by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: “Today is nothing less than Eid for Pakistani footballers,” country’s top midfielder Saadullah Khan exclaims as the news of the Fifa-appointed Normalisation Committee (NC) getting the control of the Pakistan Football Federation headquarters in Lahore made rounds throughout the day. This marks the start to an end of the long-standing conflict that has cost the football coaches and players to not only lose their time but also livelihoods and jobs for the last seven years.
While football is a sport that is most diverse and popular in Pakistan, the power struggle to stay in the PFF offices have led the talented youth down for seven years now. The controversial elections in 2015 led to creation of factions among the officials, who later continued to slam each other through politics, making it impossible for the players to compete domestically or internationally as the country since got banned twice.
The first ban was in October 2017 that lasted for six months, with Fifa backing Syed Makhdoom Faisal Saleh Hayat and his opponents being looked at as interfering third party, while the Pakistani courts were also involved in the dragged out matter.
The situation only got worse by the end of 2018 as the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered PFF elections, where Hayat’s rivals came into power. Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah was elected as the PFF chief, albeit to Fifa’s wrath for this being third-party interference again.
With further series of unfortunate events, Fifa finally got to a point of installing a Normalisation Committee in Pakistan by 2019, however, the members of that committee too represented the warring factions from before. NC head Humza Khan succumbed to short-sightedness along with claustrophobic political play and left the role by December.
An interim head was chosen from the existing NC, but Fifa over-hauled it once more and Canadian entrepreneur of Pakistani origin Haroon Malik took over as the head of the new NC.
The NC since 2019 saw three changes in the leadership and at least four extensions in the mandate of the committee since the appointment. The matter remained puzzling for the footballers and fans alike.
Pakistan’s women’s team had last played their international tournament in 2014. Meanwhile the men’s side sporadically competed in an international tour of friendly matches in 2020. Before that they competed in the Fifa World Cup qualifiers losing to Cambodia in 2019, matches being played in Qatar.
Prior to 2019, Pakistan played South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup in Bangladesh where they reached the semi-finals for the first time since 2005.
For Saadullah and other talented footballers, like Muhammad Adil, the time had slowed down and the misery had gotten worse.
Many footballers lost their jobs as the departmental sides shut them down due to PFF’s inconsistency, and unprofessional and unstable domestic eco-system.
“We played our last international matches in 2020. Even that was two years ago. It had been that long. So much time has gone by, so many players ruined, we can’t afford to waste more time,” Saadullah told The Express Tribune.
The last suspension with Malik in charge came in April 2020, when Shah’s group “illegitimately took over” the PFF headquarters on March 27, during the National Women’s Championship hoping for Fifa bend to their whims.
Fifa in return gave deadlines to Shah to vacate the premises and control of the PFF including finances, but they refused. Meanwhile Malik kept appealing to the government, which ultimately got Federal Ministers of Inter-Provincial Coordination involved as an arbitrator between Shah’s group and the NC.
She held numerous meetings throughout 2021 with Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation officials virtually that led to an agreement between the NC and the government.
The last hurdle was to get the headquarter premises back, which became an issue due to invalid lease. It was due to mismanagement from the previous PFF administrations, and the Punjab Board of Revenue had to get involved eventually to sort it out.
The PFF house was handed over by the board member Babar Hayat on Saturday to the NC.
However, Saadullah feels that it is essential for the NC to keep their eye on short-term goals, get the election process going successfully, have Pakistan return to the international events for men and women and age-group levels, along with regularizing the domestic events.
“It is paramount for the NC to make good critical decisions. They have to make sure that the management is conscientious, and not composed of unprofessional people like in the past. If we get the same kind of culture as before with the officials lacking in knowledge and exposure, we’ll be back to square one,” said Saadullah.
However, he said that the best outcome is that the PFF gets back on track, since the footballers, coaches and the community have suffered enough.