by Tusdiq Din
It was perhaps the highlight of Pakistan’s sporting year. Many will have watched the thrilling ICC Champions Trophy final at the Oval last month, where Sarfraz Ahmed’s thrashed overwhelming favourites India to lift the trophy. Yet that feat arguably paled in comparison to the moment Pakistani football received a massive boost last weekend.
Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka, Ryan Giggs, Robert Pires, David James, George Boateng and Luis Boa Morte featured in two seven-a-side games played in Karachi and Lahore to give Pakistan’s football-loving fans a glimpse of major international talent for the first time. Themed as ‘Ronaldinho and Friends’, the enormity and the significance of this event cannot be underestimated.
These greats of the footballing world were in Pakistan – that often tarnished, maligned, misunderstood, loving, gracious, beautiful and energetic country – and the place rocked with their presence. But for his move from Aston Villa, John Terry would have been there too. The former Chelsea captain wished the event well nonetheless while also thanking its organisers, the property to infrastructure giant World Group and its chairman Mehmood Trunkwala.
The players flew in by private jet from Dubai and amid heightened security, controlled by the army, Ronaldinho’s side prevailed over Ryan Giggs’. Both teams featured a smattering of impressive Pakistani players.
With a Fifa ranking of 200 out of 211, Pakistan places just above Montserrat, while the likes of Hong Kong and Tahiti sit much higher. For a country of 189 million inhabitants, that ranking just does not sit right and big business has now come on board to help redress the perceived underachievement.
There are, however, obstacles. The Pakistan Football Federation is currently in dispute with two separate parties claiming to represent football in Pakistan. Under Fifa’s gaze, the matter is due to be heard in court in September, but the current impasse is affecting the game in Pakistan right now, at a time when there is desperate need of investment at all levels.
While across the border the Indian Super League flourishes, Pakistan’s Premier League has been on hold since 2015 due to yet another dispute. Sadly for Pakistani football, such wranglings have become an unfortunate theme, each one hurting the development of the game in the country. Giggs, however, sees cause for optimism.
Manchester United’s record appearance holder was impressed with his trip to Pakistan, but was also under no illusions on what now needs to take place for football to prosper the country.
“We have come to Pakistan to send a message to the world that Pakistan is a peaceful country. My experience has been very good, we’ve been looked after. I got told of the love of the people of Pakistan for football, not only cricket. The desire from the young people, especially, is here,” Giggs said.
“Obviously any league or any association in the world needs the right infrastructure and also needs the right coaching. To progress to the next level, you need the best coaches in the world to come here, and not bring their [own] philosophy, but a framework and infrastructure so the Pakistani culture within the people and the football can flourish and become a better association.
“I think Pakistan are 200th in the world? To bring that down you need these things: the infrastructure, the best coaches in the world to teach the players how to play.”
Giggs added: “From what I’ve seen there are talented players who even in a short time took on information which is encouraging. There’s a lot of good individual talent but we need that discipline and organisation, the infrastructure, to improve as individuals and as a team.”
“We’ve seen with our own eyes, the desire from the fans and the young players of Pakistan to become footballers and the interest in football so we’re happy to be here. We’re enjoying it and hopefully we can send that message around the world that Pakistan is a good place to come and also the love for football from the people of Pakistan.”