NICOLAS Anelka (R) in action during a July 9, 2017 exhibition match in Lahore.
NICOLAS Anelka (R) in action during a July 9, 2017 exhibition match in Lahore.

KARACHI: Nicolas Anelka is coming to Pakistan again. This time though it won’t be just for exhibition matches or promotional events.

The former France international striker’s visit on Tuesday, nearly two years after his first, will also see him meet Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials as TouchSky Group, the company responsible for bringing him, seeks to finalise the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the country’s football governing body for the development of the sport.

TouchSky is organising the World Soccer Stars event in Pakistan in April and Anelka joins Portuguese great Luis Figo and Brazilian legend Kaka in confirming that he will play exhibition matches as part of that event. Figo and Kaka visited Pakistan in January to officially kick-off the World Soccer Stars.

“Anelka will meet the new president of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Syed Ashfaq Shah [in Islamabad] to reinforce the development of the 20 point agenda to uplift football,” the organisers said in a news release on Saturday. They added that Anelka is “a crucial signing in pursuit to revive and uplift football in Pakistan”.

The organisers cited the 39-year-old Anelka’s experience as coach at French club Lille’s youth team as key for “deep-dive discussion with PFF on supporting the domestic league structure”. They did not go into detail how that will exactly help in the discussions.

The PFF will hold its executive committee meeting, the first in several years, on Monday. Pakistan football has been in turmoil since 2015 due to a dispute in the PFF. The Supreme Court ordered fresh elections of the PFF in December that saw Ashfaq elected as the new president. Yet Ashfaq isn’t recognised by global football body FIFA which still holds Faisal Saleh Hayat as Pakistan’s football chief.

Ashfaq will be in the chair for the ExCo meeting but PFF’s acting secretary Sharafat Bukhari told Dawn on Friday that “discussions about closing the deal with TSG aren’t on the agenda”.

“It will only be discussed if the PFF president wants to,” he said. “The PFF chief is thankful that a star player like Anelka has asked for a meeting and he will definitely meet him and TSG officials.”

Bukhari did not specify how close the PFF was to finalising the deal with the PFF but added: “We are assessing how the deal with TSG will help us but if there is anything that will be beneficial to Pakistani football, we will surely go forward.”

Dawn has reliably learnt that the PFF remains divided over signing the MoU in which the TSG has said it will create two leagues — one domestic and one international — and will hold full rights for both over a period of 15 years. It has also promised grassroots development programmes.

The PFF’s role in all of that will be just to provide oversight and that is what has irked some of its officials who claim the body would be hamstrung by the agreement and won’t be able to pursue additional revenue streams. Those against the signing of the MoU also claim that player development isn’t the forte of TSG, who are player and match agents.

Anelka’s visit comes at a time when there have been heightened tensions between Pakistan and neighbouring India.

““My participation is to help boost football in Pakistan and having embraced Islam I have a special connection with Pakistan,” Anelka was quoted as saying in the news release.

Dawn has learnt that TSG wanted Anelka to meet Prime Minister Imran Khan during his visit but it did not confirm whether the Frenchman will meet the country’s premier in its news release. TSG CEO Ahmer Kunwar met the prime minister last month and was added to the task force for sports that is headed by Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief Ehsan Mani.

Anelka last came to Pakistan in July 2017 as part of the ‘Ronaldinho & Friends’ tour organised by Leisure Leagues in association with TSG. Then, he featured in exhibition matches played in Karachi and Lahore. He will now be seen in action on April 27 and 28.

Starting his career at Paris St Germain, Anelka moved to Arsenal in 1997 and won the Premier League in his first season at the London club.

Having missed out on France’s 1998 World Cup-winning squad, he joined Real Madrid in 1999 and won the Champions League in his only season at the Spanish giants.

His greatest international achievement came at Euro 2000 where he was part of the victorious France squad but his international career ended in disgrace after he was punished for being in a group of players that revolted against coach Raymond Domenech during France’s disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign.

In a trophy-laden career, the mercurial Anelka also had spells at Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Juventus.

Published in Dawn, March 3rd, 2019