By Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: A night of discussion changed everything.
When Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) president Faisal Saleh Hayat left for the Bahrain capital of Manama on Monday night, he was confident he would become AFC’s South zone vice-president during the Ordinary Congress of Asia’s football governing body on Thursday.
He knew he had sufficient backing but all that changed after a protracted discussion with his election rival All India Football Federation (AIFF) chief Praful Patel on Wednesday.
And on Thursday morning, Hayat withdrew from the polls.
“Pakistan agreed to withdraw,” Patel told India’s NDTV after he was elected one of five AFC vice-presidents. “It was a good understanding and the decision was taken for the sake of the entire region. India will now have a bigger responsibility towards South Asia.”
With the vice-presidents of Asia’s other four presidents being elected unopposed, it was only the South zone which saw elections being held. The South Zone was created during January’s AFC Extraordinary Congress in Australia after splitting the Central-South Zone into two.
Rumours began circling in the early hours of Thursday that Hayat had reached an understanding with Patel and settled for re-election to the AFC Executive Committee with Mohamed Shaweed from the Maldives being the other representative from the South Zone.
Credible sources had told Dawn from Manama that Hayat wanted to “preserve the unity of the South Asian region”.
“Hayat decided not to contest against Patel as he wants to maintain the unity within the South Asian region,” the sources said. “Although he has not officially declared that he’s not contesting, it’s understood that he shouldn’t contest for the larger interests of the region.
“They believe there should be no rivalry in the region and that close ties should be fostered between South Asian nations for the growth of football.”
The sources added that during the discussions between Hayat and Patel, SAFF president and Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) chief Kazi Salahuddin and Football Association of Maldives (FAM) president Ilham Ahmed were also present.
“They had a long meeting,” the sources added. “They decided there should be no rivalry in the SAFF region.”
Hayat withdrew from the VP race when the AFC Congress began and after Patel secured the post with the PFF chief being voted on the ExCo, PFF marketing consultant and Punjab Football Association (PFA) chief Sardar Naveed Haider Khan spilled the beans on Wednesday night’s agreement.
“Hayat’s decision to drop out of the race was to preserve the unity of the SAFF region,” Sardar Naveed told Dawn from Manama, adding that the decision had seen Pakistan being rewarded with several tours within the South Asian region.
“There has been an invitation by the Football Association of Maldives (FAM) to play a four-nation tournament in June this year,” he said.
“Similarly, Salahuddin has agreed to a three-match series against Bangladesh in Dhaka in July while we’ve also agreed to a two-match bilateral series against India although the dates have not been decided as yet.”
Pakistan are facing four years without competitive football matches after exiting the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the first round.
Their loss over two legs to Yemen in the first-round qualifier last month means they missed out on the long road to qualification for the Russia World Cup and the Asian showpiece in the UAE a year later.
Bangladesh, Maldives and India are all in the second round of World Cup qualifying which kicks off on June 11 this year and runs until March 29, 2016. After that, qualification for the Asian Cup will begin.
Sardar Naveed said that dates for the games against India remain undecided and they are likely to be held early next year. “I think this year’s calendar is too tight but hopefully early next year, India will tour Pakistan for the series.”
It, however, remains difficult to see how Pakistan will be able to play the matches since each FIFA international window over the next two years will see qualifiers for the World Cup and the Asian Cup.
But there is also an offer from Patel to induct Pakistan players into the glitzy and lucrative Indian Super League (ISL).
“Three Pakistan players will be inducted into the ISL next season,” said Sardar Naveed. “I reminded Patel that there was also a deal for Pakistan players to be inducted into the inaugural edition of the league last season which never happened. But he’s assured me that there will be opportunities for Pakistan players next season.”
That too remains unlikely with this season’s ISL not to have an international player draft this year and franchises having already finalised their squads.
However Indian journalist Bhargab Sarmah believes Patel and IMG-Reliance — ISL’s commercial rights holders — are in talks with franchises to induct Pakistan players.
“Patel is in favour of Pakistan’s involvement in ISL, which is also most likely the case with IMG-Reliance,” he said in a Twitter interaction with Dawn on Thursday. “They are working behind the scenes to influence franchises to sign players from Pakistan.”