has led to the FIFA rules violation too on the Saff level where they cheated by field an ineligible player.

The emotions were high, it had been eight long, dark years that the women footballers have endured to finally get the opportunity to play again.

It is one thing to watch the women’s team play, it is not a thing of beauty, and it certainly becomes odious once it is learned that the head coach UEFA license-B certified Adeel Rizki has been enabled by the PFF NC chief Haroon Malik despite several players raising the red flags about toxic work environment.

This was also the first tournament for Pakistan to play after an almost 15-month Fife suspension that had come after a PFF faction led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah group had overtaken the PFF headquarters from the PFF NC chairperson illegally in March 2021 that too during the women’s national championship that was being held that year and was it its final stages.

The focus on hiring the players based overseas was unfair, and pernicious when it came to development of the women’s game in the long term and just the fact that the women who have played and lived and struggled each day to get on the field were overlooked, demeaned was enough to not support Rizki’s tactics and worry for the players who are being trained with him.

Rizki has been also known for undermining players who are born and bred in Pakistan, he is known to have bad temper, whereas he shunned the players who show gumption, the players who have withstood the test of times while continuing to play in Pakistan including a former captain too were played in positions that had neither benefited the team in a bigger picture nor the individual players.

Similarly, other players who scored in Saff were never called back to play in Saudi Arabia either, whereas if one watches the team play it is hard to figure out what formation are they playing at all.

While watching the game when the team plays there seemed to be lack of communication and even feedback too from the coach and among the players, as witnessed in the Saff championship matches when the strikers had no coordination but were playing for themselves instead of the team.

Plastic sheen of overseas players

One such player is Nadia Khan who came from the UK and played in the tournament without even having a passport, which is a violation of FIFA rules when it comes to the players representing the country in an international tournament.

Haroon admitted said in the press conference last month that the star striker as Nadia did not hold Pakistani passport, even though she played the Saff championship performing well, where she struck four goals in the last group match against Maldives.

However, when asked the Saff President and the secretary this week they were unsure how Nadia had played the tournament without the passport in September, raising the question on the integrity of the tournament, the regional federation along with the kind of dealing PFF NC is engaged in.

“We can assure you that no player can play without having their passport,” SAFF secretary Anwarul Haq Helal told The Express Tribune on Tuesday while the Saff President Kazi Salahuddin expressed his disbelief at the situation first and then took respite by adding that he will investigate the matter.

“It is not possible because the players are required to submit/show their passports when registering at the tournament, it is certainly a matter I have to look into because I will need to look at the file of this player,” said Helal as he heads out to attend a football tournament promising to address the matter on Wednesday again.

Earlier it had been learned that at the Saff championship the PFF got her entry through on National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) and told the SAFF administration that she has applied for the passport which had not been issued to her at that time.

On Wednesday, though an official who has been a part of the Saff Competition management unwittingly admitted that she was allowed to play because Pakistan were coming back after eight years so to make it better for Pakistan and that they felt the ‘holding of nationality’ can be proved by holding NICOP, so they cooperated with PFF NC in good will.

They added that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had also seen and approved the SAFF Women’s Championship rules and regulations policy. Although if that is true then AFC is also overlooking the FIFA rules for eligibility.

FIFA’s Commentary on the Rules Governing Eligibility to Play for Representative Teams clearly state that a player must hold the passport of the country if they are representing it in international competitions.

“FIFA competition regulations consistently state that proof of “nationality” is only provided through the holding of a “permanent international passport.”

By way of example, article 19 paragraph 3 of the Regulations for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Preliminary Competition provides: “The only document considered to be valid proof of a player’s identity and nationality shall be a permanent international passport that explicitly, and in Latin characters, states the player’s first name(s) and surname(s), as well as his day, month, and year of birth. Identity cards or other local supporting official documents shall not be accepted as a valid means of identification…” reads the document by FIFA.

The passport was not issued to Nadia even in January that was primarily because there was an error in verifying her connections to Pakistan. Meanwhile the other two players had never applied for the passport to begin with and still they travelled to Saudi Arabia as a part of the team, but they could not field the three overseas players because Saudi Arabia was following the FIFA rules.

Last month Haroon was quoted in The News (story by Alam Zeb Safi) at the opening ceremony of the national challenge cup for men as:

“This is FIFA regulation that players play with passports. They had already applied for that. Effort was made to expedite the process and until the last day we hoped that passports would come.

“All our positions were well-covered and that is why we stood second in the tournament.

These were impact players, and much difference could have been created with them but Insha’Allah I am hopeful for the future as passports will be issued.”

Upon further questions on the matter Saff officials had told the express tribune to ask these question to PFF NC.

Where to draw the line?

It is appalling to learn that the PFFNC is comfortable in using dubious ways, first it was unfair to other south Asian countries like Maldives who had to concede four goals from a player who was ineligible, second Haroon defending the error and brazenly owning it too shows that the organisation is unethical.

If anything they are instilling bad values in the players too, because with Rizki and Haroon’s lead in the matter, there are two scenarios where the women are being abused, first the players who have been playing in Pakistan feeling unworthy, ignored, and losing hope to further their game the message to the girls in the country is sent that they must back off because the places are for the foreign-based players whether those players are eligible or not and the second scenario is the players who are participating and perpetuating the cycle of toxic work-environment within the team because they are benefitting from the crookedness of the system they are being nurtured in.

