There are a few things in this world that have always managed to surpass national boundaries and identifies to unite people everywhere. Music and food are two main examples, yet there is a third one that many tend to forget about and we have to be reminded every four years, when the FIFA World Cup comes around.
Football is by far the most popular sport around the globe, with its premier competitions even surpassing the Olympics in magnitude. It draws the largest crowds every year, and over two hundred countries take part in the qualifying process of the World Cup. Nothing instills the same kind of passion and exuberance in millions of people of varying backgrounds, and here in Pakistan, we are not immune to this phenomenon either.
There is a large following of football fans in the country, with estimates placing it right behind cricket as the most followed sport in Pakistan. Every year’s European Champions League final leads to a plethora of restaurants or private venues hosting a screening for adoring fans, yet the World Cup draws the biggest crowds of all. While many do not have the time or inclination to follow the European domestic league competitions that have become so popular over the last decade, the World Cup is a different story altogether. Fans of Brazil, France, Spain, Argentina etc. all line up to see their favorites football icons represent their nations, and cheer as enthusiastically as if Pakistan’s own football team was out on the field. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.
Why do Pakistanis have to resort to supporting a nation, thousands of miles away, that they have no affiliation with? Would you expect them to do the same when it comes to cricket, or even hockey? No, because unlike football, those sports have some semblance of support from the state, and that is where the main problem lies.
Obstacles to progress
The history of football in the subcontinent can be traced back to over a hundred years, and its popularity at the time even rivalled cricket in the region. After Pakistan got independence in 1947, one of the first sports associations created in the country was for football, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah acting as its Patron-in-Chief. Over the next few years, several local competitions were also held around the country, along with a few international tours to countries like Iran and Iraq. However, by the mid-1950s, interest in the sport on the state level died down, and attention was diverted to hockey and cricket instead, leaving football in the lurch.
Since that time, there has not been much progress made in developing the game any further in Pakistan and it seems to be stuck in a quagmire of institutional ineptitude, indifference and corruption. While most of the blame has been levelled at the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) itself, the state has to take some responsibility as well. Sports in general have taken a back seat to the political wrangling of our leaders, and have suffered as a result, with even our once mighty hockey team having failed to win a major international tournament since 1994. However, as far as football is concerned, the PFF, and in particular their long serving President Faisal Saleh Hayat are the main contributors to the degradation of the sport in our country.
Hayat has been head of the PFF since 2003, and any attempts to replace him, either by the state or the judiciary, have either been quashed by his own shrewd political maneuverings or by FIFA, who long ago adopted a policy to oppose any interference of governments in to the affairs of their local football association. This why they went as far as to ban the PFF altogether in October 2017, after the courts had stripped Hayat of his powers, and instead appointed an administrator to oversee the operations of the federation. This move by the courts came after Hayat had been accused of misappropriating funds and of being corrupt, prompting his detractors to take out a legal stay order to impede his latest bid for reelection as President of the football association.
During Hayat’s tenure, the international FIFA ranking of the Pakistan national team has only managed to steadily fall, and is currently at its lowest at 201, out of a total of 211 teams. At the same time, the results of the millions of dollars contributed by FIFA over the years for the development of the sport in the country are nowhere to be seen. At one time, Pakistan boasted the highest number of FIFA mandated programs that were aimed at building football facilities, grounds, and conducting various grassroots level tournaments, but the money has all been squandered, with several half-built or abandoned sites present across the country.
People already find it unfeasible to follow a passion for football in Pakistan as there are no incentives in pursuing the game professionally. By having state of the art facilities that cater to needs of the players, and a support system that is aimed at their development perhaps some would consider giving it a shot. But with people like Hayat in charge, there is little hope of that happening any time soon.
A light in the darkness
While there are insurmountable issues facing football in Pakistan, certain events do make one hopeful for its future. Due to the diligent work of certain individuals, focus is being turned to the youth by providing them with the opportunities to develop their game by playing against experienced opposition from around the world. Initiatives like PFF Deputy Chief Executive Fahad Khan’s Vision Pak, that aims to promote the sport by inviting international teams to participate in the various tournaments they organize every year.
Additionally, several Pakistan youth sides have been performing exceptionally well at international tournaments, especially at the Football for Friendship program that was introduced by FIFA, in association with Gazprom, the Russian oil conglomerate. The footballs being used at the World Cup were also made in Sialkot, and Ahmad Raza, a teenager from the city who is a third generation football stitcher, became the first Pakistani to be officially invited to the coin toss of a World Cup game.
It is encouraging to see some effort being made to promote the sport, however more needs to be done to stem its decline in Pakistan. Recently FIFA overturned its suspension of the PFF, but only after Hayat was reappointed the President of the association. While the sentiment behind this particular FIFA rule, to avoid interference from government bodies in the running of their football association, is quite understandable, as they do not want politics marring the game in any way, in Pakistan’s case it might instead be a red herring. The problems within the PFF run deep, and it needs a comprehensive and systematic restructuring before the level of football in the country can ever hope to improve.