by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI : I have a confession to make; a few days ago I understood how ignorant I have been about Pakistani football, even though I’m a journalist and it has been a huge part of my life since 2010.
Pakistan will be taking on India on Wednesday in Dhaka at the Saff Cup semi-final. If we win, it will be our first final in the tournament’s 25-year history. However, many Pakistanis don’t even know about the match.
What’s sad is that PTV Sports, our national broadcaster, will not be telecasting the championship matches. Instead they will repeat telecast old Fifa World Cup matches; robbing players of the recognition they deserve. But more to blame is the Pakistan Football Federation, run by a politician Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, who secured his position as president at the expense of the players, fans and the game.
Hayat has been running the PFF like a fiefdom since 2003. His ineptitude has blighted Pakistan football. Instead of attracting sponsors the current management scares them away, only to complain later that the government does not help with the sport facilities. PFF continues to usurp funds they get from international bodies.
Pakistan does not even have one stadium where the national team can train exclusively, even at the Lahore Goal Project, which also happens to be the head-quarters of the federation. They instead use the Punjab Stadium, because constructing a building was more important for Hayat than investing in a pitch. We are 201st in the Fifa rankings and while the international media is calling Pakistan’s performance at Saff in Dhaka ‘the return of Pakistan football’, it is not.
Nothing has changed over the last 13 years, things have only gotten worse.
Pakistan is playing their first tournament in three years; their last outing was Fifa qualifiers against Yemen in 2015. In these three years, Hayat kept football hostage — using third party interference as an excuse (it all began with manipulation of the PFF elections in 2015 for his fourth term as the president which broke the PFF into two factions).
Pakistan was banned for a few months from October 2017, and missed out on 2015 Saff Championship among other international tournaments at all levels under Hayat’s tenure, yet his team now claim they are trying to ‘save’ Pakistan football. What they really have done is deprive players of opportunities and let politics get in the way of the game.
The players’ actions echo these sentiments. Pakistan team’s former captain Kaleemullah is being ignored by the Brazilian Coach Jose Antonio Nogueira on Hayat’s request for speaking up against the federation, whereas there is lack of decent training and tours before the championship.
The best Pakistan have achieved at Saff, the championship in the weakest footballing region, is a third place in 1997. That was the year we were 153rd in FIFA rankings, our second best in history, but even that year at Saff we crashed out in group stages.
So no, this is not the return of football in Pakistan, but the performances by the team including Hassan Bashir, who have scored two goals so far, Mohammad Ali, who scored the crucial goal in the first match of the tournament in Dhaka in extra to have 21 win against Nepal, Muhammad Riaz, goalkeeper Yousuf Butt, Captain Saddam Hussain and the rest of the squad can be taken as a rebellion this time.
They may have lost to Bangladesh 1-0 in their second match, but they made up for it in the next.
The national team is playing after a three years gap; Pakistan did not have any domestic leagues during that period. The team is cruising through, solely on their spirit.
They will be in even better spirits against the traditional rivals India, who are fielding their U23 side in the event. Last time Pakistan and India played at Saff was in 2013 where we lost 1-0 due to an own goal. But there is more to this match than meets the eye.
Whether the team wins or not, for now they have exhibited enough passion and drive for fans like me to support Pakistani football even more. And even though we won’t get to see the match on television, unlike fans in India, we can stream matches on our computers until PFF and the government sort out their priorities in sports.