Next Story

When the ball stops rolling

A long-running tussle between rival factions of PFF have led to Pakistan’s suspension by Fifa

By Natasha Raheel |
PUBLISHED May 29, 2021

Anything that stays unchanged for too long begins to destroy itself. In the case of Pakistan football, this destruction only seems to affect the players, their careers and livelihoods, while officials play politics only to hold on to office.

“Our officials don’t seem to come to the office thinking they will have to leave it someday,” said Malika-e-Noor. “This is how it’s always been.”

As she took care of her young son, Malika, who represented Pakistan in the last women’s international event that the team played in 2014, recalled the little hope she felt not too long ago. “After 2018, things were finally moving. After such a long time, it seemed. The women’s national championship was finally taking place. I couldn’t participate because of the birth of my son, but I was looking forward to what would come next,” she said. “The Army team started practicing last September, and things were looking good.”

“It is us footballers who suffer the most and the youth players especially, who I worry about the most,” Malika added. “I would be told to leave the sport a lot when Pakistan was banned before and no football was taking place in the country. I fear it will be worse for new players.”

This has been the second time in the last five years that Pakistan is facing suspension from Fifa. On May 21, Friday Fifa ratified the suspension on Pakistan that eventually came on April 7 after a showdown in the events that started on March 27, in the midst of the national women’s championship.

The group led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah, who was elected as the President of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) through the Supreme Court ordered elections in December 2018 took over the PFF house in Lahore and threw out the Fifa-appointed Normalisation Committee (NC) Chairman Haroon Malik to reclaim the offices as the ‘real stakeholders’.

Fifa labeled the takeover on March 27 as a hostile one, as former rugby player and entrepreneur Malik told the media that he had to escape through a glass window, fearing for his safety, while the NC staff was harassed and had their laptops and possessions confiscated by Ashfaq’s group.

Ashfaq and his associates denied the use of force. Right before the warning duration issued by Fifa on March 31 ended, he had told The Express Tribune that the deadline was ‘not from God’ and that the group would not vacate the premises of the PFF house or let the NC resume the control of PFF affairs as directed by the world governing body of the sport.

Fifa announced Pakistan’s suspension on April 7, and this has been the main cause of anxiety among footballers across the board.

Before the suspension the NC announced that the footballers will get to play in international fixtures. They were to send the team to the Saff championship. The women were to play Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U23 and U19 events, while men’s side was to play U23 tournament too. Malik said earlier this month that all was possible, including having international friendlies – two for women and one for men – if only the occupants were to vacate the PFF house.

Waiting for the miracle

Pakistan’s leading midfielder and Wapda player Sahar Zaman believes that for her the heartache comes from giving 13 years of her life to football only to see the footballers suffer even more than before.

“I am just numb, I don’t have words to say. I am at that point that I feel our words will be a waste too after listening to the news that Fifa have ratified the ban last week. I’m 24 right now, if the suspension prolongs and lets say, as we have often heard, for five years or so, I will be 29. I will have nothing left,” she said. “The takeover happened during the national championship. Our national team goalkeeper Mahpara (Shahid) and I made the videos too, because we were just shocked that the tournament had to be stopped and then eventually cancelled, even though it was none of our fault, because a group of officials took control. But they don’t care about football or footballers. We were crying, calling out for help.”

Sahar accused the perpetrators of the takeover of only caring about power. “They only care about money that may come from Fifa later. They are not here for the sport or those who play it,” she said, with complete dejection.

The Gilgit-Baltistan footballer believes that the NC was on a decent track before the March 27 takeover and she was impressed with the roadmap and the international events lined up for the national teams. But her heart sank even further as she saw that no effort was made from the government or Prime Minister Imran Khan in order to salvage the situation despite many public pleas and requests from national footballers who have represented Pakistan internationally.

“I was really disappointed. I’ve now left it all on Allah. Maybe one day I wake up and I hear that the miracle has finally happened and the suspension is gone, just like the day we found out that the national championship is halted because a group of officials have taken over the PFF house for the country to get banned. If only miracles take place,” Sahar said. “I was hoping that the PM would do something. I’m hoping for the best, but I know that the officials who are occupying the PFF house said that we are not among the top teams so a ban wouldn’t matter.”

“I just want to say that as a player, we are not among top teams even in the region because of the officials who are just power hungry and don’t let us play. After spending more than a decade in football, how we still don’t get the recognistion or a chance to raise our flag further, none of it is because we are not talented. It is all because of the power politics,” added Sahar, who now has had to make the difficult choice of finding an alternate full-time job.

Like Malika, she too fears that eventually the footballers who are playing in departmental sides will be forced to take up other sports as football will eventually die, especially in the case of women, who face pressure from families to quit if there are no events or any scope of progress. “With suspension or ban, many families would say what is the point in playing even. This is only sending bad message on all levels and it is not an easy choice. There are players whose livelihoods depend on football. They are taking away the food from their table,” Sahar lamented.

