KARACHI: The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has announced a new tournament in Malaysia.
It also offers a lifeline for Pakistan football which has been mired in doldrums since almost a year and a half.
The national team has not taken to the pitch since crashing out in the first round of AFC’s marathon joint-qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup following a 3-1 aggregate loss to Yemen in March last year.
Not only did that loss leaves Pakistan without competitive matches for the next four years but also contributing to the national team’s inaction was a massive conflict in the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
The PFF has been mired in crisis ever since it split into two factions in the lead-up to its presidential elections in June last year after a full-blown dispute over the controversial Punjab Football Association (PFA) elections in April.
With the two groups — one led by incumbent president Faisal Saleh Hayat and the other by contender and vice-president Zahir Ali Shah — heading into the polls, it saw the Lahore High Court (LHC) intervene and order a stay on the elections.
The Hayat group however went on to hold the elections and that has resulted in a drawn-out battle against the honourable court which appointed retired Justice Asad Munir as PFF Administrator till the issue is resolved.
FIFA, meanwhile, has backed Hayat and has given him two years to conduct fresh elections.
The dispute, which has extrapolated to between FIFA and the LHC, has also seen the national team miss out on football tournaments.
Case in point: The SAFF Suzuki Cup late last year.
While the Administrator was willing to send the team to South Asia’s showpiece tournament, the Hayat faction refused to work with him.
They should work together now.
Missing out on tournaments has seen Pakistan fall to an all-time low of 194 in the FIFA rankings.
But the inaugural AFC Solidarity Cup for “countries that will not feature in the later stages of the AFC World Cup qualification, or the Asian Cup qualification and who have little opportunity to organise international friendly matches” offers another chance for the game in Pakistan to rise above the politics which has afflicted it.
Pakistan were on Thursday drawn in Group ‘A’ of the tournament alongside Nepal, Brunei Darussalam and two more teams — which will be later decided — in the tournament which will feature either eight or nine teams.
Group ‘B’ has Sri Lanka, Macau, Mongolia and one more team.
“Two or three teams — Laos or the Maldives, Chinese Taipei or Timor-Leste and Bangladesh — who will be eliminated from the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers Play-off 2, will also participate,” the AFC said on Thursday.
“These will be decided after the completion of Play-off 2 on Oct 11. The pairings for the currently ongoing 2019 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers Play-off 2 are: Pairing 1: Maldives vs Laos – Pairing 2: Bangladesh vs Bhutan – Pairing 3: Timor-Leste vs Chinese Taipei.
“However, if Bhutan are the losing team in the pairing above, only losers from Pairings 1 and 3 will take part in the AFC Solidarity Cup, as Bhutan have not expressed interest to participate.”
In case of an eight-team tournament, the top two teams from each group will advance to the semi-finals while the nine-team format will see the group winners contesting a final.
The tournament begins on Nov 2 with the final on Nov 15.
With less than two months to the tournament and no resolution in sight in the PFF dispute, it seems the fresh chance for the national football team to emerge from the shadows of conflict will also be lost.
But a newly-formed Players Association, which will formally be announced on Friday, after a march in Karachi is hoping that football action returns to the country and the national team gets back on track.
“We’re making a players association which has the support of all current and former players of the country,” former Pakistan captain Mohammad Essa, who is leading the movement, told Dawn on Thursday. “This is to protect our rights and to see football return to the country.”
The PFF dispute has also seen a break in domestic tournaments with the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) not being organised last year although the PFF administrator Munir did organise the PFF Cup in February.
Essa, meanwhile, pleaded that the movement he is leading isn’t affiliated with any of the two warring factions.
Sources had told Dawn that Essa has been promised an assistant coach job with the national team and a vote for the Players Association in the PFF Congress by the Hayat faction if they raise sufficient pressure on the court-appointed administrator.
“That is not true,” Essa said. “I’m only standing up for the players and we will show tomorrow that we’re not a pawn in anyone’s power game.”
The Pakistan football team has a lifeline with the AFC Solidarity Cup. But if the Players Association were to become politicised, this fresh chance to revive football in the country will be lost.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2016