Further if we touch upon the pecuniary matters, the amount of money that is given to the players is better but the women who have struggled to play football in Pakistan are not benefitting from the PFF NC’s arrangement and Rizki’s approach.

With money being spent too, it is not being spent for the betterment of the players but to breed an environment that will only benefit the ones running the show, namely the head coach, his two assistants who also happen to be men and the NC members who are again all men, deciding how women’s game should be run despite talented and educated women present in the football community who are more capable than most to bring substantial change in the sport.

The question is where do they draw the line? Focusing on foreign-based players is beyond cruel because at the end of the day they are taking away the spot in the team which belongs to a girl who has overcame the barriers including increasing risk to safety and violence against women in the Pakistani society.

Are foreign players even the true representatives of the country’s talent? Because at best it is ostensible to hire players from abroad who may give results that may be pleasing for a short term, but they do not push forward the development of the women’s games as the country does not even have a women’s league.

The onus lies on the fans and the followers of Pakistani football too, as to how much do they understand the struggles of women in the country who face shaming to risking their safety to pursue a career in sports like football. While the idea of getting foreign-based players is shiny but it is just as plastic as it comes.

It boils down to an example, we have Malika-e-Noor playing in the team, she is a multiple national championship winner and represented the country in 2014, she is in shape and has the hunger to play, so much so that she left her two young children at home to play for Pakistan.

But she is still not worthy of being a captain, instead US-born, UAE-settled Maria Khan was made the captain despite being less qualified and experienced when it came to Pakistani team.

The overseas players too who are choosing to play for Pakistan without even completed documents and even the ones who have all their documents at least should read and study what kind of circumstances the Pakistani women must go through to even reach to a place where they play for the national team and therefore as they take a spot to play for Pakistan they must understand that they are standing on the shoulders of the players who have sacrificed a lot more and need uplifting.

The PFFNC is getting money from FIFA to develop the women’s game, but the funds are being used to give an effect empowering woman.

(Dis)Empowering women

Another example is that the players are not allowed to talk to the media freely, neither at the time of Saff nor during the Four-Nation Cup that Pakistan played with newly made teams like Saudi Arabia, Mauritius, and Comoros.

It all became suspicious back in September too when the PFF were asked repeatedly to let the players talk. Many older players had to stay quiet while when the PFFNC was asked about the limitations and restrictions on players’ interviews the answer that we received was medieval.

“The coach decides which players will talk,” the express tribune was told by NC member and media manager at the time Shahid Khokhar, but when it was asked that nowhere do coaches decide which players should talk and the kind of control asserted on the women on their international come-back is akin to taking away their freedom expression as their words would have only highlighted the team’s presence we were told that it was in coach’s hands.

From that point onwards, the members of the media were stopped to their jobs, the players who were seen on social media and the PFF channels were answering very timid questions, they were ingenuine at best.

The trend seems to have followed in January too where captain Maria, who scored a good goal on free kick in Saudi Arabia was promoted on the PFF NC platforms but none of the journalists who may have tougher questions to ask were allowed to speak to her.

Meanwhile the divide and the distance within the team can be seen as Maria speaks the language that an average Pakistani girl does not, and it perversely affect their confidence and their morale on and off the field, there is a discrepancy and what is being projected on the media.

All stakeholders are men

On the field activities aside, PFF NC had advertised and held a football summit as a three-member delegation from FIFQA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) visited Pakistan in January, there had been reports that the delegation met the stakeholders of the Pakistani football which included the opposing factions of old, boomer former and current officials who had been involved in in-fighting for the office.

But none of the FIFA-AFC official including the lead of the delegation FIFA’s Head of Member Associations Governance Rolf Tanner were able to hear the concerns of the women in the game.

There had been suggestions taken to make the changes in the PFF statuettes as well, however the women ‘stakeholders’ were missing, and their voice was ignored.

“Every time we wanted to speak about our concerns to the FIFA and AFC delegates, we felt that we were blocked and stopped, there was someone from the PFF NC who was lurking around and would sweep away the FIFA-AFC officials, so our voice was not really heard at all,” said one participant.

As for the women’s stake in the PFF, according to the constitution that was updated last time in 2014, which was also the year that women’s team played their international tournament the last time, there are four votes from women in the congress as well as four seats in the composition of the PFF congress, there seems to be a complete blackout of the women who are certified to be in the footballing business and administration are kept away from the table at the end of the day.

Whenever the elections will take place again there will be women who will be cherry-picked, and watching Rizki’s position with Haroon it looks like there is maybe an end game too because one of the votes in the constitution belongs to the club that will win the national women’s championship.

In this case Rizki runs Karachi City FC and has many players in the national team from his own club.

There is no chair for the women representative who are working in the field and have the education on the table but there are men who are fighting for the biggest share.

Overall, the way women’s football and women are treated at the PFF level is only reflecting of the olden times and setting the clock backwards instead of making valuable changes.

Published in The Express Tribune, 10 February 2023