Football – the beautiful game – has remained a truly global sport for decades. While it often depicts regional competitiveness, it has the capacity of uniting the whole world – even it is only for 90 minutes. From the broken down alleys of the African and South American slums, to the state-of-the-art gigantic arenas of Western Europe – it is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry and the heartbeat of sports fans across the world.
Pakistan is no different. This country also shares a colourful, albeit underachieving, football history. Often regarded as the ‘poor man’s sport’, it is strange how despite football’s simplicity and widespread appeal among the masses across the country, the game has failed to reach the same heights as hockey and cricket.
It is not strange to ask a common Pakistani about the national football team and receive a blank stare and a shrug in return. They cannot be blamed given how football has been an obscure sport that not many seem to care about.
To Pakistanis, the global game was like a silent unknown, even unwanted, step-child waiting for attention inside a house already over-populated with other noisy, attention-seeking kids. But without a shadow of a doubt, football should never be considered a ‘foreign’ sport in this country. Its history in these parts is even older than the country itself.
Humble origins For a game that was introduced to South Asia in the mid-19th Century as a morale-raising exercise for British troops during the British Raj, its simplicity and grace started capturing the imagination of the inhabitants of the Subcontinent. So profound were its effects on British India that 3rd the oldest running football competition, after the English FA Cup and Scottish FA Cup, is the Durand Cup that is still contested annually in India ever since its inauguration in 1888. Initially an annual competition involving the various British regiments based across India, it slowly started allowing local teams, especially from the Bengal region, to take part. Soon in early 20th Century, there were local football leagues centred on Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dacca (Dhaka) that gave the rise of teams like Mohammedan Sporting Club (its branches based across various Bangladeshi cities), Mohun Bagan, and East Bengal. South India, specifically Goa because of its Portuguese influence, also took up the game and established own local competitions.
In the north-western parts of what is now Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the nomadic and fierce Baloch and Hazara tribes based around Quetta immediately took a liking to the game upon watching it being played. The game’s popularity also spread among the Pakhtuns as well as the Punjabis who took it in their stride. The African-origin Sheedi community of the Makran coast and areas that now make up Karachi also took up this sport with a love and passion burns across Lyari. Local school and college level competitions were introduced as the game evolved in South Asia.
Pakistan emerges Upon independence in 1947, both East and West wings of Pakistan inherited the football infrastructure, like other sports, based in their respective territories. The need for establishing a nationwide football association was urgent, given that India inherited the erstwhile Calcutta-based Indian Football Association and the All-India Football Federation (AIFF), in order to govern the game properly across Pakistan.
The Pakistan Football Federation hence came into existence on December 5, 1947 and became a full member of FIFA in early 1948 with the Quaid-i-Azam, Muhammad Ali Jinnah its Patron-in-Chief.
One can only speculate if the Quaid actually had a liking for football, given how he spent many years of his life studying and practising law in England when the Football League system was evolving during the late 1880s. In fact, the Quaid’s 1930s extended stay in London coincided with the dominating Arsenal FC side of the legendary Herbert Chapman who masterminded a team that won a remarkable total of 5 Football League First Division titles and 2 FA Cup wins between 1930 and 1938.
In 1948, the PFF organised the first ever National Football Championship held in Karachi between 28th May and 5th June. The first ever national champions were Sindh Red who defeated Sindh Blue in the final. However, any sort of professionalism in the game was non-existent. Pakistan was no different, as the first participants of the National Football Championship used players from local schools, colleges, government departments that coincidentally employed sportsmen, and open trials. Football in these parts was still years behind Europe.