FOOTBALL: RED CARD FOR PAKISTAN

Published April 11, 2021
A guard closes the gates to Football House, the PFF headquarters in Lahore | APF
A guard closes the gates to Football House, the PFF headquarters in Lahore | APF

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune of travelling to Passu, Gilgit, where two sisters from a local village had organised a football tournament for girls.

As professional football players, Karishma and Sumaira Inayat were able to channel their passion for the game by assembling young girls from all over Gilgit to compete in a local football tournament. Members of the media and corporate sponsors arrived from all around Pakistan to witness this stunning coming together of young footballers. In all my years of sports journalism, I had never seen anything quite like it.

Against the gorgeous backdrop of the Passu cones, tens of teenage girls gathered after school hours, changed into bright jerseys and stepped on to the field to play their beloved sport.

“Why do you play football?” I questioned a young girl from Shimshal.

“I want to play for my village today, so that tomorrow I can play for Pakistan.”

The events of last month keep drawing my thoughts back to the girls of Gilgit, and to hundreds of football players of this country, whose dreams to compete professionally and better themselves hang by a thread right now.

On March 27, the offices of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) were forcibly broken into by members of a group led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah, in an attempt to regain control of football governance in the country. Shah, who in September 2019 had handed over the PFF reins to FIFA’s Normalisation Committee (NC), now claims that the appointed NC has failed to deliver on its mandate of holding fair elections for the PFF, and that no road map had yet been shared for holding of these elections.

Shah was appointed president of the PFF in December 2018 — an appointment not recognised by FIFA — and the NC was installed to rectify this and conduct fair elections. At the time of the installation of the NC, Humza Khan was appointed chairman of the committee, who resigned his post in December last year.

The fate of football in Pakistan, along with that of hundreds of young footballers, is hanging in the balance because of the power-hungry attitude of some officials of the game

In comes the latest saviour of the federation, the NYU-certified Haroon Malik. Earlier this year, Malik was appointed by FIFA as the new chairman of the NC and, within a couple of months, it was clear that this new role came with more responsibility than just holding fair elections.

In addition to sorting out PFF’s electoral woes, FIFA was also entrusting Haroon and his team with resolving some of the deeper problems of the federation and its governance, which meant that Haroon Malik would be around for longer than was earlier intended. To those in contention for PFF’s leadership, the possibility of Haroon Malik’s extension did not seem desirable, for that would pose a possible threat to their likelihood of running the federation anytime soon. Hence, a shorter and more notorious route to power was sought last week, putting Pakistan’s entire football circuit at risk.

Those familiar with the ups and downs of football in Pakistan know that this was not an isolated act of defiance. Ashfaq Shah and his group’s latest actions sprung from a series of misadventures with FIFA and, to put it politely, this ‘coup’ appeared like a desperate attempt at being in power again.

The forceful break-in of the PFF premises and the hostility to the NC employees did not sit well with FIFA, who immediately took notice. The global football governing body has its hands tied, as was indicated in the very crisply worded letter addressed to Shah’s group soon after their forceful entry in Football House. FIFA warned of a possible suspension of Pakistan from world football if actions were not reversed within 24 hours.

As the FIFA deadline drew closer and then passed on the evening of March 31, the group physically in charge of the PFF refused to give control back to the FIFA-appointed NC. Finally, FIFA followed through on its threat and suspended Pakistan on April 7. As it stands, the future of Pakistan football appears bleak, just when things were finally on the mend. In a matter of hours, the group’s supposed desire to uplift Pakistan football seemed to have taken a back seat, as the hunger for control became the driving force.

It would be naive to assume that Ashfaq Hussain Shah and his group were not aware of FIFA’s probable response to their forceful takeover of the federation. Not only were they aware of a possible suspension, they were largely unconcerned. By snatching the PFF offices right from under FIFA’s nose, the group knowingly risked the livelihoods and efforts of thousands of football personnel in the country, from players and coaching staff to officials and organisers. To what end? If holding fair elections is indeed the most pressing matter for the group, how will staging a coup fulfill that purpose?

This is not the first time that PFF has been suspended. FIFA has, time and again, warned the federation over undue meddling in its affairs from the outside, and had suspended Pakistan in October 2017 over the same issue. Pakistan is being banned for the second time in four years, which would have far-reaching consequences for a whole generation of football players in the country.

The group responsible for this sanction, however, appears to be unfazed about the implications of its actions. It has gambled with the efforts and dreams of a generation of footballers, as long as it means being at the helm.

The ongoing National Women’s Football Championship became the first directly impacted tournament in this mess. Tens of women footballers, who had trained for this championship months in advance, are now seeing their efforts go down the drain because of the very people who supposedly aim to provide them with platforms.

On the flip side, there have also been concerns over FIFA’s attitude toward Pakistan in the past, particularly about the NC’s failure to hold elections despite millions in funding and up to 19 months in office. Perhaps this mess could have been avoided had the mandate of the NC been clear from the beginning, or if FIFA had paid closer attention to Pakistan football’s administrative red flags. However, the installation of the last NC, and the subsequent extension of Haroon Malik’s tenure, indicated FIFA’s desire to fix PFF’s problems once and for all.

These problems also included fixing constitutional loopholes in the federation, and devising a framework for future administrations. For many closely associated with the game, this development was a welcome change, holding out hope for a more stable PFF in the coming years. Haroon Malik’s experience and vision finally gave the impression that the PFF was headed in a positive direction. Football camps and tournaments, along with incentives for stakeholders, were improving in standards for the first time in many years. As of this month, Pakistan is about to lose all that goodwill because of the shortsightedness of a few.

At this point, it is hard to foresee how long and on what conditions the suspension would last this time, and whether certain people would also face individual bans from FIFA. However, what is almost certain is that the most devastating impact of this possible suspension will be borne by the football community that relies on FIFA’s support for championships, training and employment. Once the PFF bank accounts run dry, it will be challenging for the federation to sustain itself and keep Pakistan’s football circuit running on the track it already was.

What happened on March 27 was not just a battle of misguided egos. The entire fiasco, from external meddling in federation matters, to the refusal to give up control, represents the nonchalance and outright disregard that embellishes any sport that is not cricket in this country. As the PFF developments transpired, sports fans on social media, particularly Twitter, raised questions over what would become of PFF now.

As April came around, cricket once again took center-stage and football’s dilemma was once again pushed to the peripheries. This was in no way surprising. As it stands, the average Pakistani and, in truth, also the average Pakistani football fan, will not be affected by the state of national football.

In the end, it will be national football players, and young girls and boys in remote villages, who will be left to deal with the aftermath.

The writer tweets @RohaNadym

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 11th, 2021

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