Despite being stripped of its status as co-hosts of the 2011 World Cup, Pakistan is once again in the grips of cricket fever. From Lahore to Karachi, winding alleyways, bazaars and teahouses are abuzz with excitement at the thought of the team bringing back the trophy for the first time since 1992. The prospect of victory is made all the more sweeter by the fact that the final will be played in India. For many Pakistanis winning the World Cup in the home of the old enemy will signal the greatest sporting achievement in the country’s history and more than assuage their sense of remorse at losing out on staging the championships.
Alongside field hockey, cricket has long taken pride of place as the most popular and dominant sport in the country. But all that might be about to change. A silent revolution is taking place in the towns and villages of Pakistan which threatens to change the sporting landscape of the country forever. Wickets are being replaced by goalposts and umpires by referees as more and more youngsters take up the world’s most popular game, football.
The history of the beautiful game in Pakistan is as old as the country itself. The Pakistan Football Federation was established soon after the partition, on 5 December, 1947 with the founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah its first patron in chief. In 1948 the federation became a member of FIFA and was one of the founding members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Although boasting one of the oldest and most prestigious sporting organizations in the country, the game has struggled for popularity and success. Since 2003, however there has been a significant upturn in fortunes. After years of neglect the government of Pakistan began taking a more active interest in the sport and with the support of FIFA a new administration and national league were established under the ‘Goal Initiative’, headed by the charismatic politician Faisal Saleh Hayat. A year later, the original national football championship which was contested as a knock-out competition was phased out and replaced by the Pakistani Premier League. WAPDA became the first team to win the PPL title which is now into its eighth season. Funding for the championship is still meager, but most clubs are affiliated with major companies and organizations like the Pakistani Army and the National Bank of Pakistan which ensures a sufficient degree of financial stability. Women’s football has also benefitted from the domestic restructuring and the Ladies game has its own league. Pakistan’s growing stature was confirmed earlier this year when Hayat became the first Pakistani in history to be voted in to the AFC executive committee.
All this has coincided with the establishment of footballpakistan.com. The site was created by a small group of expatriate Pakistani’s with a manifesto to promote and advance the status of the game in their native land. Their vision is bearing fruit. The members of the site have developed an extensive database of players, both domestic and foreign, that are eligible to wear the green and white of the national team. As a direct result of their efforts a number of overseas players have chosen to play for their country of origin including England based Usman Gondal and the former Fulham defender Zesh Rehman. The site also boasts articles, match previews and reports and a discussion forum providing Pakistani football fans a medium to discuss and debate the latest results, issues and controversies. There is even a referee’s corner which reports on news regarding Pakistani match officials.
At a grass-roots level the game is flourishing. Football is by some distance the fastest growing sport in the country. This is reflected by the proliferation and growth of football academies throughout the major cities. Institutions like the Model Town Football Academy in Lahore employ locally qualified and foreign visitor coaches who are slowly professionalizing the way youth players are trained. A number of academies have also sprouted up that are sponsored by foreign initiatives. At a less organized level participation in the game is at an all time high with kids and adults alike enjoying informal kick-abouts in their local streets, parks and even agricultural fields.
Football’s exposure in the country has been heightened by two more significant developments; the free to air availability of most English Premier League and Champions League games on cable television and the numerous scandals and decline in form that have blighted the Pakistani cricket and hockey teams in recent years have led to football becoming the most televised sport in the country. Most Pakistani’s are now as well acquainted with the names of Rooney and Torres as with their own national Sports stars and replica football shirts are now a common sight throughout urban centers. Football’s commercial prowess has also helped it penetrate the national psyche. The likes of Christiano Ronaldo regularly appear in television commercials promoting anything from shampoos to motorcycles.
However, Pakistan’s relationship with the world’s most popular game has a long and fractured history and it would be wise to exercise caution. Even with improvements to the domestic structure of the game the national team languish at 173 in the FIFA world rankings, their worst position since 2004 lagging behind the likes of New Caledonia, the Maldives and Vanuatu and the country continues to endure the ignominy of being the most populous nation in the world never to have qualified for a World Cup, (in fact, Pakistan has never even sealed a place at the Asian Championships). There is also a growing consensus that the influx of expat players in the national team has not helped matters. The strategy is seen by many as a stop-gap measure which hinders the development of homegrown talent. Many are critical of the short amount of time foreign based players are able to give to the national set-up seeing it as detrimental to the cohesion and identity of the team. Further still, although regular coverage of the world’s best leagues has attracted a new generation of football enthusiasts there is a growing consensus that this is to the detriment of the domestic game as it deflects interest away from Pakistani Premier League. Fans are reluctant to attend live games at poorly equipped stadia when they can watch a far higher quality of football from the comfort of their own living rooms. It also means that little or no media coverage is given to the domestic league or national team.
Even with the great strides Pakistani football has made in the past few works there is still a great deal more to be done. A concerted effort needs to be made to take advantage of the surging popularity of the game. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s perilous political situation and a economic woes further complicate matters. But, thanks to the efforts of the governing bodies and footballpakistan.com the game has come a long way in a short period of time. For football mad Pakistanis long may it continue.