ISLAMABAD: Former French footballer Nicolas Anelka’s arrival in Pakistan for a second time on Wednesday saw the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) agree to a partnership with the Touch Sky Group to develop football in the country.

Anelka arrived in Islamabad to promote the upcoming World Soccer Stars event, which will see two exhibition matches featuring former footballers being played in the country next month. The World Soccer Stars event, being organised by TSG is aimed at engaging the local market in the game, with the UK-based player and match agents aiming to expand further and developing grassroots football with the PFF.

The partnership comes a day after vociferous opposition to the PFF signing a 15-year Memorandum of Understanding with TSG during its executive committee meeting in Lahore. On Tuesday, PFF chief Ashfaq Hussain Shah, sitting alongside Anelka at a news conference, claimed the initial agreement is to hold a domestic league in two years’ time with TSG fronting the investment.

An unsigned draft of the proposed MoU which is available with Dawn showed that TSG wanted full rights for two football tournaments, a franchise-based league and a rebranded version of the local Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL).

“We want to hold a league tournament soon so as to resume footballing activity here,” said Ashfaq, the chief of the cash-strapped PFF which has seen funding from FIFA and the AFC suspended.

The funding was suspended after Ashfaq was elected PFF chief in December in an election ordered by the Supreme Court. FIFA claims that election is “third-party interference” and it recognises former PFF chief Faisal Saleh Hayat as the country’s football head.

Football in Pakistan has been hit by turmoil in the last several years leading up to the court-ordered election with the PPFL only resuming last year after a three-year gap.

“If someone wants to invest in football, we welcome them with open hands,” said Ashfaq.

TSG CEO Ahmer Kunwer pointed to “having worked with 89 players as agents” as his credentials for working on developing players in Pakistan.

Over recent months, Kunwer has been promoting the World Soccer Stars event, which kicked off with the arrival of Portugal legend Luis Figo and Brazilian great Kaka in January. He’s also since met Prime Minister Imran Khan and has been appointed onto the Task Force for Sports that was made by the prime minister.

“I have full support from the government to come here and work for the development of football and establish a football league,” Kunwer told Dawn ahead of the press conference.

There remains little clarity however how this agreement will work for now with PFF claiming that they will work with TSG on grassroots level. Financial gains for investors in football usually come through a franchise-based league with Kunwer stating that the ultimate aim was to have a “football league on the lines of cricket’s Pakistan Super League (PSL)”.

Dawn has learnt that the PFF’s plan on grassroots level was to start of with an inter-club league before an inter-district and an inter-provincial league. It is hard to see however how the tier-wise structure will gather investors.

“The execution of the whole plan requires a sum of Rs84 million,” said Sharafat Bukhari, the interim PFF secretary general who was replaced by Siddique Sheikh on Tuesday.

However, the tier-wise system seems the first step towards plans for a franchise-based league. “We need to identify talent first, establish a pool of players that will be worked upon and eventually become part of the league,” Kunwer said.

Anelka has vowed to be part of the talent-hunt process. “The process isn’t easy and its a long term project,” he told Dawn. “The idea was to first bring big names and make sure people are developing a test for football. From what I’ve seen so far, they love it. I will come again for this.”

Anelka first came to Pakistan as part of a ‘Ronaldinho & Friends’ tour in July 2017, organised by Leisure Leagues in which two exhibition matches were held. TSG was then the vendor for Leisure Leagues but since then their association has ended with both companies accusing each other of wrongdoing.

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2019