Developing all aspects of football environment key for game’s growth, advises AFC’s Roxburgh

09 May 2020

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ANDY Roxburgh, the AFC Technical Director, gestures during a news conference of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Technical Study Group in Moscow on July 12, 2018.
ANDY Roxburgh, the AFC Technical Director, gestures during a news conference of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Technical Study Group in Moscow on July 12, 2018.

KARACHI: Upon announcing the appointment of a Normalisation Committee for the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), world’s football governing body FIFA said the step was taken in order to “bring Pakistani football back on track and see it thriving in the country”.

The Normalisation Committee did put football back on track in the country before the coronavirus pandemic struck the world but Pakistan has to go a long way to see the game thriving. It certainly won’t come during the Normalisation Committee’s tenure during which it has to hold fresh elections of the PFF after years of crisis and controversy badly damaged the game in the country.

Pakistan football will be forever indebted to the Normalisation Committee if it can set up a base for football to thrive. Even that will be a tough ask for the Humza Khan-led body which has more pressing matters, most notably the elections, on its plate.

“A Member Association needs to develop all aspects of its football environment,” Asian Football Confederation (AFC) technical director Andy Roxburgh told Dawn in an e-mail interview on Friday in which he was very particular about his comments not being specifically for Pakistan.

They do however offer an insight on how much work needs to be done for Pakistan to outgrow its tag of Asian minnows.

“No matter which country you come from football is like a three-layered cake: the thin icing is the pro level; the fruit below is the elite youth level; and the bulk of the cake is the grassroots of the game,” added the 76-year-old former Scotland manager who held a similar position with UEFA for nearly two decades. “You need all of these levels to be functioning well in order to be successful.”

In the highly-politicised world of Pakistan football, with personal vendettas at every layer, it will require a monumental effort to have each level functioning well. Even more difficult is to envisage a time when all these elements coalesce to form an effective football pyramid.

The appointment of the Normalisation Committee has brought to the fore football officials from each and every level, from small-level tournament organisers to academy owners, all demanding a share of the big pie, all trying to justify their place in Pakistan’s football hierarchy, all trying to manoeuvre their way into the PFF.

The fact, however, remains that only a little few have modern football knowledge, how the game works globally and what needs to be done to make Pakistan a force in Asia. Most of the initiatives presented are archaic. These are people who still steadfastly believe in month-long training camps for international tournaments.

One of the more novel ideas projected by not only the officials but also by players and coaches are that of organising a franchise league on similar lines as cricket’s hugely popular Pakistan Super League (PSL).

FRANCHISE LEAGUE

Roxburgh doesn’t have an issue with a franchise league. But his idea of a franchise league is similar to the Major League Soccer (MLS) of the United States, which runs for eight months in a calendar year, rather than the month-long PSL.

One problem with franchise leagues, however, is that there is no system of relegation or promotion — which FIFA has enshrined in its rules.

Over the last several years, football officials in the country and of Pakistani descent abroad have come up with plans to launch franchise leagues. None of them have materialised.

“There are arguments for both [forms of leagues],” said Roxburgh, who has also worked with MLS side New York Red Bulls as its sporting director. “The MLS franchise system in the US has been a big success. The traditional leagues, on the other hand, use promotion and relegation, and many think that is the life-blood of the pro game.”

The closest Pakistan has come to taking steps towards the launch of a franchise league was almost a year ago when UK-based TouchSky Group almost signed a MoU with the PFF body recognised locally and not by FIFA. Despite that deal having fallen through, Dawn has learnt TSG still harbours ambition of launching the league and tried to get in touch with the Normalisation Committee to do so.

However, such initiatives raise more questions than give answers. Going by Roxburgh’s idea of how a franchise league should be, it’s hard to see investors in Pakistan put in money for an eight-month league with unsure returns. Franchise owners will also demand more eyeballs and, like India and its Indian Super League (ISL), they would want participation in AFC competitions.

It would inevitably put them on a collision course with the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) sides.

When the ISL was being launched in India, then-FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke claimed that the I-League would always be the country’s top league. Eventually though the ISL won over, the AFC last year establishing a five-year roadmap to merge it with the I-League.

It’s a situation Pakistan football, crippled with instability for years, can ill-afford. Instead, it could do well to revamp the PPFL which has numerous issues of its own.

ENHANCING CLUB FOOTBALL

With departmental teams prominent among the competing teams of the PPFL, it has brought new problems as the world embraces club licensing protocols.

“Club licensing is a dynamic tool for raising standards in pro football,” said Roxburgh. “It has been a big success in Europe and throughout the world — including Asia. The aim is to control the quality of the operation using certain key criteria [ie. sporting, financial, etc].”

The PFF led by Faisal Saleh Hayat, which was recognised by FIFA and AFC, only took baby steps towards club licensing and it speaks volumes when Shahid Khokhar, the former head of league, club development and club licensing says in an article authored by him that its “another story why club licensing system has not been successfully implemented in Pakistan”.

During the last season of the PPFL, Dawn exclusively revealed that none of the country’s teams met the AFC’s licensing standards and that meant that the champions missed out on AFC competitions.

Most coaches laid the blame squarely on the PFF. Khokhar rued after the PFF of Hayat was replaced by the Normalisation Committee that if he’d been “allowed to work for another year, things would’ve changed”. Now, as he talks and writes about club licensing there is a sense of it being too little, too late.

He said in his article a ‘real innovative strategy is needed’ to implement club licensing. More importantly, it requires knowledge and education of the game which officials in Pakistan lack miserably in.

When Shahzad Anwar took over as Pakistan’s technical director, he gave Dawn a copy of a shoddy powerpoint presentation titled ‘Aim High’ in which he had ‘analysing’ and ‘problems’ as two bullet points under current status.

Five years on, there seems no idea whether the problems, which can be clearly seen, have been identified and analysed.

FURTHER EDUCATION

Roxburgh said AFC is willing to help on that side.

“AFC’s courses, seminars and conferences are for the further education of Member Association staff,” he said. “The training/education of coaches is carried out in the Member Associations, with AFC’s support via the AFC Coaching Convention. It should be noted that AFC has three big technical projects: AFC Grass­roots Charter, AFC Coaching Convention and AFC’s Elite Youth Scheme and we are here to aid all Member Associations.”

Eventually if all steps were taken in the right direction Pakistan’s national team would ultimately benefit. While the coronavirus has meant football activity has come to a halt, the Pakistan team isn’t expected to see much action when it resumes after it fell in the first hurdle of Asia’s marathon qualifying programme for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

Roxburgh was asked about the qualification format that doesn’t help teams that fall in the first round.

“The format of the top competitions does not develop national teams — it eliminates them,” he said. “They are tests, not development programmes.”

Pakistan needs an intensive development programme for football. It will need to develop all aspects of its football environment. And as recent developments have shown, it may well have to dispense with those elements detrimental to its football environment.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2020