FIFA’s Foul on Pakistan Football [Dawn]

FIFA’s Foul on Pakistan Football [Dawn]

by Umaid Wasim

Apathy, manipulation and intrigue seem to define Pakistan football. While players and fans of football continue to rue the state of the sport in the country despite its undoubted popularity, the machinations in its governing body, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), paint a picture of those at the helm working for their own personal interests rather than for the good of its main stakeholders. But now there seems to be an unholy nexus between such interests and parts of the global football governing body Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) as well.

FIFA has suspended the country twice in the last decade alone — including over interference in the PFF elections. Eventually, the world governing body resorted to a stopgap solution of appointing a “Normalisation Committee” (NC) in 2019. It was given the explicit task to hold the PFF elections transparently, while managing football activities, including conducting regular domestic football tournaments, till the appointment of a new governing board.

But even this stopgap solution has now been mired in controversy, with the NC failing woefully short of meeting its mandate and getting multiple extensions to its tenure along the way.

One major criticism against this stopgap NC is that the man steering it — Pakistani-Canadian tech entrepreneur Haroon Malik — is trying to set up a franchise league, on similar lines as cricket’s glitzy Pakistan Super League, at the expense of a club-based domestic league necessary for the grassroots development of the sport.

This Eos investigation will reveal how Malik is actively trying to engineer a situation that would enable him to continue exerting his influence over the PFF — even after his departure following elections for a new governing body — and how some of the highest-ranking officials in FIFA are part of an elaborate scheme to upend Pakistan football for their own gains.

FAR FROM NORMALISED

On a breezy Ramazan night during the second week of March, two football teams took to a ground nestled in the hills to Karachi’s north. There was an extravagant ceremony before the match, with fireworks aplenty.  It was the opening match of the Ramazan Gold Cup.

Sights like these have become few and far between in Pakistan football and the PFF had nothing to do with it. This tournament had been organised privately, with domestic football activity having become non-existent in the country.

The Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL), the country’s top-tier competition, hasn’t been held by the PFF since 2018. It’s something that has irked Pakistan’s history-making head coach Stephen Constantine.

Constantine — who has been demanding that the league be restarted — wasn’t in attendance at the Naya Nazimabad Football Stadium, however. The 61-year-old Englishman was in Lahore, overseeing the national team’s preparations for its upcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier against Jordan.

A day earlier in Lahore, Constantine was visibly irate during an interaction with reporters. Peppered with questions regarding Pakistan’s chances against Jordan — who had recently ended as runners-up in the Asian Cup — the English coach was blunt and unforgiving. Time and again, Constantine has reiterated that it is fundamentally important that Pakistan revives its league structure, which can allow local players to have regular competition.

Since taking up the job in October 2023, Constantine has been adamant that a functioning league would allow him to have a greater pool of local players to choose from, instead of working only with those at his disposal at the training camp. He was merely repeating himself six months on.

He was also critical of the stopgap NC over the delay in organising the National Challenge Cup, an annual month-long football tournament, which was suspended after the group stages in January last year. For him, the tournament could have been a starting point for the league.

“I just heard there were 5,000 clubs in Pakistan,” he said, referring to the results of the recent club scrutiny — disputed at several levels — carried out by the stopgap NC. “You don’t need every district to be part of the league. We had a Challenge Cup with 32 teams. Just take 16 teams from it and start the bloody league.”

What Constantine doesn’t know is that the PFF’s internal problems aren’t the only impediment to the revival and resumption of the domestic league.

GAMING THE SYSTEM

To be fair, Pakistan football suffers from a multitude of problems: from a decades-long power struggle over control of the federation, including a hostile takeover of its premises in 2021 — which resulted in a 15-month suspension of Pakistan by FIFA — to the lack of clarity over whether any future domestic league would be a club or departmental event, or if it would take place at all. This is aside from national team players often going unpaid for months, and the country’s and clubs’ abysmal performance in international competitions.

