It was supposed to be huge. Legendary international football stars — Brazil and Milan midfielder Ricardo Kaka, Portugal and Real Madrid midfielder Luis Figo, Spain and Barcelona defender Carlos Puyol and France and Paris Saint-Germain forward Nicolas Anelka — visiting Pakistan for exhibition matches in Karachi and Lahore to promote the game in the country. What happened, however, was huge only in its disappointment.
I wish I could say that there was a lot of excitement in the stands as the fans cheered for their favourite players. Stands? Fans? The four steps that serve as stands at the Rahat Football Ground in Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority — where the first of the games was played — had no one to cheer for the international stars. There wasn’t even enough lighting on the ground to spot the stars among the players in red kits, said to be the World Soccer Stars team.
The damp squib of a display was repeated the next day in Lahore’s National Hockey Stadium, with only a smattering of people attending, despite the entry having been made free.
So what went wrong?
Why did the two much-hyped exhibition matches organised by World Soccer Stars fail to gather any crowds in a football-starved nation?
It had been a long wait. Promotions for the tour being organised by a London-based company, Touch Sky Group, kicked off in January of this year. Kaka and Figo were even here then, meeting the press, giving interviews, etc. At the time, it was said that the players would be coming to Pakistan for exhibition matches in four months’ time but the tour was postponed in April and then only recently rescheduled for November.
Tickets for the Karachi match, a 6-a-side encounter between the World Soccer Stars (WSS) team and the local side FC Karachi, were priced at a whopping Rs8,000 a piece. But no one I met at the ground, save a group of Chinese men, said that they had bought tickets. Everyone else, it seemed, was there by invitation or through a source.
The Rahat Football Ground, better known for hosting inter-school and club tournaments, was divided into half for the smaller version of the game. But while putting up huge Panaflex posters of the players and arranging for good music, the organisers or the ground authorities had apparently forgot to pay attention to the long grass and the uneven surface whose clumps of mud you could feel under your feet even while walking there.
“This is not a good ground, not even by our standards leave alone players of the calibre of Kaka, Figo, Puyol and Anelka,” said Shahzaib Ahmed Khan of a local club Abdul FC, one of the two local players in the WSS team, along with their captain and the national football team’s captain Saddam Hussain.
But the four international stars didn’t seem to mind playing there and looked fine, at the time at least, as they politely kicked around the ball to match local playing standards. “I guess they must think we don’t have football grounds or that all of our grounds are as substandard, which is so embarrassing for us,” said Shahzaib. “There are 120 football clubs in Lyari alone. We certainly have better grounds,” he added.
Shahzaib shared with Eos that, in order to feature in the WSS side, he had attended trials in Lahore and Islamabad. “There was a lot of work put into the organisation of these matches, but it all seemed to have fizzled out in the end.”
The Pakistan football team’s captain Saddam Hussain remarked that people needed to understand football better in this country. “Sadly football is not doing as well as cricket, cricket is played everywhere,” he said. “Meanwhile, football and footballers are still looking for openings. Then, we get a chance for the uplift of the sport. The messages from the stars that they were coming here were all over social media with millions of ‘likes’, but when it came to the actual test, our own people let us down. The no-show at the exhibition matches caused us great embarrassment before the visitors,” he said.
Despite lacking in standards, Karachi’s Rahat Football Ground was still the first football ground to host the international football stars. Earlier, another promotional organisation, the Leisure Leagues, too, had flown in Anelka with Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs, Robert Pires, Luis Boa Morte, David James and George Boateng to Pakistan for two exhibition matches in July 2017. That time, the match in Karachi was played at the Abdul Sattar Edhi Hockey Stadium while the one in Lahore had been staged at the Fortress Stadium, more famous for holding horse and cattle shows.
The Lahore match this time, for which the organisers had announced free entry after the Karachi disaster, was played on the blue artificial turf of the National Hockey Stadium, with hardly any crowds to cheer. In a country where crowds gather to watch football matches in the remotest of areas, even where there are no stands to sit on, this was quite shocking.
Was it over confidence from the organisers after the successful Leisure Leagues tour of two years ago? Was it lack of adequate publicity? Or was it just the wrong timing? The Karachi match was held on the eve of 12th Rabiul Awwal — the night of Eid-i-Milad-un-Nabi when many people are busy in the religious festival — and the Lahore match was held the next day, an official holiday after many people stay up the night in prayers.
The chief organiser of World Soccer Stars, Robert Head, felt that the lack of enthusiasm from fans at the recent two exhibition matches could have been due to little football activity in the country while a FIFA-appointed committee is managing football in Pakistan.
But through multiple sources in sports circles and in the market, one got several other answers. According to a sports promoter, the uncertainty around the dates impacted the publicity. The tour was first said to take place in April. After its announcement in January, more hype was created in March during the Pakistan Super League cricket final at the National Stadium Karachi, this time with Puyol coming here to promote the forthcoming tour.
“And with all this build-up, suddenly, a few days ahead of the time given for the grand appearances in April, it was all put on hold and the tour was postponed,” he says.
“So this time when they announced it again, and that too just 10 days before the events, there was a lack of trust and confusion among the fans, who thought it might not happen again.”
A sports journalist points out that, together with that mistrust and confusion, people also felt that the Rs8,000 tickets were far too expensive despite there not being any live television coverage. “They weren’t sure that they would be refunded in case the matches got postponed again,” he said. And that’s not taking into consideration the economic pinch being felt all across Pakistan because of the recession.
“Credibility is a big thing when organising live events,” says a club player who wished not to be named. “After the April postponement, the credibility of WWS was hurt.”
He also adds that, even this time, the organisers were not consistent with what they were saying. “First it was announced that there would be two matches, one in Karachi and one in Lahore. Then it was said that there would be only one match in Lahore. Then there was yet another announcement of holding the Karachi match after all. This kind of going back and forth on your word doesn’t help,” he points out.
Despite Pakistan’s football team being ranked a lowly 201 in world rankings, there is little doubt that football has a massive following in the country and all efforts, even by private organisations, to promote the game are much-needed, like rays of hope. It’s a shame then to see a lack of experience and ill-thought-out decisions pour cold water over even good intentions.
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 17th, 2019