Save football, save footballers

Pakistan football is not a professional eco-system at all. There are club teams that are worse off as they do not have any sponsors and are self-run under a self-help model or the footballers have the departmental sides. With the football crisis that began heavily in 2015, the departments have been actively shutting down their football teams, and the latest victims have been K-Electric footballers.

Midfielder Muhammad Riaz, believes that it is high time for the officials to just consider the possibility of saving footballers from poverty and ultimate death of the sport in the country.

“It has been six months. KE has shut the department. I am in Hungu, I’m training everyday, but even for the other teams to hire us, there needs to be a domestic league. Even for us to try and go abroad, there needs to be some activity to show our talents here, or where would we go?”

“In KE we’ve had senior footballers above 35 too who have lost their jobs, who are suffering. We are all suffering more than before,” added the 24-year-old who played the Saff Cup in 2018 for Pakistan as his last outing with the team.

Footballers need to unite

Riaz’s KE and Pakistan team-mate Murtaza Hussain feels that there is a dire need for the players to raise their voices now or suffer forever. “Who is responsible for the loss of our livelihood? It has been six months. This political mess that started in 2015 has not stopped jeopardising our careers even once. Every single time there is more political power play from the fighting officials, we don’t know what to do except really unite to speak for ourselves.”

“I feel, because they don’t care for football, why would all of these parties sit together to save us, our sport,” he said. “Even now, my family members tell me that I shouldn’t play football and we are professional footballers. Imagine how bad it can be for new players, our youth players.”

“The opportunities for us to be hired by other teams now, like KE, is gone,” he added. “Now, for me to play in another team, there needs to be the Premier League, which needs to take place for me to find a place for myself, to get hired. Where should I go now? Where should other footballers go in this situation?” he asked, in anguish.

Murtaza too, like his other fellow footballers, worried about youth players the most. “Grassroots football will be worst hit, along with the top tier of players who want to play in the national team,” he said. “It is the players, the coaches and the referees who are the real stakeholders. All these other stakeholders need to sit down and find a way,” he appealed.

Paved with good intentions

With the PFF split into factions, each player in the political game claims to be the sport’s ‘true saviour’. But many questionable actions had to take place to keep the chaos going, which ultimately resulted grinding football to a halt in the country.

The drama that unfolded on March 27 was just the latest in a sequence of events that began in 2015, when then PFF President for over a decade, politician Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat tried to get himself elected for a fourth term. In order to achieve that goal, he tailored the PFF elections and brought changes into the PFF constitution. His opponents emerged under the leadership of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Association chief Syed Zahir Ali Shah and the PFF, subsequently, broke off into two factions. Then came a long legal and political battle that stopped footballing activities altogether. But the power tussle continued with vigour.

Pakistan was earlier suspended from October 2017 till March 2018 amid the infighting within PFF between the rival groups. As the struggle carried on, it relieved Hayat’s opponents were not too different in mindset from him. The opposing faction split further. As the Supreme Court ordered PFF elections in 2018, the perfect opportunity to ouse Hayat prompted the beginnings of a new storm. Fifa never recognised the SC-ordered elections and held Hayat’s back, until the appointment of the NC in September 2019 with Humza Khan as its helm.

Since then, the NC has also seen three changes in its leadership and Malik wants the PFF house to be vacated in order to further talk with quarrelling officials. Last week, Ashfaq Hussain’s group along with Hayat’s former trusted man and controversial figure Sardar Naveed Haider held a press conference in Lahore at the PFF house and revealed many a conspiracies among the NC officials through recordings recovered from the laptops that they confiscated during the takeover. A former Fifa official who had a falling out with Hayat is involved in the conspiracies too, only to show that the PFF corruption may just be the cornucopia of the rotten political games played at the Asian Football Confederation level as well as within Fifa.

Ashfaq Hussain’s group believes they need to stay in the PFF house rightfully and Fifa should change the NC while his tenure will end in 2022. He also feels the distrust because the PFF NC has failed to hold free and fair elections at all levels and there seems to be no plan in sight.

On the other hand, Malik attended the Fifa Congress on May 21 and maintains that the only way forward is for the group to hand over the charge to the PFF NC. He has a three-step plan to work towards holding elections and creating a football community that can sustain itself even after the interim set-up.

With the PFF house, the group also took over the charge of the funds and the accounts. When the NC was appointed, the federation had Rs160 million in the account with tranches of $500,000 and $700,000 from Fifa coming in over the course of that year.

On the standoff and the cessation of footballing activities, Malike said the answer is dependent on the NC. “When it comes to the future of PFF and Pakistani footballers, Fifa will keep Pakistan suspended till NC Chairman Haroon Malik advises it to. This is in their letter dated April 7,” he said. “Right now these people continue to occupy, and hence Pakistan is suspended. Government had noted that it will be vacated soon after Eid. No such efforts have been seen as yet.”