The PFF has also failed on the administrative front, with elections for the new governing body not held in the three years since Malik was appointed to lead the stopgap NC.

One of the elections conducted by the stopgap NC, for the referee’s association, remains disputed. In another controversial decision, the PFF allowed newly registered clubs the right to vote — against the PFF Constitution — in the ongoing district elections. These clubs were scrutinised as part of PFF’s extensive programme to register clubs, the long-delayed first step towards holding elections. A novel way of voting has also been introduced for the district elections, with votes to be cast through WhatsApp, which has raised further alarm among the footballing community.

There’s a method to the madness, however. Under the PFF constitution, registered clubs vote for district associations, which in turn vote for the provincial associations. Three nominees each from the four provinces and one from Islamabad become part of the PFF Executive Committee (ExCo). The ExCo, comprising a total of 26 members, votes for the president. Other relevant associations and groups, like that of the referees, also have one vote as do the eight departmental teams and the club that wins the women’s national championship.

With a simple majority required to win, support from the provinces and Islamabad alone can tip the election in a candidate’s favour.

With clubs — that had voting rights previously, when the last PFF election was held in 2015 — set to vote for the stakeholders who have been vying for power for the past several years, detractors have accused the NC of manipulating the still-to-be-held elections by including newly registered clubs.

The extent of the control the Haroon Malik-led governing body holds over the election has resulted in concerns over transparency. In the meantime, the government has written to FIFA on multiple occasions, most recently in December, calling for a change in the NC over its failure to hold elections within the prescribed time. Despite the vociferous complaints, FIFA gave Haroon Malik and his team another nine-month extension, in March this year.

To understand why Malik continues to enjoy FIFA’s unwavering support and patronage, we have to rewind back to a year before Malik’s appointment as the NC chairman in January 2021. In retrospect, this provided the first glimpse of what was at play and how FIFA was committing the biggest foul on Pakistan football.

THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS OF PAKISTAN FOOTBALL

On a cold December afternoon in 2019, Haroon Malik posed for a picture outside the FIFA headquarters in Zurich. “Discussing Pakistan football! Invigorating meetings, exciting times!” he captioned the picture on X, then known as Twitter. The discussions that took place in the Swiss city on that day would shape the future of Pakistan football. Plans for it had been set in motion months before.

In August 2019, a month before FIFA first announced the NC for the PFF, global professional services firm KPMG had begun reaching out to people with knowledge of Pakistan football. During its initial correspondence, the KPMG Football Benchmark department said that it had started “an exciting project on football in Pakistan for a prominent client.” When discussions began, it emerged that it wanted to discuss the holding of a franchise league in Pakistan.

Around that same time, a Facebook page was launched by the name of Football Club Pakistan (FCPK). Those working for the page aimed at providing football updates and were employed by media communications company Starcom MediaVest Group Pakistan — the Pakistan branch of Starcom, which is headquartered in Chicago and which, in turn, is a subsidiary of global marketing and communication giants Publicis Groupe.

FCPK was Malik’s first foray into Pakistan football. Some 15 months after FCPK was launched, the Canadian-Pakistani tech entrepreneur was named the chairman of the PFF Normalisation Committee, following the resignation of his predecessor Humza Khan. But it is what Malik was doing in those intervening months that made his appointment one that raises issues of conflict of interest.

A FOOTBALLING CHESSBOARD

Back in 2019, leading the discussions on that “exciting project on football in Pakistan” was KPMG’s former sports advisory manager, Yacine Sosse Alaoui. Alaoui has since left KPMG, joining FIFA as its business intelligence manager in September 2020.

But a little over six months earlier, in February 2020, Alaoui and Andrea Sartori, the head of KPMG Football Benchmark, had accompanied Malik for a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where they met with officials from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) about what Malik called “discussing opportunities and ideas for Pakistan football.” Malik had not been named as head of the NC at that time.

“Haroon Malik came to the AFC in 2020 with people from KPMG,” a source in Asian football’s governing body told Eos. “Discussions with the marketing department centred on a competition.”

