by Ali Ahsan
In April 2017, Pakistani football truly hit rock bottom when the FIFA World Football Rankings gave Pakistan 201st place (out of 211) and also became the lowest ranked side in Asia. Next door neighbours India, however, got a remarkable 101st thanks to some impressive results by their national team. The usual brief moaning and ridicule took place about how cricket-obsessed Pakistan continues to plummet in world football as a continued political crisis plagues the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) with its embattled president Faisal Saleh Hayat refusing to cede power and ruling with an iron fist since 2003.
It is nearly two years since Pakistani football fell into turmoil after rival factions collided in the 2015 football elections for PFF and Punjab FA. As with every other standard election in Pakistan, it became messy and has led to protracted legal battles damaging football the most. The political figures at the centre of this power struggle still claim to represent the game with no actual football action at nationwide and international levels.
When Pakistan was knocked out in first round of joint 2018 FIFA World Cup & 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers by Yemen in March 2015, the team had no more competitive games till 2019 except the 2015 & 17 SAFF Championships. The youth squad’s SAFF and AFC age competitions commitments were there in which Pakistan simply makes up the numbers and struggles to go far. Things were bad but became disastrous a few months later when first the PFA election fiasco erupted followed by the PFF takeover by Hayat’s rivals. The opposing faction of former Hayat loyalists claimed an extraordinary congress to oust him, only to find its legality lacking per PFF rules and wasn’t going to be endorsed by FIFA. This came couple of weeks prior to a planned PFF election in which the incumbent Hayat faced his own vice president Zahir Ali Shah.
Zahir challenged him after attempt of PM Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law Captain Safdar Awan to stand against Hayat was denied by PFF’s strict eligibility criteria. Earlier, another Sharif family son-in-law Ali Noor Niazi also failed eligibility criteria for PFA elections starting the whole debacle amid acrimony. What was a largely pro-Hayat football setup nationwide decided to oppose him first in Punjab and then nationally after PFA’s disputed elections, and sudden restructuring of PFF Congress over female congress membership, depriving 3 department votes, and Balochistan FA seeing the losing (pro Hayat) party retain its Congress seat.
As PFF splintered into opposing factions and Lahore High Court intervened to address PFA elections and stayed PFF elections, Hayat faction went ahead and held its election in Changla Gali with a FIFA/AFC representative, who perhaps didn’t read the papers that morning about the court stay order. LHC subsequently dismissed Faisal Saleh Hayat as PFF President and appointed retired Justice Asad Munir as administrator to run PFF. However, FIFA/AFC refused to recognise Munir, thus beginning the quagmire now two years old. After prolonged LHC proceedings and appeals, and Supreme Court involvement, the onus is again on the courts to give a final decision on what to do with the disputed football elections of 2015 if this crisis is to be ever resolved.
The administrator tried to resume football activities but was stopped after Hayat faction challenged the authority vested in him by LHC was just to hold PFF elections and conduct audit instead of holding football activities. The PFF Cup in early 2016 was the only thing Munir-led PFF has done so far. The top tier Pakistan Premier Football League and second division PFF League have not been held for the last 2 seasons and some departments have stopped their football operations to sponsor more lucrative marketing ventures. So who is to blame for the PPFL not taking place? The legal wrangling or Hayat faction stopping the administrator from holding the league depriving players from earning a living whilst rival parties continue to fight for PFF?
Another reason PPFL succumbed to this mess was due to it being a semi-pro league fully controlled by PFF. If the league was a separate entity with professional operations – common for top tier leagues worldwide – it would have continued and domestic football would have been fine. Despite 11 seasons of crash-bang PPFL and repeated calls for it to be professionalised into a separate entity, PFF remained coy.
Provincial FAs can carry out their normal work like before because they really aren’t financially dependent on PFF if you consider the annual amount of mere Rs110,000 per province under 2014 PFF accounts. No province has its own proper league and no emphasis to hold one either, but many minor tournaments have been organised nationwide. So local football activity perhaps has increased over the last two years excluding the top two tiers of Pakistani football.
With Pakistan repeatedly missing out on international events since troubles began, it was clear that AFC/FIFA weren’t going to recognise administrator and government won’t work with Hayat faction, especially over differences regarding sports policy and legality of the government-run Pakistan Sports Board. In a sensible player-friendly environment, football would have been put ahead of everything else with both factions working together to make sure national teams carry on playing international football. Hayat group could have gotten the official documentation done, administrator/government handling the funds and logistics. But none wanted that as Hayat faction repeatedly withdrew Pakistan’s senior and junior, male and female teams from event after event.
The Hayat faction has repeatedly cried foul on government interference in challenging the constitution of a ‘private entity’ (PFF) only answerable to FIFA/AFC and none else in Pakistan. PFF itself isn’t a legally-registered organisation under Pakistani law except as a sports association under the 1962 Sports Development and Control Ordinance with PSB. It is pertinent to remind that this legal battle was brought upon itself by Hayat who in 2012 legally challenged the 2005 National Sports Policy restricting presidents of national sports federations to two terms. Hayat’s 3rd term was hence completed on a stay order. Ironically the National Sports Policy was approved during Musharraf rule in which Hayat was a cabinet minister and was enforced in 2011-12 on Supreme Court orders during PPP government in which Hayat was also a coalition member. Why did the PFF and not its president go to court for stays as PFF repeatedly claims FIFA/AFC oppose court interventions in football matters?
