LAHORE: As soon as the First Pakistan Football Summit came to a close, the floor was opened to the invitees. For most of those club and academy officials, players and referees, this was the first time they were able to freely meet officials from global football body FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. They are the ones who have suffered the most due to the long-running crisis in Pakistan football, which has shown no sign of abating despite FIFA having appointed a Normalisation Committee for the Pakistan Football Federation.

With the three-member joint-delegation of FIFA and AFC having arrived in the country for talks over streamlining the future roadmap for the country’s football, the Haroon Malik-led PFF NC had asked them to be part of the summit it organised on Tuesday. A planned question and answer session was scrapped and instead those attending the summit at a plush hotel could meet officials from FIFA and AFC. It was here that Bahawalpur Football Academy’s Rana Zia, a former Punjab Football Association vice-president, took his chance.

Zia is one of the keen football organisers in the country; a man who’s been voicing his concerns over the PFF NC stalling on the election process with the documentation to prove. The PFF NC has launched the Pakistan Football Connect programme in order to conduct club registrations all over the country – the first step towards holding the elections. On Monday, while inaugurating the mobile unit shuttle service in order to reach clubs in far-flung areas of the country, PFF NC chief Haroon had claimed that some legal cases were the biggest impediments in holding polls.

Haroon repeated that at a press briefing that followed the summit but Zia told Dawn on Tuesday that two of those cases are not active anymore. The third case, he added, regarding the bank accounts of the country’s football governing body was filed by the PFF NC itself. At the summit, Zia would go on to inform Purushottam Kattel, the Head of the South Asia Unit of the AFC’s Member Associations division, about them and earned an invitation for a meeting by the Nepali official on Thursday morning, ahead of the delegation’s departure.

On Wednesday, the delegation headed by Rolf Tanner, FIFA’s Head of Member Associations Governance, will meet officials previous delegations have met before — the stakeholders of Pakistan football who would be likely candidates in the elections which will be conducted by the PFF NC. They hadn’t been invited to the summit, where media was only allowed to attend as observers. Wednesday’s meetings were not part of the initial itinerary but were accommodated after one of the contesting groups led by former PFF senior vice-president Zahir Shah had said that they will be protesting against the PFF NC on the sidelines of the summit.

“All we’re looking for is the elections to be held at the earliest,” Zahir told Dawn on Tuesday, “and we’ll be asking the FIFA and AFC officials to ensure that.” Alongside Zahir will be Iqbal Sheikh, who last month withdrew a case against the NC in Quetta. Another case in a court in Bahawalpur was been time-barred on Dec 18 last year. “We believe that there should be no further delay in the election process,” added Zahir.

PFF NC member Shahid Khokhar told Dawn that it was proposed by Haroon that the FIFA-AFC delegation met with the stakeholders during their trip, which was postponed from November due to political unrest in the country. “All school of thoughts have been invited for meetings with FIFA,” he said. But the group led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah — the court-elected PFF president who was not recognised by FIFA, hasn’t been invited. “Of course, those who claim to be the PFF can’t be in meetings with the people who don’t recognise them,” added Khokhar.

Ashfaq and Zahir were once allies, united against long-time PFF president Faisal Saleh Hayat, but went their separate ways after the PFF NC was first appointed in September 2019. In March 2021, Ashfaq’s group seized control of the PFF headquarters from the NC, stating they had lost trust in the officials appointed by FIFA. It prompted a 15-year suspension on Pakistan from FIFA, which was eventually lifted in June last year. “We’ve written several letters to FIFA about the PFF NC’s delaying tactics regarding the elections but we haven’t received any response,” Ashfaq told Dawn.

In its defence, the PFF NC said at the summit that it will complete the elections within 165 days of the completion of the club registration and scrutiny as per the PFF constitution. “The task we’ve undertaken is something that hasn’t been done in the history of Pakistan,” Haroon would claim regarding the Connect programme, which aims at putting all the clubs in the country on one database. The mandate of the PFF NC ends in June this year and Haroon said an extension for his committee was in the hands of FIFA.

The PFF NC got back control of the PFF headquarters following the eviction of Ashfaq and his group of officials after it had given assurances to the government that elections would be held within eight months after they returned to office. Officials present in the FIFA-AFC delegation — Tanner and Kattel — held a virtual meeting with Fehmida Mirza, the former Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination, before the PFF headquarters were handed back to the NC.

IPC minister Ehsan Mazari did not attend the summit due to other commitments and top officials of the Pakistan Sports Board also stayed away with sources close to the issue telling Dawn about an ongoing tiff between the country’s sports regulatory body and the PFF NC, which did not take no-objection certificates from the PSB before sending the national women’s team to Saudi Arabia for the ongoing four-Nations tournament.

The live transmission of the summit, meanwhile, never took off; social media pages showing the event had been cancelled. The PFF NC also amended its news release, deleting quotes of Tanner and Kattel. FIFA had told Dawn last week that there would be no media activity during the delegation’s visit. The clips of the summit that were sent to the media had no audio.

The news release said that the FIFA-AFC delegation had “expressed its satisfaction” regarding the working of the PFF NC after several meetings with it since Monday. But for those who heard it at the summit, the most telling note of the 45-minute talk was when Tanner said that the delegation was here to gather the situation and provide a smooth mechanism for the elections of the PFF. They will look to gather more facts when they meet the stakeholders and then Zia. That meeting at the very end of their trip could prove telling for Pakistan’s football future.

Umaid Wasim reported from Karachi

Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2023

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