by Umaid Wasim

A massive year for Pakistan football has come to an end, with the next set to be even bigger.

On the pitch, at least, 2023 was the year of deliverance: Pakistan at long last getting their maiden FIFA World Cup qualifying victory.

Off the field, however, there has been slow progress; the Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee (NC) still looks unlikely to meet its target to hold elections of the country’s football governing body by the end of its mandate, on March 15.

And that, despite Pakistan advancing to the second round of qualifying for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, the first time they’ve gone this far in the preliminaries for football’s showpiece tournament, has overshadowed everything.

The work being done towards elections by the Haroon Malik-led, FIFA appointed Normalisation Committee remains in question. Even the polls of the Pakistan Football Referees Association it held are still shrouded in doubt.

There have been widespread protests and the government has weighed in too. It is offering the Normalisation Committee all the support it needs to hold elections by March 15. Its patience, like that of the other stakeholders in Pakistan football, is wearing thin. It is now or never for the Normalisation Committee.

It’s now been over four years since the Normalisation Committee was first appointed; in January, it will be three years since Haroon became chairman. In those three years, Pakistan was suspended by FIFA from March 2021 till June 2022. The NC had vowed it will hold elections in eight months after it regained control of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) offices; its expulsion having been the reason for the suspension. It’s now 18 months since it returned to office. The elections still don’t seem to be on the horizon.

“If you’re willing to hold elections, you can do it in a matter of months,” Fawad Hasan Fawad, the recently-appointed Minister for Inter-provincial Coordination, told Eos. “Here, we’ve had over four years and we’re no closer to elections.”

It’s not just the election matter, though, for which the Normalisation Committee is under fire. It’s also the continuous lack of domestic football activity. There has been no event organised since the group stage of the National Challenge Cup was played in February.

The lack of domestic football was criticised by Stephen Constantine upon his arrival as coach of the national team in October, just days before the opening leg of the first-round qualifier of the 2026 World Cup against Cambodia. But even with limited resources the Englishman masterminded a historic victory.

Harun Hamid’s goal proved the difference in 180 minutes against Cambodia. His second-half strike at Islamabad’s Jinnah Stadium gave Pakistan a 1-0 win in the second leg. It was Pakistan’s only victory of the year, but it came when the stakes were the highest.

The second round of Asian qualifying was uncharted territory for Pakistan; their fright stage showing in a 4-0 loss to Saudi Arabia and a 6-1 hammering by Tajikistan. Winning those matches, as well as the remaining four that will come out in Group ‘G’ next year, wasn’t and shouldn’t be expected.

The cause for celebration remains that finally Pakistan players are getting a taste of elite level Asian football. At least, when they get to this stage the next time — hopefully in the qualifying cycle for the 2030 World Cup — there will be a sense of belonging.

Constantine has realistically set a target of trying to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup in 2027. The qualifying for the continental showpiece is merged with the one for the World Cup, with the top two teams in each group securing their ticket to the tournament in Saudi Arabia.

But the race for the Asian Cup doesn’t end there. The bottom two teams will go into the third round of qualifying for the Asian Cup, where six group winners will secure their berths at the tournament.

But finishing top won’t be easy and it’s exactly why Constantine is pushing for domestic football to resume, allowing the local players to play competitive football regularly. So far, the only action they’re getting — in contrast to the foreign-based players — is during the hard grind of World Cup qualifiers.

The Pakistan Premier Football League hasn’t been held since 2018 and for the next edition — whenever it’s held — the question remains whether it will be a departmental or a club event. To end that debate, and to ease club licensing, there needs to be a road map, a working plan which the PFF NC doesn’t seem to have at the moment.

A handful of top-tier clubs that exist in the country are cash-strapped. The departments have the cash but they don’t meet the licensing criteria set by the Asian football confederation.

The previous government had announced the closure of departmental sports, only for the interim government to revert that move. The problem remains whether departmental teams can fit into the football ecosystem that needs to be in place by fulfilling the licensing criteria.

The departments need to make their football independent as the first step. The rest will follow. But there needs to be proper implementation and messaging from the PFF NC, which has been missing. A recent move to enforce club licensing ended in a shambles.

The PFF NC had announced that it would organise a league of three clubs from Balochistan to decide which one of them becomes Pakistan’s entrant at the inaugural SAFF Club Championship next year. There were protests by departments but to no avail.

But as the PFF NC moved towards organising the league, it sent the clubs a letter of undertaking in which it asked the clubs to provide a bank draft of Rs4 million. It added that if a club were to fail in participating at the regional tournament, it had the right to cash the bank draft.

The clubs, run privately and without any major sponsors, balked at the demand; Pakistan will now have no representation at the SAFF Club Championship.

For a way forward towards creating a thriving football ecosystem, it is imperative that the PFF NC works with the government. PFF insiders have told Eos that the government gave its full support to host the World Cup qualifying fixtures against Cambodia and Tajikistan and offered to do the same when Jordan and Saudi Arabia come to the country.

With most departmental teams in the country belonging to government institutions, a way forward can surely be found. But a meeting to discuss that, alongside officials of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, has now twice been postponed. Originally scheduled for September, it was moved to December before a last-minute postponement. A date early next year is being explored.

Those talks, the sooner they’re held, will hopefully point the direction football in the country needs to head to.

The writer is Dawn’s Sports Editor.

X: UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2023