FIFA opposes government interference but they don’t prohibit federations from abiding by national law. Many member associations worldwide voluntarily implemented structural reforms, even All India Football Federation (AIFF) implemented term limits and Right to Information transparency rules; something repeatedly Hayat/PFF avoided. FIFA’s own reforms introduced tenure limits for their elected office bearers. Whilst many raise issues over sports autonomy, FIFA has clearly been selective when it comes to implementation as seen with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s slide down FIFA ranking due to lack of action on the pitch was always going to happen especially after exiting 2 tournaments due to Yemen loss. However, withdrawals from 2015 SAFF Cup and then 2016 AFC Solidarity Cup which the AFC organised for teams eliminated in World Cup pre-qualifying round meant no action for Pakistan. If one goes by history of this administration, other than these 2 events it was unlikely that Pakistan would have played many friendly matches to stay active and healthy in FIFA ranking, if 160s-170s is considered “healthy” as average over the last decade. Looking back, there’s certainly evidence to suggest that playing friendlies to keep the squad actively improving all the time hasn’t been a PFF priority. Since Hayat took over in 2003, Pakistan’s senior team played only a handful of full international friendlies.
Take 2007 for example; after a very busy and vastly improved 2006 under Bahraini coach Salman Sharida, the national senior team played no friendly match ahead of 2010 World Cup qualifiers vs Iraq with focus entirely on U23 side participating in 2008 Olympic qualifiers that year. With mixed action in 2008-09 the national senior team touched a new low in 2010 as it went without a single international match whilst U23s again participating in SAF Games and Asian Games. 2011 saw plenty of action but success eluded the Green Shirts. 2012 saw Pakistan senior national team play just one senior international friendly as focus once again shifted to U23s. Pakistan had a busy 2013 without much success and 2014 saw just two international friendlies but with predominantly U23s, as Pakistan’s ranking fell and resulted in the pre-qualifier against Yemen. Repeated focus on U23s doesn’t get Pakistan a solid national team nor the rankings needed in better seeding for qualifiers/tournaments. U23 players get some action as part of their ‘development’ but reaching the senior team means very little action for them.
Why can’t both factions work together to resume football for now and let their court battles continue on the side? Having court-appointed administrator isn’t new either: India saw BCCI President replaced with a court-appointed administrator but India’s cricket activity carries on. With the onus once again on Lahore High Court to expedite all proceedings and decisions regarding PFF legal crisis, some rather odd things were seen in recent weeks.
Team Faisal Saleh Hayat repeatedly warns of FIFA ban if courts don’t restore him. But FIFA itself complicated our mess when instead of intervening in the early months of PFF crisis with a normalisation committee to supervise fresh elections (as seen in many national FAs like Maldives, Benin, Argentina etc), it gave Hayat another two years in September 2015 to ‘reform’ PFF statutes and then hold elections. Nothing been done to actually reform statutes or resume football with no FIFA ban either. Had FIFA installed a normalisation committee instead of granting Hayat extension after holding elections against court order that also violated PFF’s own statutes which FIFA itself acknowledged, we may have resolved our football issues off the pitch sooner whilst not disturbing action on the pitch.
In worst case scenario, FIFA ban in 2015 might have lasted a year but wouldn’t these issues been worked over in partnership with FIFA/AFC and all stakeholders? Would that ban have done any worse than the last two years already? No training courses, domestic league nor international action either. A major reason Hayat faction fears a FIFA ban is more self-interest basis: bans would have stopped Hayat and Co availing all-expenses paid FIFA/AFC trips and meetings which they continuously enjoy over the last 22 months despite no proper football activity by crisis-hit PFF.
Odder are some protests being held in some places across Pakistan urging restoration of football that not only appear to be pro-Hayat but also repeat mantra warning FIFA ban, Pakistani football being destroyed, and some oddly blaming Capt Safdar again for the crisis despite not even contesting the PFF elections. Some stories in both English and Urdu press have also come out unabashedly in favour of Hayat faction and also warn of FIFA ban, without even bothering to critically analyse the mess PFF and Hayat have themselves directly dragged Pak football in. Some pro-Hayat social media accounts – renamed pages that once represented PFF – have also warned of FIFA ban and government interference.
If courts don’t rule in Hayat’s favour then Pakistan can expect a FIFA ban and the matter to drag on. A ban may actually be the only solution to for FIFA-supervised statute reforms followed by fresh elections which adhere to both FIFA and national law. Despite the ban Pakistan can resume its national league and give players competitive action whilst the national team has no competitive fixture till 2019 anyway with age group teams also expected to miss this year’s events again. A FIFA ban, if it ever comes, will not be the worst thing to happen to Pakistani football. In fact a ban would be the most necessary step for FIFA to finally grow a pair and formally intervene and resolve the PFF crisis which it has been suspiciously aloof about for almost two years now.