by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: They say every story is a love story, so here is one.
Pakistan Premier Football League, the last match of the controversial 2018-19 season. A finale of the season that I would solely remember because of a Careem driver Zahir Shah, who shares the name with the Pakistan Football Federations’ (PFF) newly-found body’s vice-president and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Football Association president, and the football-loving community of Karachi, that would stay to watch whole matches, of even the departmental teams that are not based in the province.
I should be talking about the statistics of the Pakistan Premier Football League, about the winners and losers, but this is about yearning and betrayal of sorts. It is about you too, if you are a Pakistani football fan, a former player, or an aspiring one, and how federations can fail a whole community by simply not doing what they should.
It all started with a grumpy conversation about taking the best route to one of the oldest stadiums in Karachi, the KPT Football Stadium.
On January 13, a 15,000-strong crowd witnessed the last, deciding match between Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), more like an ode of sorts to the game itself from the Karachiites.
As unsuspecting as Zahir had been after a little debate on which route to take, I finally asked him if he liked football at all and there opened the Pandora box of stories from the 80s and how in his locality, football was a religion.
He played for Baloch Muhammadan FC, a club he says has only younger boys now and had gone defunct over the years because of the lack of opportunities for the players.
“I used to play football myself,” said Zahir. “I wanted to be a footballer too, very seriously, the sport was a way to thrive, I trained every day with my club, we used to have local tournaments, there were massive grounds to play on, but then I met an accident that broke both of my legs. My patella was broken, so I quit. It was hard. It was heart-breaking.”
While I kept updating him on the teams that are playing, he took a wild guess that maybe KRL could win, but mostly, albeit reluctantly, he added, that it was the burgeoning interest in the communities where football thrived the most, and even departmental system of the country’s league gave opportunities to one of his teammates and friend Jameel Gul.
“I can tell you that football is still everywhere in Karachi, and growing, it is just older people like me who may not dedicate the time anymore because we have to earn, but Gul made such an example from my locality, he played for Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), and I think even went to the national team once,” said Zahir.
But he rues the fact that the players are usually forgotten, as Gul had been, who is now old and away from football, in obscurity. We could not find his national team record primarily because the PFF does not have any database of the departmental or club players.
However, two more people confirmed that Gul did play for PIA, the best departmental side during the peak days of the club that went on to win nine titles of the now defunct National Football Championship and represented the country at the Asian Clubs Championships (now Asian Football Confederation Champions League) in 1986 and 1991.
Throughout the ride, he would tell me that he has taken the shorter route and that we will not get late, but it was the silence in between that was meaningful, as it would become the precursor for more information.
Zahir has seen the beautiful game of football thrive in his youth during the 80s and said he played till 1988-89.
However, the lack of grounds and no work by the government or the PFF has pushed even the most die-hard fans and aspiring players away from the game.
“I have been away from it all,” Zahir said abruptly. “I don’t know much now. But they made a big school, Pakistan Air Force City School Chapter on a land where we used to play football, where my club players would go. They made a housing society, a posh one, on the remaining land. How will we play? There is no support for the players. But I’ve been away from all of it.”
By now we had almost reached the stadium and all I could do was offer him to come inside with me, the match was open for all.
And he came, with a little hesitation. “I’ll park the car, I’ll stay for just a little bit, I need to go back to taking rides,” exclaimed Zahir.
I only left him on the other side of the stands, hoping he gets to enjoy something that he knew in the past.
The match was a sizzling win for KRL, who were playing as underdogs with at least four goals to score and a clean sheet to get their fifth PPFL title. SSGC failed to impress despite needing to win just 1-0.
The minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Committee, Dr Fehmida Mirza, addressed how the government wants to take sports seriously. PFF’s new president, elected through the Supreme Court-ordered elections, Ashfaq Hussain Shah, made his speech vowing to revive football and make the federation corruption-free.
I caught up with the 2014 Street Children World Cup bronze-medallist players who were exploited by Azad Foundation, them telling me about how they were supporting SSGC as one of their players Razik Mushtaq plays for the department, I turned around only to find Zahir again.
He was happy, his face a bit more wrinkled then I saw him a while ago, due to smile, and a wide one.
“Do you want a drop back?” he asked. “I stayed till the end.”
My obvious query was that he should not get into trouble, which he said is not a problem, and about more rides for the day that he said would come, if fate allowed, but he wanted to stay.
As I still took my time, roaming around the stadium, taking comments, he kept waiting — listening to the officials, absorbing the atmosphere.
He seemed to be home, as the spectators at the KPT stadium were either young children, teenagers, boys in their 20s and even 30s to older men, all gathered on a Sunday, taking a break from life and coming to watch the match, all mostly from the working class.
On our way back, I couldn’t help but ask what stopped him and he replied,” I’m going to turn 50. I haven’t felt this excited in the past three decades. I had just left football. I still watch the World Cup, but this I left because I thought there is nothing left in it.”
As I got off, he refused to take the fare saying, “Madam, aap samajti nahi hain, main kisi wajah se nai le raha paise. App samjhain. Bohat Shukriya. Yaad taza hogai. (Madam, you don’t understand, there is a reason why I am not charging you for the ride, it was like a trip down the memory lane).
However, in the bigger picture, I wondered if companies like Careem and other businesses can come to rescue football now, especially in Karachi. The PFF’s new executive body has already said that there are no funds coming from Fifa or AFC any time soon, as both international bodies are refusing to recognise the new PFF president, deeming the fresh elections as ‘third party intervention’.
Fifa is playing the worst role it can. Hayat has returned the given funds, according to Shah and there is no money or assistance for the new PFF that is seemingly promising unlike Hayat’s administration.
Hayat had very deprecatingly scared the sponsors away throughout his 15 years of PFF presidency. The world’s most money-making sport had remained his personal business and the price of which is paid by the fans, the players and even coaches, everybody who is a football lover for that matter.
Maybe this can be a start to something new and I hope that this piece can at least make the private businesses see that football is visceral, it is very much a part of social development as well and this needs to be sponsored, especially now, when there are new faces at the PFF too.
PFF needs sponsors to push it forward, more so to a point where it does not need to rely on the funds from Fifa or AFC at least for organising the events or sending teams for international fixtures.
Hopefully Fifa could send a normalisation committee to end the misery on official level and let the sport thrive, instead of letting Hayat run for the Fifa Council in the upcoming elections.
Even if Fifa bans Pakistan for a while, the fact remains that the sport does not stop. The PPFL winners are not going to play at the AFC Cup because of PFF’s incompetence under Hayat that failed to license the clubs, but domestically the game can thrive.
It has, at least in the last three years, even when Hayat kept the participation of the football teams in the international events hostage by not co-operating with the Lahore High Court appointed care-taker, the local football took place.
While even after the resumption of Hayat’s PFF in March 2018, they ran the national football activities on whim and did not plan the national women’s championship and other events professionally.
Even the PPFL was marred with an illegitimate qualifying round that promoted four Pakistan Football Federation League (Division B) teams.
But that is a story for another day.