When the AFC was asked about that visit, a spokesperson of Asia’s football governing body termed it “a courtesy visit.”

In fact, it was the December 2019 meeting in Zurich that had reportedly set up discussions with the AFC. The FIFA headquarters is a seven-storey building: two floors above ground and five underground. It was a closed-doors secret meeting on one of those levels that would script the future of Pakistan football.

In alleged attendance alongside Sartori, Alaoui and Malik were Mario Gallavotti, the Italian lawyer who heads FIFA’s independent committees; Romy Gai, the chairman of London-based sports industry operators AWE International Group; and Pakistani advertising mogul Raihan Merchant.

The proposal was laid out for holding a franchise league in Pakistan with Gallavotti and Gai — who would in 2022 become FIFA’s chief business officer — on board. Their interests remain unknown, but the talk in FIFA at that time was “that something big was going to happen in Pakistan football.” Sartori, Gai and Gallavotti are all Italian.

When FIFA was approached for comment in 2022 regarding that meeting, its spokesperson gave a stern reply: “Please be informed that there are no updates regarding the matter you’ve mentioned.”

The world football body did not comment on whether Gallavotti and Gai were part of that meeting, although they did not deny it either. Meanwhile Merchant, when contacted by Eos, denied his presence at the meeting.

A source close to the discussion, however, says otherwise: “They [Gallavotti and Gai] were really pushing for the league to happen,” the source told Eos. “The purpose of the meeting seemed to push for its endorsement.”

It was clear that Malik and his associates didn’t want to come out as rebels. They wanted to hold the league with the PFF’s blessings, as part of the domestic calendar, but also as sole holders of all rights for the event. Football was going to be the third sports discipline Z2C Limited — the holding company for ventures owned by Merchant, which also has Starcom MediaVest Group Pakistan, now Brainchild Communications — was going to organise a league for.

Malik has been an executive director at Z2C since January 2019 — a position he still holds. Merchant and Malik also are alumni of the same university.

Malik’s FCPK would become the ideal social media tool to propagate the league. Meanwhile, Z2C also had BSports — a sports app that combined social and data feeds with a livestream of sports events. It also had digital rights for the Pakistan Super League.

The question being raised is whether Malik’s interest is in putting the affairs of the PFF in order as head of the NC or to push forward the franchise league he is invested in.

FIFA’S ROLE

While giving another nine-month extension to Haroon Malik and his team till March 2024 — originally the NC had been appointed in September 2019 till June 2020, while Haroon was appointed the NC chairman in January 2021, for a nine-month period — FIFA had warned of possible sanctions being imposed if PFF elections weren’t held by then. But despite little headway being made and multiple deadlines being missed, FIFA has once again extended its mandate till December 2024.

“Of course, it’s those links high up in FIFA,” one source close to the matter tells Eos. “With Haroon there, the franchise league plan stays alive.”

In the meantime, most former Starcom employees are now working for the PFF, a simple LinkedIn search will show. Hasnain Haider, PFF’s head of digital media, was a project manager at Starcom. PFF’s football performance analyst, Irtaza Hussain, was community manager for FCPK at Starcom. PFF’s current creative manager, Haider Ali, was formerly at Z2C. 

While the NC has been unable to pay dues to players of the national teams because of an audit objection raised by FIFA, the employees continue to get paid by funds coming in from the global football body. “The PFF is effectively being run by Starcom,” a source in the NC tells Eos. “The groundwork is being laid for the franchise league they want to hold.”

Malik, though, hasn’t been the only one looking to organise a football league in Pakistan. UK-based TouchSky Group, Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise Peshawar Zalmi owner Javed Afridi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa football official Shahid Shinwari have all publicly stated their intentions of doing so as well.

TouchSky, later rebranded as Global Soccer Ventures and now repackaged as Pakistan Football League, is set to unveil its franchise league next month. It has set a date of November 1 to hold its franchise league which, contrary to the brochures it has been sending out, does not have the endorsement of the English Premier League or its clubs.

