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Analysis

Pakistan’s Football Set For FIFA Suspension. Once Again, Power Has Triumphed Over Law

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As things stand, Pakistan is looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. Who is on the other end? None other than the football’s global governing body, FIFA. In a sense, though, we are the ones holding its hand and pulling the trigger.

On Saturday, 28th March, a group led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah, who was appointed President of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in Supreme Court-led elections in 2018, physically broke into the PFF headquarters and demanded that his group be given ‘back’ control of the PFF and its workings. They cornered and harassed PFF NC employees and seized important documents, including PFF accounts.

Soon after, FIFA provided its response to Saturday’s events. It set a Wednesday 8:00PM PKT deadline for Ashfaq Hussain Shah’s group to hand back control of PFF headquarters to the FIFA-mandated NC. If the group failed to comply, Pakistan would be suspended by FIFA. All those involved would also likely face lifetime bans and persona non-grata status. The deadline got closer and eventually passed, but Ashfaq group did not relinquish their hold over PFF’s headquarters. Therefore, very soon, FIFA will impose an international suspension on Pakistan.

There are many shameful aspects of this entire episode. One of them is how some people linked to the government and the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have been involved in this systematic coup against Pakistani football and FIFA itself. It is widely known that a key member of the Ashfaq group is Malik Amir Dogar, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister. However, there are two other PTI personnel allegedly involved in this takeover.

Who is Behind the Takeover?

The picture below is of a meeting held by the Ashfaq group on Friday, 26th March, where they discussed their takeover plans. The picture clearly shows two PTI members who were physically present at this meeting, namely Shahid Shinwari and Sardar Naveed Haider, member of the Insaf Sports & Culture Wing. Apparently, these individuals were heavily involved in planning and organizing this entire episode.

It is outrageous that important people from none other than the ruling party itself did not relinquish their illegitimate power and allow FIFA’s rightful mandate to continue in the country. In fact, they actively led a state-backed power grab of football federation.

The government, rather than exercise their authority to intervene for the greater good of the country, have colluded with the Ashfaq group or have at least turned a blind eye to this illegal overhaul of the country’s football system. For those involved, there is little care for what a FIFA suspension means for Pakistan. Not only will it cause incredible damage to Pakistan’s football ecosystem, it will also be a source of humiliation for the country. Those behind the takeover have gone as far as to say that they do not even need FIFA – a ridiculous statement of course.

It is a shambolic situation, all orchestrated and planned with the help or influence of the powerful government officials. In the end, it is Pakistan, its players, coaches, and fans, who suffer. This is the tragic story of the world’s most popular sport in Pakistan. Time and again, political ploys and power plays have destroyed the livelihoods, careers, and dreams of thousands, if not millions, of Pakistanis.

The Aftermath

On Sunday, 28th March, one day after the takeover, the ongoing NWFC was cancelled. Such a tournament will not have any official standing since the group does not possess FIFA’s mandate. Multiple teams, such as Karachi United and Highlanders FC, and players withdrew in protest. The Ashfaq group had no choice but to cancel their version of the NWFC as well.

Women from all over the country had travelled to Karachi to play in the NWFC. They had left their homes and jobs, they had trained incredibly hard for the tournament, and they had battled societal and cultural pressures to play the sport they love. Yet all their effort and aspirations have been thrown out of the window for politics and the lust for power.

PFF NC Chairman, Haroon Malik, also expressed his sadness at how the current situation was harming football. “We are once again on the path where Pakistani football, players, coaches, and referees are being harmed because of the actions of a few individuals,” he said.

It seems like many of the players have finally had enough, though. Multiple footballers, male and female, have voiced their frustration and dissatisfaction with the ongoing situation.

“This circus has been going on since 2015 and it is directly damaging Pakistan’s footballers and its children,” said Pakistan men’s national team captain, Saddam Hussein. “You [political factions] can continue this political circus and these dirty tactics to get the power you want, but at least don’t stall the footballing activity [of our players] and our children,” he continued.

Pakistani Football’s Recent Development Stopped in its Nascent Stage

What makes this situation even more unfortunate is how well Pakistani football had started to develop under the PFF NC.

In Daniel Limones, Pakistani football had a UEFA “Pro” License coach as Technical Director. He is an extremely knowledgeable and competent individual who has worked in top-quality institutions such as Atletico Madrid and Real Valladolid. Mr. Limones recognised that, for Pakistani football to grow, it was crucial to empower local coaches and prioritise grassroots development.

Under his leadership, and through the help of some extremely talented and passionate individuals, the PFF NC not only restarted football activity in Pakistan but also raised the bar with each event. The National Challenge Cup (NCC) 2020 was the biggest in Pakistan’s history. The latest NWFC was also the biggest in history, despite its unfortunate conclusion.

Be it match streaming, content production, media affairs, organization, or player/coaches/referee welfare – all aspects were being improved markedly with time. Players and coaches were thrilled with the level of professionalism and respect they had experienced.

The latest breakthrough in this regard was the introduction of prize money for different players and teams participating in the NWFC. Team prizes as high as PKR 1,000,000 and individual prizes as high as PKR 85,000 were announced. Unfortunately, none of the players or teams involved will be able to receive those prizes now.

Aside from domestic football, PFF NC had also conducted an extremely successful training camp of the women’s national team. Every player involved considered it a resounding success, praising PFF’s administration for an increase in standards and professionalism, both on and off the pitch.

The NC had recently announced multiple training camps and international tournaments, such as the SAFF Cup, SAFF Championship, and the AFC Women’s Asian Cup Qualifiers. International football activity was being arranged for Pakistan’s youth teams as well. How much benefit and exposure would our players have experienced with these opportunities? We may never know now.

Death of Football in Pakistan Looming

It is indeed a dark time for all those who truly love Pakistani football. Players and fans are displaying defiance in the face of injustice and adversity. The hashtag #SavePakistanFootball is being used widely on social media.

However, there is very little that can be done when the ruling party itself provides political cover and protection to those who have dismantled FIFA’s mandate, destroyed Pakistani football’s nascent resurgence, and trampled on the careers and dreams of so many.

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Naya Daur