by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: There was an eerie silence at both the KMC and KPT Stadiums.
Even if there were no crowds allowed during the National Women’s Football Championship due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were still shouts of joy, cries of anguish and cheers from the sidelines.
But on Sunday, despite all four quarter-finals scheduled — two each at both venues, there was nothing. Just a few officials of the FIFA-appointed Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee rummaging through the venues, trying to gather all the equipment and storing it safely.
They needed to be fast. A group of football officials elected in a poll held by the Supreme Court in 2018 and led by president Ashfaq Hussain Shah had taken over the PFF Headquarters in Lahore on Saturday evening, forcing the cancellation of the women’s championship, and were on the lookout for them.
Ashfaq’s group on Sunday announced that it would continue the championship from the quarter-final stage onwards.
“We’ve formed a new organising committee for the tournament and a new schedule will be announced after a managers meeting on Monday,” Sharafat Bukhari, the principal staff officer to Ashfaq, told Dawn. “As far as the officials of the PFF NC are concerned, they have been asked to report at the headquarters so that we can decide the further course of action.”
The PFF NC had announced on Saturday night, hours after the PFF headquarters had been seized from them by the Ashfaq group, that the Women’s Championship had been cancelled.
The news of the cancellation prompted an outpouring of grief and anger from several participating players on social media, most condemning the actions of the Ashfaq-led group which plunged Pakistan football into fresh crisis.
It was a long-running crisis in Pakistan football that had prompted FIFA to install a Normalisation Committee in Pakistan in September 2019.
Upon the NC’s appointment, which saw long-time PFF president Faisal Saleh Hayat’s removal from the post he’d held since 2003, the Ashfaq group had handed over control of the PFF headquarters to the Humza Khan-chaired body.
Humza resigned from the post in December last year and was replaced by Haroon Malik at the NC’s helm but Ashfaq group, keen to have an election held as soon as possible, seized control of the PFF headquarters citing that the NC had failed in fulfilling its mandate.
The PFF NC said that the officials of the Ashfaq group risk life bans.
“The FIFA-appointed Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee strongly condemns the said actions,” it said in a statement on Sunday.
“In Pakistan, FIFA only recognises the PFF NC headed by Mr. Haroon Malik. All other persons’ illegal occupying the PFF House in Lahore are to immediately handover possession.
“The NC is also in touch with FIFA on the illegal actions of Saturday, and appropriate actions against individuals involved in this hostile takeover, including punitive action and damages may follow, including and not limited to life term bans and persona non grata.”
Upon taking over control of the PFF headquarters, Ashfaq had claimed that officials of his group did not fear FIFA and that the spectre of Pakistan being banned by the world’s football governing body did not faze them.
The PFF had been suspended for a six-month period from October 2017 after the Lahore High Court had appointed an administrator to run PFF affairs.
The ban, which came two years after a controversial election of the PFF was held by then-president Hayat, was eventually lifted when the court handed back control of the country’s football governing body to Hayat.
The PFF had split into two factions following the contentious elections of 2015 — one led by Hayat and the other by senior vice-president Zahir Ali Shah.
Even though Hayat was reinstated as president, the Supreme Court had ordered that fresh elections of the PFF were to be conducted after the election of the Punjab Football Association (PFA), which had been the cause of the split in the PFF.
With his candidate Sardar Naveed Haider Khan winning the PFA poll conducted by the Supreme Court, Hayat had no qualms over the result but there was fresh drama in the PFF elections.
In the lead-up to the election, Sardar deserted Hayat to join forces with Zahir and that saw Ashfaq elected as the PFF chief. Hayat, however, refused to accept the Supreme Court election, claiming it was interference in the affairs of the PFF.
It prompted FIFA to appoint the NC, after which Zahir and Ashfaq, backed by Sardar and Amir Dogar, also went their separate ways meaning there are now three groups vying for control of the PFF.
At a news conference in Peshawar on Sunday, Zahir condemned the actions of the Ashfaq group. “This was totally uncalled for and impedes the measures FIFA is taking to resolve the issues in Pakistan football,” Zahir told Dawn after the press conference.
With Haroon declaring last week that the PFF NC will announce the PFF election roadmap in April, Zahir appealed for patience.
“The NC under the previous chairman failed to hold the election but Haroon should be given time to get the election process underway,” he said.
When the PFF NC was first installed its mandate was until June last year but due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was given an extension till December to hold the elections of the PFF.
Infighting among the NC members, especially over key decisions, prompted Humza to resign and FIFA revamped the NC when Haroon was appointed in January.
As Haroon was pressed by football officials to hold the elections as soon as possible, he was quick to remind that the six years of crisis in Pakistan football meant there was a lot of work to do in order to organise a fair election.
Officials continued to hound the PFF NC for organising the Women’s Championship despite the FIFA-appointed body also having the mandate to run football activities.
‘FOOTBALL MUST GO ON’
The PFF NC claimed that the championship was being cancelled since the takeover of the PFF headquarters meant it had lost control of its accounts so it wasn’t possible to make payments to the participating teams.
And while almost all PFF NC officials have distanced themselves from the championship which is being continued by Ashfaq, Raheela Zarmeen, the PFF NC’s director of women’s football development, stayed on as the tournament director.
“I wanted the tournament to be completed so that the players who are so eager to play get the chance to show their mettle,” Raheela told Dawn on Sunday. “Regardless of whatever happened, football shouldn’t suffer. The tournament is in its last stage so it should go on even if it loses its official status. The teams have put in a lot of effort so far so that shouldn’t go to waste.”
For the tournament, teams like Masha United have pumped in a lot of money too.
With his side bringing in four top players from Nepal to feature in their tournament debut, head coach Nasir Ismail echoed Raheela’s views.
“We’ve invested a lot for this tournament,” Nasir told Dawn. “Even though ideally we want our tournaments to be recognised by FIFA, we have no other option at this point in time than to keep on playing.”
Even though there was no competitive football action on Sunday, some of the players taking part in the tournament did get a run in.
Holders Pakistan Army were scheduled to take on last year’s beaten finalists Karachi United in a tantalising Women’s Championship quarter-final on Sunday but after the tournament was called off, the two teams decided to play a friendly match at United’s ground instead.
“It was in the end a match between us and a team of combined players from Army and Wapda,” United head coach Taha Alizai told Dawn.
Before the match, both sets of players posed with a banner saying ‘Save Football, Let us play’. They will play but now in a tournament that will have no official standing.