It may come as a surprise to the many growing football followers in Pakistan, and their passion for watching the latest European football action on ESPN-STAR, but Pakistan actually has its own Premier League! It’s just that no one notices it.
The PPFL was formed in 2004 on orders of the newly-elected Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) president Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat to restructure the flagging fortunes of the beautiful game in Pakistan. It’s been nearly 10 years since its establishment, and it is safe to say that the fortunes of Pakistan football remain in the doldrums. As someone who has been up close and personal with the intricacies of Pakistani football for almost that same period of time, the difference between leagues in the rest of the world and the PPFL is staggering and it shows why Pakistan football has struggled.
Football leagues around the world, be it professional divisions or semi-pro lower tiers, tend to have a very community-friendly appeal revolving around teams that represents the various cities and towns. The bigger the city, the more teams there will be that appeal to a certain part of the city and its residents. There is no surprise that cities like London, Manchester, Madrid, Rome, Milan, Barcelona, São Paulo, etc., tend to have more than one team in the top division. Such teams are private entities with a corporate sponsorship appeal that have made them global brands over the last decade. The attention, hype and focus these mega teams get tend to bring in tremendous investment to make world-class facilities, dedicated youth academies, and rope in the best football talent from home and abroad. Football is a multi-billion dollar industry now in the world with the footballers as high performance machines.
Tell that to Pakistan. Keeping in mind the tradition of domestic sports here, the PPFL is a 16-team league dominated by government departments and banks. Wapda, Army, PAF, Navy, HBL, NBP, ZTBL, PIA, and the recently-crowned champions KRL, etc., essentially survive on their department sports budgets and regard their players more as permanent employees than as professional footballers. There are a few token private football clubs like Chaman’s Afghan FC and Muslim FC, PMC Athletico Faisalabad, Baloch FC Noshki and Wohaib FC Lahore who are severely strapped for cash and barely surviving a season.
Given football’s more community-centric history and charm, no one in his right mind would want to go and support a team representing a department that attracts scorn from the general public over their inefficient performances. The departments, as is always the case, have no reason to be visionary or even professional in their treatment of football. They have no reason to give competitive contracts to their players, groom young talent properly in academies, train coaches, etc., and as a result PPFL remains in a hangover due to the unprofessional ad-hoc regard for sport in Pakistan. On top of that, there are political interests to maintain this mediocre status quo in Pakistan football. With each team supposed to play 30 games in not more than four months due to ‘lack of PFF funds’ with little time for recovery, player improvement is often in the negative.
The standard of football is extremely poor: one of the worst in Asia. Cases of poor refereeing, poor facilities, deliberate forfeits, and even match fixing allegations are rife.
PPFL does not have the glitz, glamour and big money of world football, so no one notices it beyond tiny mentions in newspapers and the odd websites here and there. Unless steps are taken to professionally reform it with vision and dedication, players in the PPFL ‘departments’ will not even be good enough for South Asian level, and that says a lot.
The writer is chief editor of FootballPakistan.Com