But with the PFF having the final say over any league, Haroon’s position as the NC chief, which will see him hold elections for a new executive committee of the country’s football governing body, means there is a conflict of interest, even if he says that FIFA doesn’t think there is any.

“Anyone associated with football, anywhere in the world, would have some stake in the game,” Haroon told Eos in April 2021.

“It is normal, and natural. You cannot have someone who knows nothing about football, nothing about the market that they are operating in, and be responsible for football. Employers determine if conflict of interests are potentially troublesome. FIFA determined that my commercial interests have no conflict with this role [as NC chief]. If FIFA is okay, then that is the final word.”

In fact, FIFA did not specifically comment on Haroon’s commercial interests having a conflict with his role, but its spokesperson said that “in line with standard procedures, all members of the Normalisation Committee were subject to stringent eligibility checks.”

The spokesperson did not disclose whether FIFA had knowledge of Haroon’s elaborate plans of holding a league, or whether they were investigated during the eligibility checks, but added: “FIFA has no further comment at this stage.”

TAKING INSPIRATION FROM THE PSL

In 2015, Z2C helped launch the PSL. Its affiliate, Blitz Advertising, was a broadcasting, live-streaming and a marketing partner for the league. But the partnership fell apart due to a legal dispute in 2020, with the Pakistan Cricket Board claiming victory in its arbitration proceedings against Blitz over rights fee payments related to the PSL two years later.

Blitz has long harboured hopes of holding a football league on similar lines. With football being an untapped market in Pakistan, with massive potential returns for the initiators, they aren’t the only ones.

For some time, Badar “Bobby” Refaie, the former director marketing of the PCB, seemed to be driving forward Z2C’s football ambitions externally, even though he brushed it off as small talk in a conversation during a PSL match in 2021. “They just can’t get it together,” he said. Badar has been involved in almost every sport — from organising a tour of hockey legends to Pakistan to the National Volleyball Championships.

“Working on new ideas, beside PSL for your Sports projects [sic],” he wrote to Merchant on a Facebook post in March 2019, adding three pictures: a group photo of former hockey stars with the chief of army staff, one of himself alongside squash great Jahangir Khan and another of Spanish football legend Carles Puyol waving to crowds at the National Stadium in Karachi, during the final of the 2019 PSL.

Puyol’s visit to Karachi was part of a series of launch events for the World Soccer Stars which, in November 2019, saw him, Brazilian Kaka, Portuguese Luis Figo and Frenchman Nicolas Anelka play two exhibition matches in Pakistan.

Ahead of the PSL final in March that year, TouchSky — who were also behind the World Soccer Stars event — had inked a deal with the PFF, which was elected in 2018 following elections conducted on the orders of the Supreme Court and not recognised by FIFA, to organise two leagues: a franchise league and a rebranded version of the Pakistan Premier Football League.

The deal, and their plans, came crashing down when FIFA appointed the NC to oversee football affairs in Pakistan. TouchSky tried to do a similar deal with the PFF NC of Haroon’s predecessor Humza Khan, but were rebuffed.

PFF NC extension timelines since 2019 (Dawn EOS image)

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES?

Haroon Malik’s and Z2C’s plans had already taken off the ground by then. Visits to both AFC and FIFA had been completed. And once Humza Khan resigned, Malik’s path to take up the reins of the NC was cleared — thanks to support from Gallavotti, one of FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s key advisers.

But Malik’s league plans, largely of a closed franchise league — only came to light after he was forced out of the PFF Headquarters, by a group of football officials led by the former court-elected PFF president, Ashfaq Hussain Shah, who claimed the NC was doing nothing on the election front. That forcible takeover of PFF headquarters by Shah eventually saw FIFA ban Pakistan for 15 months.

Malik aired his views on franchise leagues after FIFA and UEFA crushed plans for a breakaway European Super League (ESL), which was in many ways akin to the franchise system common in American sports.

