KARACHI: After a gap of over two years, the National Challenge Cup returned on Tuesday under a different guise. It’s now only restricted for the departmental sides with the country’s football clubs not able to take part.

Pakistan football seemed to be headed in a different direction, in line with the rest of the world, last year when the government had announced a closure of sports teams of all public and private departments.

It meant a chance for club football to thrive in the country was on the horizon. But a change in the government and the subsequent revival of the departmental sports system has meant that Pakistan football is back to square one.

Departments cannot fulfill the licensing criteria to take part in continental competitions organised by the Asian Football Confederation. It meant that the national champions — the winners of the Pakistan Premier Football League — were unable to take part in AFC club tournaments even before the crisis in the Pakistan Football Federation which has seen a full PPFL not take place since 2018.

The club-based top-tier league seemed to be the ideal solution — something that the FIFA-appointed Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee had planned to hold. But with the departmental system back, it decided to give the Challenge Cup to them.

The Challenge Cup was last held in December 2020 by the previous PFF NC setup. Since then, Pakistan has seen a 15-month suspension from FIFA but when the first set of Challenge Cup matches kicked off on Tuesday, it marked the return of domestic football in the country with the PFF NC having gone for an expansive format with 27 teams split in seven groups across seven centres.

The official opening ceremony was held here at the KPT Stadium with most PFF NC officials in attendance and Noman’s deft finish in the 69th seeing Pakistan Navy get past Pakistan Police 1-0 in Group ‘A’.

Defending champions Wapda kicked off Group ‘E’ with a 2-2 draw against Higher Education Commission in Lahore while Khan Research Laboratories delivered a statement of their intent with the biggest win of the day; Moin’s treble and two goals by Waheed seeing them trounce Pakistan Ordinance Factories Wah Cantt 7-0 in Group ‘F’ which is being played Islamabad.

Pak-Afghan Clearing Agency also racked up a big win, Sharaf’s hat-trick seeing them win their Group ‘B’ opener against Nimso Hazara FC Quetta at the Essa Khan Football Ground in Chaman while former winners Pakistan Air Force saw a two-goal lead perish in a 2-2 draw against WSTC in their Group ‘G’ game at the Tehmas Khan Football Stadium in Peshawar.

Group ‘C’ in Bahawalpur opened with a goalless draw between Pakistan Railways and Ashraf Sugar Mills at the Gulzar Sadiq Park while Musaddaq’s first-half double saw Masha United win 3-0 against Klash Mills in the Group ‘D’ opener in Faisalabad.

The group stage is set to culminate next month while the knockout rounds are set to be held at an undecided venue in May.

But while the action returned on the pitch, the protests against the PFF NC were back too. A small group at the KPT Stadium wore black armbands in protest that not a single team from Karachi was part of the Challenge Cup.

In order to hold the elections of the PFF, the NC has introduced the Pakistan Football Connect programme for registration of clubs across the country. That has seen clubs register all their players on the online platform.

The database means that a player registered with one club won’t be able to play with another until the transfer documentation is updated in the system.

However, it’s a different story with the departments and with the PFF Constitution stating that all departmental players need to be “affiliated with a club”, some have taken advantage of it. Islamabad-based club POPO FC, for example, has their whole team playing the Challenge Cup under the department with the name of Mamsons Builders.

It was immediately unclear what the next step will be for the departments. One PFF NC official stated that the departments were also registered on the Connect database but separately. And now, there will be separate competitions for departments and clubs.

When the PPFL is held, it will be solely for clubs, Dawn has learnt. The ones who fulfill the club licensing criteria will go on to represent Pakistan in AFC competitions. For the departments, at least for now, it seems the Challenge Cup is all they will be fighting for.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2023

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