KARACHI: Almost eight years on from when the idea of holding a franchise football league in Pakistan was first conceived, a formal announcement came on Tuesday.

Not by the company which came with the initial proposal, nor by many others who’ve aspired to follow up on that idea and make it a reality. Also, not by the Pakistan Football Federation which is recognised by global football body FIFA.

Instead, it is the PFF led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah — one that came into power through an election of the country’s football governing body held by the Supreme Court — announcing it.

It will be holding it in a partnership with Global Soccer Ventures Limited, a company which was incorporated in March this year, days after Ashfaq’s PFF took over the PFF headquarters from the FIFA-appointed PFF Normalisation Committee in a move that saw Pakistan suspended from world football.

And GSV, with former K-Electric sports chief Zabe Khan as chief executive officer, has roped in some big-hitters to launch the six-team Pakistan Football League.

One of them is the former Manchester United International managing director Mike Farnan, who oversaw the club’s growth as a global marketing behemoth near the turn of this century and is joining the PFL as its chief operating officer.

Farnan wouldn’t delve into the politics which has plagued Pakistan football for the best part of the last decade but was hopeful that the league will help the national team return to the “FIFA family”.

“When this project was first proposed to me 18 months ago, I found it absolutely intriguing and the plan to launch a new league in Pakistan,” Farnan told Dawn on Tuesday.

“From a marketing point of view, you have a population of 220 million of sports-mad people. I found it massively encouraging to see a marketplace that had a huge, growing footballing fan base. For me, this was absolutely key in getting on board. The challenge of building a strong, well-structured football league in this country was something I couldn’t refuse.”

The key to making a franchise league work, though, is to make it commercially viable. Like cricket’s Pakistan Super League, which was first launched in 2016, it will involve a lot of money and investment and franchise owners will look for a return.

Likewise, there remains only little evidence that a franchise league can actually boost the development of the game in a country. But Farnan believes the system is in place to ensure that both the sporting and financial aspects are looked after in the PFL.

“The key to making anything commercially work is to have a clear plan in place,” he said. “Everything that is planned, is structured, has an opportunity to grow commercially. I believe we have that plan. I believe we have the people who can make this viable.

“My interest is building a league that is well-structured and well-organised, a league that is competitive and that will bring fans in their thousands to support it,” he added.

“This is the start. At the bottom of the pyramid, we’re building a grassroots programme that can work and support this league by bringing through young and talented players who can go on to do bigger things. The middle part is to ensure that the league works well.

“Finally, most importantly, [it is what it gives] to the nation. That Pakistan has all the right structures in place, both management and a plan, to make sure that the national team goes back into the FIFA family and qualifies for World Cups.”

Dawn has learnt that despite the FIFA ban, organisers remain confident that a successful first edition of the league will eventually led to recognition by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.

However, Kaleemullah, one of Pakistan football’s biggest stars, said he won’t take part in the PFL.

“I won’t take part in this league since it doesn’t have the endorsement of FIFA or the AFC,” Kaleem, who himself has been talking up the prospects of holding a franchise league on social media, told Dawn on Tuesday. “There is no clarity on what is on offer for the team that will win. There is no guarantee at this point in time about the winners going on to play in AFC club competitions.”

‘NEW ECOSYSTEM’

In the news release announcing the PFL, the PFF of Ashfaq said that a state-of-the-art stadium will be developed in the partnership with GSV while it will also focus to produce “ground-breaking international technical football collaboration with top clubs from Europe”.

“This collaboration ensures funds are injected into Pakistan for the right reasons and for Pakistani football players so the nation can get its domestic football in order first,” it added, reiterating its stance that the FIFA ban doesn’t matter as Pakistan has to improve its domestic structure first.

“The PFF has placed players at the heart of everything. PFL will help rebuild football in Pakistan by developing a new generation of players. It is designed to create a new football ecosystem.”

It’s been a rocky road to Ashfaq announcing the PFL, the move earlier seeing his vice-president Sardar Naveed Haider Khan resign from his post, saying the partnership with GSV was “a sellout”.

There has been little clarity on the deal but Dawn reported last month that the model proposed by GSV is similar to the one in neighbouring India, where IMG-Reliance secured all commercial rights to tournaments organised by the All Indian Football Federation for 15 years in 2010 and oversaw to the launch of the Indian Super League four years later. The ISL has since taken over the I-League as India’s top league competition.

The PFF will be offered Rs4,000,000 for each franchise, which will be sold by GSV for US$2milllion. All commercial rights, including broadcasting and sponsorship, will be with GSV with PFF receiving 12.5 per cent from the total revenue.

Naveed claimed that the PFF was “underselling” the rights.

Naveed was previously a marketing consultant during the long reign of Faisal Saleh Hayat — from 2003 up until the appointment of the NC in September 2019.

In 2013, he announced that the PFF would be holding a six-team inter-city franchise league after meeting with officials of Green Peak International, led by Salman Sarwar Butt, the former managing director of cricket’s PSL.

That plan never saw light of the day but over the last several years the idea of holding a franchise league has been floated numerous times by different parties in Pakistan. PSL franchise Peshawar Zalmi owner Javed Afridi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa football official Shahid Shinwari have all stated their intentions of doing so.

GSV seem to have beaten them all to it, and also PFF NC chief Haroon Malik who also had designs on holding a league.

Last week, the PFF NC issued a strong-worded statement that “any entity which enters into a sporting relationship with an illegal parallel body [Ashfaq’s PFF] will be dealt with according to the relevant FIFA and PFF Statutes and any such act may carry serious consequences for the involved parties.”

Both GSV and Ashfaq — who became PFF president in a Supreme Court-held election in December 2018 — remain undeterred though.

Ashfaq’s PFF announced last week that the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) will commence from later this month and it is expected that the inaugural season of the PFL will follow soon after.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2021

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