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FOOTBALL: THE FACADE OF EXHIBITION GAMES

January 20, 2019

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Kaka and Figo on the catwalk | Photos by SH
Kaka and Figo on the catwalk | Photos by SH

Having unsuccessfully tried his luck at promoting football in India and China over the last few years, it seemed that Luis Figo wouldn’t try it again. But then he arrived in Pakistan last week with the UK-based sports management company TouchSky. The Portuguese great, understandably, would have received a handsome amount for coming to Pakistan. He’s earned it. And there’s no problem with him earning even more when he comes to Pakistan again in April to play a series of exhibition matches being organised by TouchSky under the title ‘World Soccer Stars’.

The problem is with him stating that he will work to develop football in Pakistan alongside Brazilian football star Kaka. TouchSky has stated the same, for obvious reasons. Their visit has created across Pakistan a wave of euphoria that these exhibition matches will change football in Pakistan forever. Even the government seems to be thinking that way. The Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination, Fehmida Mirza, sounded hopeful when she addressed journalists at the closing ceremony of the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) last week.

Unfortunately, a few exhibition matches will change nothing. If they could, they would’ve done so two years ago when the ‘Ronaldinho and Friends’ tour came along. Instead, Pakistan football remains in the doldrums. Tours like these do nothing but “promote the soft image of Pakistan”.

The euphoria of exhibition matches created by the recent visit to Pakistan of football greats Kaka and Figo will fetch nothing substantial. Pakistan needs to do much more than that to improve the standard and quality of the game in the country

Many football officials believe that such exhibitions activate the football market and bring in sponsors etc. But it’s only a temporary measure. Sitting 199th in the FIFA rankings, Pakistan football needs a permanent, high-profile sponsor.

“Competition drives development,” is what Andy Roxborugh, the technical director of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has always stressed. He spoke at great length during the FIFA World Cup in Russia last year, emphasising how there was a dire need of top quality youth competitions in Asian countries to develop football. “If you have top competition, it drives the players forward. It has to be a long-term project. You need to develop long-term all sorts of things.”

It’s work at the grassroots that’s the need of the hour. Unlike in Pakistan, it was precisely what Figo was promoting in both China and India. He co-founded the Winning League Figo Football Academy, which opened a number of soccer schools in China that closed without providing any refunds to the students. In India, as president of Premier Futsal, with whom he was associated for two years before leaving last year after differences with the organizers emerged, he said that the new venture would provide opportunities for youngsters to play.

In Pakistan, he and Kaka, along with 10 other football stars, are vowing to groom talent through exhibition matches and coaching clinics over four days in April. TouchSky has seen the massive appetite that Pakistan has for football — and retired football stars as vendors for Leisure Leagues, the group that funded the ‘Ronaldinho and Friends’ event two years ago.

Leisure Leagues had also claimed at the time that the tour that saw Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, Welsh legend Ryan Giggs and Frenchmen Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka among others play matches in Karachi and Lahore was to promote football in Pakistan rather than themselves.

This time round, with Kaka and Figo coming over, Leisure Leagues have claimed that they’re not involved since they have understood that exhibition matches do little for football promotion in the country. Their plans are to bring retired football players in the country and have them feature in a national championship. “We see that as more beneficial since the players will directly get a chance to play with them,” Leisure League Chief Operating Officer Ishaq Shah said.

Sources close to TouchSky have disclosed that the World Soccer Stars is a prelude to the plans that the UK-based company has for launching a franchise-based league in Pakistan, using the same model as the Indian Super League (ISL) across the border. It has several retired footballers as its marquee players to raise its profile. However, the current problems afflicting Pakistan football could well be an obstacle. A newly-elected body under the leadership of Ashfaq Hussain Shah has taken over the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) on the orders of the Supreme Court. Ashfaq, however, isn’t recognised by the global football body, FIFA, which accepts his predecessor Faisal Saleh Hayat as the PFF president.

Fans lined up for a Ronaldinho and Friends exhibition game in 2017
Fans lined up for a Ronaldinho and Friends exhibition game in 2017

FIFA has already threatened Pakistan with a suspension. But that’s not stopping Ahmer Kunwar, the Chief Executive Officer of TouchSky, from working with the Ashfaq-led body for now. Ashfaq and other PFF officials were especially invited to the Kaka and Figo event in Lahore while Kunwar was one of the guests at the closing ceremony of the PPFL. Asked by reporters how his company, licensed by FIFA and UEFA as match and player agents, was working with officials not recognised by FIFA, Kunwar said he wasn’t “concerned with politics and was here for only footballing reasons.”

The ISL, which began in India in 2014, came into inception after years of regular visits by retired football stars, including Diego Maradona, for marketing and promotional ploys. “They never meet with the people for whom such trips would be of some impact, such as national team players or coaches,” says Kashinath Bhattacharjee, a freelance football reporter in India, echoing a sentiment that was felt by many in Pakistan during Figo and Kaka’s visit, where even the national team captain Saddam Hussain only met them by chance.

Saddam was part of a Pakistan Under-23 team in 2014 that beat their Indian counterparts 2-1 over the course of two matches. Today, India is ranked 97 in FIFA ratings. Many football analysts in Pakistan argue that a franchise-based league is the way forward to develop football here. Yet, across the border, not many in India credit the ISL for their national team’s success. 

“The ISL is very recent,” Siddharth Saxena of the Times of India said. “You could argue that, if it were really the biggest factor in the Indian team’s success, if it were creating an impact, then why did [Spanish legend] Andres Iniesta not come to play here and is instead in Japan [with J-League club Vissel Kobe] for a final fling?

“The ISL is merely an 11-week long event that cannot compare to the impact that the I-League makes. It does bring in a lot of money but does it really make a difference? I don’t think so. It would be better if that money were invested into the I-League, which actually promotes the local talent that is cherry-picked by the ISL.”

Roxburgh too has reservations over leagues like the ISL trying to promote themselves by signing retired players. Back in 2015, when he took over his role at the AFC, he said that countries should focus on developing and investing in their national leagues rather than bringing retired players to play in the franchise-based leagues.

At the World Cup in Russia, he argued that it was on the level of the youth that Asian countries needed to work on. Pakistan, too, should realise what are the areas it really needs to work on to develop football in the country.

The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 20th, 2019