EXCLUSIVE: ‘Pakistan will find welcoming, secure environment at SAFF Cup in India’

Published May 18, 2023
A file photo of All India Football Federation general secretary Shaji Prabha­karan. — Courtesy: SAFF
A file photo of All India Football Federation general secretary Shaji Prabha­karan. — Courtesy: SAFF

KARACHI: While the cricket boards of Pakistan and India tussle over the hosting of the Asia Cup, things are relatively calmer bet­ween the football federations of the two countries.

India is looking forward to hosting Pakis­tan’s football team for the SAFF Championship in Bengaluru next month, the two sides pitted together in the same group after the draw for South Asia’s marquee football competition was made on Wednesday.

All India Football Federation general secretary Shaji Prabha­karan told Dawn in an interview following the draw that Pakistan will find a “welcoming and secure environment” during the tournament.

The Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee has already signed a participating agreement with the South Asian Football Federation to participate in the June 21-July 4 tournament where they will also face Nepal and Kuwait, who have been invited for the tournament, in Group ‘A’.

Arch-rivals Pakistan and India will clash on the opening day while Group ‘B’ comprises Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Lebanon, the second invited team.

India’s top football official Shaji Prabhakaran confident that Pakistan would be graciously hosted during the June 21-July 4 tournament in Bengaluru

The Haroon Malik-led PFF NC has expressed its willingness to send the team to the regional event with the AIFF looking to welcome it with open arms; the cordial relations between them in stark contrast to those between the Pakistan Cricket Board and the Board of Cricket Control in India.

The BCCI has refused to send its team to Pakistan for the Asia Cup, whilst it hasn’t also agreed to the hybrid model proposed by the PCB, which offered India a chance to play their matches at a neutral venue. The standoff between the two has led to the PCB recently suggesting that it might boycott the World Cup in India if the Asia Cup is snatched away from it.

Prabhakaran, though, doesn’t expect the cricketing confrontation to spill into the SAFF Championship.

“We are the hosts of the SAFF Championship, and we believe that all the teams in the South Asian Region have the right to play in it. It is our duty to coordinate with the government, and we are doing so,” he said.

“FIFA has a slogan in which they look to unite the world through football. We, being a Member Association of the FIFA, follow the charter that they have set out, in which we do not look at caste, creed, or religion. When a player dons a jersey and comes to play, They should be judged in terms of the football they play.”

Prabhakaran, who was recently elected to the Asian Football Confe­deration’s executive committee as the region’s representative, said that the necessary security arrangements will be made to host the Pakistan team.

“We as hosts will make all the security arrangements as decided by the agencies of the government, and we are confident that Pakistan will be graciously hosted and will find a welcoming and secure environment in Bengaluru,” he added. “The AIFF is in constant touch with the Karnataka State Football Association, the hosts of the tournament, who are doing everything for the grand success of the SAFF Championship.”

NO QUALMS

Pakistan’s Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Ehsan-ur-Rehman Mazari told Dawn that he had no qualms about the football team travelling to India for the SAFF Championship but he said the PFF NC should send over proper documentation.

The PFF NC came under fire recently when it sent the national women’s football team to Saudi Arabia for a four-nation tournament without taking a no-objection certificate from the government.

“I want to clarify that I’m not the one stopping the team from going to India,” the IPC minister said on Wednesday, referring to posts on social media directed towards him at being the person responsible for giving the team the clearance to travel.

“All we have asked the PFF NC is to submit the documentation properly to us, which it hasn’t yet, for the NOC. When we have all the documentation, we will then send it to the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs and the Interior Ministry to make the final call.”

Mazari added that he is a firm believer that sports and politics should remain separate. “Last week, we hosted a 30-member Indian Bridge Team which won the [BFAME Championships] event in Lahore,” he said. “And despite the issues in cricket, I believe our football team should go to India for the important SAFF event.”

If Pakistan feature at the SAFF Championships, it will mark the national team’s first appearance at the tournament since 2018, when it reached the semi-finals. It missed the last edition in 2021 as the Pakistan was suspended by FIFA during that time.

The national team has suffered due to years of crisis and controversy in the PFF, resulting in opportunities few and far between to play at international tournaments since the conflict broke out in the country’s football governing body in 2015.

For Pakistan, the SAFF Championships represent a crucial chance to gain valuable match practice as they prepare for the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the first round of which is set to kick off in October this year.

Prabhakaran believes that the inclusion of Arab sides Kuwait and Lebanon will increase the level of competition at the tournament.

“We are happy that SAFF leadership has accepted our suggestion to include teams from outside the South Asian region,” he said. “With Lebanon and Kuwait being added to the SAFF Championship, the competitiveness of the tournament is set to be elevated further.”

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2023

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