ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is planning a major new football competition modelled on cricket's hugely successful Indian Premier League in a bid to revitalise a sport which has long stagnated.
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is in talks with potential sponsors for the proposed league, which would feature six city-based teams playing each other in Lahore, officials told AFP.
Pakistan has had a “premier league” for the past nine years, but coaches and fans complain of poor standards, awful pitches and walkovers.
Government teams dominate the Pakistan Premier League (PPL), snapping up the best talent with generous sports budgets and leaving private clubs to struggle.
Unsurprisingly, neither fans nor sponsors have much appetite for supporting the likes of current PPL champions Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), or the evocatively named four-time winners, the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA).
Television coverage is non-existent and crowds for most matches number in the hundreds. Naveed Haider Khan, marketing consultant at the PFF, said the new competition would give football a much-needed shot of razzmatazz.
“We're going to be giving cash incentives, we'll look after their transportation, their accommodation, we'll be trying to project it very heavily on television so people get the insight of what is happening in football,” he said.
Balochistan is the heartland of the game, the only place where crowds of thousands regularly turn up to watch matches, but it is also one of the country's most dangerous regions.“We want to glamourise this game in Pakistan, we want to run it like the IPL in India with cricket,” he told AFP.
The competition is dependent on sponsors coming forward, but the PFF hopes to run it in May or September, Khan said, and if all goes well there are plans to expand the competition next year – and even try to lure foreign players.
A similar venture in neighbouring Afghanistan last year proved hugely successful, attracting sell-out crowds and big television audiences.
There is little doubt reform is needed. The PFF has set an ambitious goal of qualifying for the World Cup by 2022, but the national team has made little progress since the launch of the premier league in 2004.
Before two recent wins away to Nepal, they were languishing 189th in the FIFA world rankings, just three spots above their lowest-ever placing.
Tariq Lutfi, a former national coach who has led KRL to the premier league title in the last two seasons, said the competition simply does not prepare players for the rigours of the international game.
“It's not good enough. The domestic standard is not matching the international standard and unless and until it does, it is very difficult for Pakistan to progress,” he told AFP.
Ali Ahsan of online fan forum Football Pakistan agreed, describing the standard of the PPL as “much much lower” than the English non-league Conference.
As with so many things in Pakistan, where life is blighted by almost daily shootings and bombings, security is a problem and fears of attacks have led to numerous walkovers, gnawing at the competition's credibility.
Balochistan is the heartland of the game, the only place where crowds of thousands regularly turn up to watch matches, but it is also one of the country's most dangerous regions, beset by sectarian and separatist violence.
The three PPL clubs based in the southwestern province were each awarded four 3-0 walkover wins last season after teams refused to visit.
Rai Saif-ur-Rehman Bhatti, the president of PMC Athletico Faisalabad, a private club relegated from the premier league at the end of last season, said it was unfair.
“If a team gets three walkovers it should actually be out of the league,” he told AFP.
Money is another stumbling block.
Without the mass appeal of cricket, Pakistan's national obsession, football struggles to attract sponsorship and the federation survives largely on grants from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.
The PFF general secretary, retired colonel Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi, said nearly a quarter of the football budget is spent on the 16-team league, but this amounts to only 13.5 million rupees ($135,000).
To minimise costs, the 240 matches of the PPL are crammed into just five months and former national coach Lutfi said the hectic schedule was taking its toll on players.
“It's ultimately injuries that are the main result of this and teams without a good bench suffer a lot,” he said.
The federation is keen to focus on development. From next season each PPL team will be required to have at least two under-19s players in their squad on match days, Lodhi said, and a series of FIFA-funded academies are due to open this year.