PESHAWAR: A general view of the Ufone Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Cup final being played at the Tehmas Football Ground on Tuesday
PESHAWAR: A general view of the Ufone Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Cup final being played at the Tehmas Football Ground on Tuesday

PESHAWAR: In Pakistan’s domestic football, Mohammad Rasool is regarded as one of the most deadliest strikers. On Monday, however, he sent a crowd into raptures after saving, instead of scoring, a goal.

Playing in goal during a penalty shootout in the semi-final of the Ufone Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Championship, the former Pakistan international saved a spot-kick in sudden death to help DFA Chitral FC beat DFA Swabi FC; a save that saw a sizeable community of Chitralis settled in the provincial capital of Peshawar wild with joy.

Rasool was the biggest drawcard at the Tehmas Football Stadium. The very fact that the Chitral-born striker was playing for the team representing his city was enough to pull a large number of his fellow citizens to the stadium. They flooded the pitch once their team won, lifting their penalty-saving hero on their shoulders and doing a lap around the stadium.

Rasool has won the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL), the country’s top-tier tournament, with K-Electric. But even those celebrations would seem muted to the scenes on Monday. The fans were celebrating one of their own, playing for a team of their own.

A day later Rasool missed a spot-kick in the final, won by Peshawar Combined FC at a packed Tehmas. Only this time, strong security preventing a bigger pitch invasion than the one a night before. Peshawar fans were still delirious as they celebrated bragging rights with the victory, dancing with the players in celebration.

Those celebrations are something that, apart for clubs from Balochistan, are almost never seen in the top tier of Pakistan football. With departments playing, there is never that sort of affinity, that connect. It’s that connect which needs to be be fostered if Pakistan is to grow.

Tournaments like the one organised by cellular company Ufone, for the first time in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, help in channeling that connect. But that connect isn’t something that lives long. There is little to look forward to after this tournament, unless of course the organisers decide to host a second edition of the tournament.

They might do that though. A similar tournament that they hold in the province of Balochistan is expected to see a fourth edition in March next year.

“We have plans to take the winning team of the KP tournament on a victory parade in their hometown and hopefully that will promote further interest in the tournament,” Amir Pasha, the company’s head of PR and digital media, told Dawn.

Corporates perhaps can do only so much. The the lack of pathway in Pakistan football means that the connect built during tournaments like these never reaches the very top of Pakistan football; where fans can follow their teams though the highs and the lows and eventually that fanbase can be used to bring in sponsors for the game.

Not since Young XI of Dera Ismail Khan and Mardan FC got relegated from the PPFL in 2005, has a club from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa featured in the country’s highest league. That despite a fanatical following for football in the province.

Ever since British evangelist Theodore Leighton Pennell introduced football to Khyber Pakhtunkwa — then the North West Frontier Province — in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the people of the province have been hooked to the beautiful game.

In areas like Bannu, Swat, Wana, Lakki Marwat, Kohat and Tank, thousands turn up for invitational tournaments which see local clubs take part. That fanbase is what the PPFL could thrive upon, a club culture on which Pakistan football can build upon.

The second division Pakistan Football Federation League (PFFL), since 2011, has two pathways for promotion to the PPFL; one for departments and the other for the clubs. The pathway to the PFFL, though, remains undefined.

Sometimes there are inter-district tournaments. Sometimes there are none. For three editions of the PFFL till 2013, there were no clubs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

But in the last edition of the PFFL held in 2014 — it hasn’t been held since because of turmoil in the PFF — two clubs from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took part: Aatish FC Tank and Mardan Blue Star; both qualifying by virtue of winning the inter-district tournaments.

Aatish were also a part of the KP tournament, their dreams of one day playing in the PPFL long gone.

“We’re a group of 10 individuals who founded and sponsor the club,” Aatish FC manager Hizbullah told Dawn, adding that playing and winning invitational tournaments is a way of substinence. “But that’s not a constant thing, playing in a league is what we’re aiming at.”

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tournament, which began with 64 teams taking part from which 21 city champions were decided before they were narrowed down to four regional champions and four runners-up for the Super Eight stage which was played in Peshawar.

While the tournament, organised with the assistance of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Association (KPFA), saw club teams take part, there were also teams selected by the District Football Associations in some cases.

“If we started with all the clubs in Peshawar alone [which has 37 clubs], we’d never have been able to complete the tournament in the time we had,” KPFA secretary Basit Kamal told Dawn, arguing why it was impossible to include all the clubs from the province in the tournament.

He then pointed to a more poignant problem. “There is also no chance of knowing how many genuine clubs we have until a proper club scrutiny is conducted.”

Club scrutiny is one of the main tasks the PFF Normalisation Committee — appointed by global football body FIFA in September to resolve the crisis in country’s football — has to conduct before holding the PFF election by June 2020. Over the years, there has been great uproar over the bogus clubs who have voting rights in the DFA elections and FIFA has sought to resolve that matter first before holding the polls all the way up to the PFF Congress.

“We need to develop club football if we have to move forward,” former Pakistan international striker Gohar Zaman, who hails from Peshawar, told Dawn. “The KP tournament has been brilliantly organised well, bringing a festive football feel by including clubs from the region. For the first time, teams have played under floodlights here and I hope it gets better and better by including more and more clubs of the province.”

Even better, maybe, if in the coming years the tournament could, working with the PFF, offer a pathway for the champion club of the province into the PFFL. But even the PFFL, which is more of a knockout tournament rather than a league, will have to change if is to offer clubs sustained competition.

“When we played in the second division five years ago, we played just two matches and that was that,” said Hizbullah. “A proper league would mean more matches, more chances for us to further our club and most importantly more chances for our fans to become part of the national football fanbase.”

The lack of visibility of the PPFL, mostly due to the lack of team affiliation which is due to the fact that most of its teams are departments themselves, has kept corporates from investing in the teams.

The PFF has almost endlessly lamented the lack of corporates’ involvement in the game of football. The lack of faith in the country’s football governing body has only exacerbated that. The corporates instead have taken on to organising tournaments themselves, which bring football activity but aren’t that lasting.

To see an impact, the PFF could do well to work with the corporates already willing to invest in football and use these tournaments as pathways for team to enter a restructured Pakistan football pyramid. A restructure is already due with Pakistan already lagging behind the rest of Asia in implementing the club licensing regulations as demanded by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Using tournaments like the one in KP to help promote club football activity could ultimately be beneficial for all.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2019