The joy of Zidane Iqbal signing his first professional contract with Manchester United on 7 April was cut short by a sad announcement that had been in the air for some time. As the 17-year-old English footballer of Pakistani descent was signing with the Red Devils, world governing body Fifa was announcing the indefinite suspension of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
This is the second time Fifa has banned the PFF in the past four years. The governing body put the first ban in place, for six months from October 2017 to March 2018, because an administrator appointed by the Lahore high court dismissed the executive headed by the then federation president, Faisal Saleh Hayat.
The more recent ban came after a group of executives led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah occupied the PFF headquarters in Lahore. Ashfaq took power in December 2018 after the Supreme Court called an election that Fifa did not recognise. Ashfaq’s group occupied the headquarters on 27 March, abruptly forcing the Fifa normalisation committee instituted in September 2019 to vacate the offices.
The ultimatum Fifa issued – ordering Ashfaq to return administrative power to normalisation committee chair Haroon Malik – expired on 31 March. Ashfaq and his collaborators, including some members of the government, rejected Fifa’s request. They accused the governing body of not having been able to organise elections, despite having appointed three different normalisation committees in 18 months with the aim of reforming the executive.
Fifa appointed Malik in January and his term is expected to end on 30 June. The body, which ratified the ban on 21 May at the Fifa congress, says it will only lift its current suspension once it has received confirmation that the PFF administration is under the full control of the normalisation committee again.
Pakistani footballers are the hardest hit by this turmoil, especially those who play in Pakistan. They now won’t be able to participate in international tournaments with their national team or their clubs.
“Since the appointment of the body that Fifa doesn’t recognise, there has been almost no official football activity at a local level,” says former national team technical director Anwar Shahzad. “In the last six years, we would play football regularly only for nine months after Fifa lifted its first ban.”
In that period, the men’s senior national team took part in the South Asian Football Association (SAFF) Championship where they finished third, the Under-23 Olympic team won a match in the Asian Games for the first time in 44 years and the Under-16 team won the silver medal in the SAFF Youth Championship.
The development of the game has suffered because of these bans. Only the men’s senior national team has been able to take the field and compete since December 2018. But even that participation in the 2022 Fifa World Cup qualifiers had its difficulties, hindered by a tussle between Hayat and Ashfaq factions.
‘Wasting the best years’
The Fifa-recognised football association run by Hayat sent a mainly overseas-based squad to Bahrain for a training camp in 2019, ahead of the preliminary round against Cambodia. At the same time, the non-recognised body led by Ashfaq, which is however recognised locally, organised its own training camp in Pakistan. Ashfaq’s group threatened some of Pakistan’s stronger players to deter them from going to Bahrain, despite Fifa making it clear that this group could not send a team for the match. The Hayat faction responded by sending key players to Brazil to remove them from further threats.
“We really missed the players who eventually gave in to pressure,” says a footballer who plays for one of the country’s most successful sides who prefers not to be named. “They threatened me as well, but I decided to go to Bahrain. So, later, the Ashfaq group banned me and those who were with me from football activities.”
Pakistan lost 4-1 on aggregate. This meant they were eliminated in the first round of the joint qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. If the ban isn’t lifted in time, Pakistan won’t take part in the SAFF Championship in Bangladesh in September. The tournament was supposed to be held in Pakistan.
“The current situation isn’t good and we are wasting the best years of our careers, but we didn’t stop playing,” says a national team member who asked not to be named. “We are playing different unofficial tournaments. It’s not like the Pakistan Premier League, but we stay active and ready, hoping that things will be better soon.”
The player from one of the country’s top teams isn’t as optimistic. “What do I train myself for? I have been training all my life to play on national and international stages, not in local tournaments. We can play them only to keep ourselves fit, but sometimes I have no motivation to keep working hard. We were doing well before this mess broke out in 2015 … Nobody is suffering other than players in this scenario.”
The lure of cricket
Shahzad put it more bluntly. “It’s a big loss for players, coaches and referees, who are the main stakeholders,” he said. “How can they improve without competition? If we play now, no one would have enough experience to compete, because most of us haven’t played, trained or officiated on an official level in a long time.
If the issue is not resolved soon, this will have a huge negative impact on Pakistani football. Footballers born from 2000 onwards have already lost years of adequate technical progress. We risk losing more football generations and killing our football. Where will we be in 10 years from now?”
The popularity of cricket, which is coming from its own 10-year ban from hosting international matches following the terror attacks on Sri Lanka’s team bus, is another threat for football. “Younger generations aren’t so much involved [in football], because they always get information about the mess that has been going on for years,” says one of the players interviewed. “They will prefer cricket, because Pakistan is always doing well in it, and they can earn more money and make their future brighter.”
What makes the situation even more challenging for local footballers is that the Pakistani league, which should kick off the 2021 season next month, is made up of teams that are backed by state departments, which means players can’t openly talk about this. “We can just pray that Fifa will lift the ban,” says another footballer.
“We abroad are not so exposed to local politics,” admits Navid Rahman, a German-born Pakistani footballer who plays for Canadian club North Mississauga SC. “So I invite the football institutions to consider the future of the players, whose good is always placed in the last place along with that of the fans. We can do things differently and save football in Pakistan instead of putting money and power first.”
Abdullah Qazi, an AS Los Angeles player, only started playing football at 23 years old. He laments the stalemate in Pakistani football because he feels he has to make up for the lost years. “I would love to talk to the institutions, because they’re not doing us a favour. I would also support a collective action by us players. We should be more firm about this.”
Not good enough from Khan
The situation is dire in women’s football. The senior women’s national team hasn’t played an official game since the SAFF Cup that Pakistan hosted in 2014. They were excluded from the AFC Women’s Asia Cup qualifiers due to this ban. Team captain Hajra Khan feels she has the responsibility to represent all the players who don’t have a voice but who have been putting a lot of effort into football over the years. She has addressed the government on the matter several times.
“It’s actually very saddening and disappointing how they haven’t taken time out to give out a word about what’s going on. We have a lot of expectations from somebody who is a sports icon running the country,” she says in reference to Prime Minister Imran Khan, who captained the national cricket team to World Cup glory in 1992. “We have been blatantly told that our voices don’t matter.”
As Pakistan doesn’t have a players’ union, “we are thinking of creating one. It will take months, but we are trying to have a voice that can be represented internationally.”
Khan fears that women’s football will pay an even higher price than the men’s game. “This ban will lead to less people being interested in women’s football, which means less investment and a consequent slowdown in its development,” she warns.
“I feel very devastated. I wonder how long until I give up on Pakistani football. [What’s driving me to be vocal is] more about what the future holds for the next generations and how they will be impacted than how I will personally be impacted. So my decision-making relies on what is to come.”
The players who spoke about this insist they don’t want to be drawn into the political spat – they just want people who have the game and their best interests at heart in charge. The future of Pakistani football is at stake. Trapped in a feud between management factions, the PFF risks not being able to entice and produce players such as Iqbal, which would leave Pakistan celebrating big achievements in football by association only rather than what their national teams have done.