by Ali Ahsan
Football in Pakistan remains a largely peripheral sport for the country’s mainstream. Despite its tremendous global appeal and riches, football remains Pakistan’s proverbial “poor man’s sport.” It has never had the glitz, glamour, and hype here compared to cricket for decades. However, scratch the surface and be amazed at just how widely popular football is in Pakistan.
From the streets of Lyari and highlands of Balochistan, to the villages of Punjab and valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan, football is everywhere in Pakistan – yet no one ever seems to notice it. The Baloch, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Punjabis, Sindhis and many other ethnicities and communities partake in football nationwide despite woefully poor facilities and scant resources.
Local invitational tournaments involving clubs and department teams are a sight to behold; thousands of spectators clambering for space to view the action. Compare that to near-empty stands in domestic cricket events across Pakistan. How Pakistan’s national football teams of past and present quietly unifies the country’s ethno-linguistic diversity is maybe a discussion for another day.
Like all things Pakistan, football too is woefully underdeveloped and neglected. It needs a shot in the arm to realize its potential in becoming a lucrative industry and, in turn, make Pakistan compete better in international sport. If only there was a way to link the sport with a bigger socio-economic trend Pakistan is eagerly hedging its bets on: CPEC.
Much has been written about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) since its formal announcement in mid-2015 as a series of development megaprojects estimated to be now worth over $60 billion. Undoubtedly, CPEC is the crown jewel of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to boost Chinese connectivity with global markets.
CPEC advocates call it a real game-changer not only boosting Sino-Pak ties but also revitalising a Pakistani economy struggling for any sustainable growth due to internal and regional instability. They argue CPEC is just what Pakistan’s underdeveloped regions of Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Gilgit-Baltistan need for their development and national integration.
Critics have raised alarm bells labelling CPEC a ‘white elephant’ that could force debt-ridden Pakistan becoming a Beijing client-state. Some even allege CPEC is a tool for ‘Chinese hegemony’ that can worsen socio-political tensions in those very underdeveloped and restive parts of Pakistan.
Concerns regarding CPEC’s transparency and efficacy remain up in the air and that may not give much confidence for the residents of Pakistan’s more underdeveloped regions where CPEC is supposed to pass through. If the people of Balochistan, KPK, GB etc. feel and perceive the megaprojects as not providing them any direct tangible benefits despite the promises, any grassroots support for CPEC will falter and escalate any pre-existing resentments.
CPEC should be more than just the construction of power plants and road-rail links simply for greater access to the port city of Gwadar for benefiting a distant land or faceless corporations. Remember that football is arguably the main sport in these very regions and its residents are hungry for making it big in the game. CPEC can offer them a pathway.
China has been making commercial waves in world sport these past few decades with a special emphasis on becoming a major football power at home and abroad. Chinese corporations have bankrolled construction of football stadia in countries they have deep economic interests in, especially across Africa where Chinese-made venues now host mega-events like the African Cup of Nations.
Chinese companies and investors have spent money on football clubs and leagues across Europe and have become key commercial partners with football’s global governing body FIFA, emulating the moves made in world football by their counterparts from Russia, Qatar, UAE and beyond. So why not similar, but cheaper, investments for Pakistani football?
Football can help humanize CPEC for the people of Balochistan, KPK, GB etc. Gwadar, Turbat, Quetta, Chaman, rural Faisalabad, Karachi, Bannu, Peshawar, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu etc. all essentially straddle CPEC’s various routes and are coincidentally Pakistan’s football-playing hubs. While China has expressed willingness to construct football stadia in places like Quetta and Gwadar, there is great room for expansion with sensible investments across Pakistan.
Wide variety of football development policies are possible under CPEC. Modern playing facilities for direct use sustained by local communities, bilateral development programs between the Chinese Football Association (CFA) and the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), commercial investments in Pakistani football etc. can benefit our sporting economy and society at the grassroots. For Beijing and Islamabad, CPEC needs such forms of social capital for its long-term success and acceptance.
Ali Ahsan is an Editor at FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC), an independent online platform exclusively covering all matters related to Pakistani football. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org