by Memphis Barker
At half-time in the semi-final of the South Asian Football Federation Cup on Wednesday night, the Pakistan team entered the dressing room with the score at 0-0.
For 45 minutes, the Falcons had kept out arch-rivals India. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” said Brazilian manager José Antonio Nogueira.
Although outside in Dhakka’s Bangabandhu national stadium the stands were almost empty, this scraped-together Pakistani team stood within touching distance of unlikely glory.
Football in Pakistan had lain dead for three years.
The chief of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), Faisal Saleh Hayat, mothballed the men’s league and national team after his disputed re-election as president in 2015, claiming that his rivals had frozen the body’s bank-accounts and taken over its luxurious headquarters.
In 2017, Fifa imposed a ban on Pakistan’s participation in international competition that saw its ranking tumble to 201 out of 211 registered nations.
In March, that ban was lifted. In the dressing room in Dhaka, the players drummed their studs nervously on the floor. Forty-five minutes later, some returned in tears.
India scored a breakaway goal soon after the restart. Elegant and nimble on the flanks, the Blue Tigers, ranked 96th in the world, began to cut through Pakistan’s backline.
Players slipped. The ball held up in the mud. Shouting orders to his inexperienced team-mates, former Fulham defender, British-born Zesh Rehman, 34, attempted to slow the barrage, but two more Indian goals extinguished Pakistan’s hopes.
Pakistan did at least claim a consolation goal two minutes from time, not long after Hassan Bashir, the Danish-born star striker, had provoked a brawl that saw each side reduced to 10 men.
Rehman hopes the valiant performance of a squad denied the chance to play for three years will nudge Pakistani football in the right direction. “The young lads have done themselves proud not to get embarrassed and can leave with their heads held high,” he told i.
Ugly sister to cricket
Little fanfare will greet them on their return to Islamabad. While when India meets Pakistan on the cricket field, entire cities huddle around television sets, these matches were not even broadcast.
“The demand [for football] is there,” says Ali Ahsan of FootballPakistan.com, who blames the PFF for failing to capitalise upon it.
In the working-class neighbourhoods of Karachi and the tribal regions of Balochistan and Fata (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the sport is far more popular than cricket. Busy, wings-serving sports bars in the big cities testify to the rising popularity of the European leagues.
India is the model both on-and-off the pitch, says Ahsan. The new Indian Super League drew 216 million viewers on average in 2016, boosted by the initial lure of a handful of paunchy European stars, such as Robert Pirès.
Despite football’s popularity, funding has been riven by corruption.
Pakistan’s league is laughably undersold. Instead of feeding off blood-curdling geographical rivalry, the 12-team Pakistan Premier League features squads representing banks, the water and power board, and electricity firms.
To progress, football needs to end the 15-year reign of Hayat, says journalist Umaid Wasim.
The sport had cankered long before he stopped it entirely. Little more than a couple of rusting goal-posts are left to show for eight FIFA-sponsored “Goal Projects”, worth $2.6m, that were meant to provide Pakistan with pitches and training facilities.
Mr Hayat is accused of stealing the money (something he denies).
In 2015, the nation’s coaches held a protest when they learnt that the PFF had been receiving funds to pay them from AFC, Asia’s subset of FIFA, but neglecting to pass them on.
One claimed he had a sum of around $16,000 deposited in his bank account, only to have it withdrawn later by the PFF, which had forced him to sign a blank cheque.
Hayat’s close connections in FIFA have protected him for years.
Nepotism plays its part
The national team itself naturally bears the scars.
At half-time in a crunch match in the 2009 SAFF cup, the PFF’s general secretary, Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi, burst into the changing room, interrupted the coach, and gave a speech that ran long on the construction of a 1960s dam.
This tournament, the star striker was dropped after speaking out against the federation, and Pakistan’s few football journalists have blamed nepotism for the repeated selection of a wilting central midfielder from the US amateur leagues.
If sport is war without the shooting, it is to Pakistan’s misfortune that here, it is also politics with a bit more running around.