“Looking at our club structures and history, there are multiple options here,” Malik expressed on X, while delving into a discussion on the collapsed ESL. “A hybrid model transitioning into promotion/relegation makes sense to me. [America’s] Major League Soccer, [Japan’s] J-League is a good conversation starter.”

Malik expanded on this: “So many possibilities. Bottom line — either one is good for the players! Get them playing! Enablers: Fandom, Partnerships and Broadcast. Not insurmountable!” When asked why a traditional league model — which would see the country’s football club culture thrive — might not be better than a franchise league model for Pakistan, Haroon replied, “We are a ways away from club licensing, and regulations get stringent everywhere.”

However, franchise leagues run for a short period of time, with little time to invest in grassroots football or academies. Club football, on the other hand, runs through the calendar year, giving players the opportunity to get regular competitive football. Moreover, club-based leagues have the system of relegation and promotion, which operate on sporting merit, while franchise leagues are closed competitions.

The Major League Soccer (MLS) — a franchise league system — has achieved huge popularity in the United States. The MLS, however, runs like a regular league, filling up a calendar year. In India, the Indian Super League had to eventually be expanded for it to become the country’s national league. Its current season, which began in September, will culminate in May.

Another concern is that franchise teams will take up a sizeable chunk of whatever sponsorship is on offer, leaving nothing for the clubs to fund their programmes. This is already a problem for Pakistani club sides.

With the PPFL largely made up of departments, and with none of the teams fulfilling AFC’s club licensing regulations, Pakistan has been unable to send a representative to continental competitions.

Malik, however, believes that wouldn’t be a concern for potential team owners in the model suggested by him. “Setting up the commercial model is key, adapted to our local market and the sporting culture here,” he said during that exchange. “Once that is done, everything is like Tetris, blocks falling into place.”

Malik’s conviction at that point seemingly stemmed from the fact that his plans were already underway, with FCPK set to take care of fandom and Z2C, with its huge portfolio of clients, making sure of partnerships and broadcast. But the FIFA suspension broke that acceleration.

When Malik and members of his NC eventually returned after being handed back the PFF premises that had been taken over and the FIFA ban getting lifted in June 2022, they were given a further year to complete the mandate. The NC was then given another extension until March 2024 and now has until December to complete the process. Meanwhile, detractors insist that the extensions are part of a larger plan to consolidate Malik’s control of the election process and the federation.

TIME TO TURN A CORNER

Such control over the election is key to bringing the league plan of Malik’s Z2C, Gallavotti and Gai to fruition. If a candidate they’re backing comes into power, it would be easier to get the league rubber-stamped. It would also ensure that the new PFF will effectively be run by former employees of Z2C.

“Gallavotti and Gai are part of FIFA’s inner circle, closest to Infantino,” one source in the global football body tells Eos. “If they want the league to happen, it will happen sooner or later.”

FIFA’s aim of appointing the NC was to have transparent elections of the PFF but that now seems to be turning into, in footballing terms, a red card offence.

The global football body can point to the fact that it was during the NC’s tenure that Pakistan got past the first round of World Cup qualifying for the first time in history. But, even if the league eventually begins, the damage caused to the country’s domestic football scene during the last few years is unforgivable.

Earlier this year, the NC made a point of degrading three top-tier clubs of the country. When the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) asked for nominees from Pakistan for the inaugural SAFF Club Championship, the NC shortlisted three clubs from Balochistan — Afghan FC, Muslim FC and Baloch FC — for the event.

A tournament between the trio was announced to select Pakistan’s representative, but it never took place, as the clubs baulked at the financial guarantees the NC sought from them beforehand.

The NC later stated that the clubs weren’t interested in participating at the SAFF event. It goes back to what Malik said in that exchange on X about clubs not coming close to meeting licensing regulations. 

Constantine, if he stays that long, will in all probability get a league for his players, but it may not be a club-based one. As far as the clubs in the country are concerned, their fate seems to have been sealed by those in FIFA’s inner circle.

The writer is Dawn’s Sports Editor.
X: @UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2024

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