Pakistani football a dirty Game of Thrones

With real stakeholders kept out purposefully, sport suffers in hands of power players

Natasha Raheel October 08, 2017
Graphics: Saad Arifi

KARACHI: It's funny how sometimes two things so alike could still be so different.

As India hosts the crème de la crème of football's youth for FIFA U17 World Cup, the country across the border can't even host its own matches.

Saying football has come to a standstill in Pakistan would be an understatement. The game's been stalled for so long, it has regressed. Literally.

The national team hasn't played a single international match since March 2015, resulting in a slide down the FIFA rankings to an all-time low of 200.

The Pakistan Premier League became defunct after the 2015-16 season. As things stand, the world's biggest sport has not a single professional league on these shores.

This is rock bottom.

These are precisely the kind of situations where nucleus bodies such as Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) are supposed to be the shining light.

Hayat's extensions ends, PFF's problems don't

How ironic then that the PFF itself is actually the problem. It's the federation and its controversial officeholders whose fierce infighting and subsequent legal wrangling have brought football to its knees.

It all started with the Changla Gali elections of 2015, which the Faisal Saleh Hayat group won, like the previous three times.

This time, however, their 'success' was immediately challenged by a rival faction, who claimed that Hayat had rigged the polls and also accused him of funds embezzlement.

The matter went to the Lahore High Court (LHC), whose appointed administrator took over the PFF offices, thus giving birth to a logjam that has engulfed the entire game.

Time and time again players and coaches have issued passionate pleas to the quarreling parties to not let the sport suffer due to their personal vendettas; their appeals fell on deaf ears.

And why wouldn't they? For the PFF and its congress, football is a secondary and peripheral detail at best. Of primary importance are the office and the power it yields.

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A closer look at the 14 members (of the 26 overall) who voted for Hayat reveals that none (or very few) come from a footballing background and that glaringly absent from the equation are football departments.

Yes, the football departments who form the backbone of the country's footballing infrastructure — or whatever that is left of it — had zero say in who gets to govern the game for the next four years.

One of those 14 is Sindh Football Association (SFA) President Khadim Ali Shah, a Pakistan People's Party politician who was tried in the Sindh High Court on charges of corruption and forgery, although he was later acquitted.

Shah may not have played, coached or managed in football at any level whatsoever but that didn't stop him from becoming the SFA supremo as well as the South Asian Football Federation vice-president.

According to some in the sports community, Shah's understanding of football is so limited he often confuses it with cricket, asking about runs instead of goals scored by the teams during a match.

Also on the pro-Hayat segment of the Congress is retired navy officer Salim Shaikh and former banker Anwar Qureshi — two appointments that reek of nepotism and cronyism.

Another reported crony benefiting from his association with Hayat is Ayaz Zahoor, who again lacks a footballing background but was a congress member.

Moreover, he backed the policy of limiting terms of office-bearers in Pakistan Squash Federation but mysteriously opposed the same idea for the PFF.

Like those three, Balochistan's Usman Marri also has no real footballing ties, yet finds himself on the congress that voted for Hayat.

PFF facing suspension from FIFA

Jan Muhammad Marri, however, has served on several sports-related provincial bodies but is as ill-reputed as they come in Balochistan's footballing circles.

PFF Marketing Manager Haider was accused of selling 2014 FIFA World Cup tickets illegally.

Dr Fazalur Rehman, meanwhile, represents Islamabad on the congress even though he is not a member of the Islamabad Football Association, whereas his fellow congressman Arif Rahim, a Punjab representative, is a full-time businessman.

Also mystifying is the presence of Fauzia Naureen, who appeared out of thin air before the elections and, as expected, backed Hayat.

The women's votes in the infamous poll of 2015 seem manipulated too as Balochistan United's Senator Rubina Irfan was given the voting right even though her club is actually based in Karachi and despite the fact that she has a reputation for prising away other clubs' talent with little regard for transfer policies.

Diya FC and Young Rising Star FC have often complained about her, but the senator uses her position to get away with the violations.

But Hayat's biggest and by far the most surprising proponent remains the world football governing body FIFA that has continued to stand behind him despite the obvious flaws of the 2015 polls and the plethora of allegations against him.

"FIFA Member Associations Committee has decided that if the PFF offices and access to the PFF accounts are not returned to the PFF Ieadership — Ied by Mr Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat — by 31 JuIy 2017, it would recommend to the FIFA Council to suspend the PFF for contravening its obligations under articles 14 and 19 of the FIFA Statutes," a FIFA spokesperson threatened in June, while clearly siding with Hayat.

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What Pakistan's football fraternity expects FIFA to realise is that the PFF congress is not their true representative body but is actually packed with people who have Hayat's best interests at heart, not football's.

It's no surprise then that when nine-time national champions PIA, HEC and Pakistan Police filed their nominations for the 2015 elections, they were refused the right to contest; being cited an absurd reason that the deadline to do so had passed.

"Departments are the real stakeholders in Pakistan football," former Pakistan national coach Tariq Lutfi, who has spent more than three decades in football, told The Express Tribune. "It is after all the departments that hire the players, they give them jobs on the basis of their potential. For the last two years it is the departments that have kept football alive locally. The PFF should have given voting rights to at least the top four clubs of the Pakistan Premier Football League."

"It's just a waste of time and talent," said another former national coach Hassan Baloch during the SAFF U15 Championship last month. "There has been a lot of talent in these two years that would never get the opportunity back. It's just a very sad time for football in Pakistan. We aren't competing internationally at any level. It is frustrating. They should have at least kept the game on the field. The rest could've been dealt with separately."

Lutfi stressed on the need for a merit-based system where the real people associated with the sport are involved in PFF's decision-making process.

"None of this is fair. They don't deem departments important enough when in all fairness it is the departments that have made all the difference," he added.

There cannot be a date set for what Lutfi wants. For now, the only date set is October 17 when Hayat, with renowned attorney Asma Jahangir by his side, will once again appear in LHC to argue why he is the rightful occupant of the PFF throne.

(Edited by Zohaib Ahmed)


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