Problems affecting the growth of football in Pakistan
In a country that passionately follows football, wherein the urban population refers to popular football clubs as ‘us’, where the game is an escape from one of the hot spots for crime, where a small city gets an attendance of up to 12,000 people, it’s a shame that they have struggled to not only have an international player but also to have a proper set domestic structure with any proper infrastructure.
Like most of the things in Pakistan, a lot can be blamed on authorities but there is obviously something else at play. A country that has produced cricket stars; hockey greats and squash legends have failed to produce a player of international standard. The closest Pakistan came to a top player was Zesh Rehman, who was raised in England.
What/Who is responsible for the void the beautiful game is suffering in Pakistan? Are we missing passion for the game, is there a lack of financial support, do we have weak sporting infrastructure or is it due to an incompetent government?
Lack of grassroots infrastructure and insufficient funding major issues
In the hope of finding answers and pointing fingers at the guilty party, I went and talked to a few people involved with the game. I started where anyone in Pakistan would have started, a Manchester United fan club.
I was able to connect with one of the admins of Manchester United (Pakistani Supporters), a fan club based in Lahore, Soha Naveed. They have about 19,000 likes on Facebook and organize regular screening of matches where they cheer on the ‘Red Devils’ and sing the club anthems. Recently they were recognized as an official fan club and received a letter from the Boss (Louis van Gaal) stating their status, which can be seen here.
I repeated the same exercise with Sharukh Sohail, Chief Editor of www.footballpakistan.com (FPDC). The website has been active since 2003 and currently serves as one of the leading providers of insight on Pakistani football. Their content is of top quality and were among the first voices trying to give the sport a helping hand within the country. Today, they dominate social media as a genuine authority about football in Pakistan.
And lastly, I decided to go further down into the circle of Pakistani football and interview Sana Mahmud, ex-captain of the Pakistani Female Football team. I wanted to understand if the women’s sides of things were facing similar (or worse) problems or perhaps the future for them was rosier. Currently doing her Masters in the US, she has played the game at the top most level in Pakistan as well has represented the country in tournaments abroad.
To keep this piece as focused as it could be, I’ve chosen the best responses from each of the participants and combined them into a narrative. Statistically within the country, as typical as it is among Asian nations, Premier League is the most watched of all leagues, so my first question was to look for the reasons behind that.
Sohail gave the language and revival of media in the 90s as the main reasons.
“There are several reasons for this. Language is a major one. The English Language is widely understood in the country in comparison to Italian/German/French etc. Secondly, the years between 1995 and 2010 were the golden years for the PL in terms of branding and marketability. During this time, the media and TV channels in Pakistan had their resurgence and managed to get a huge chunk of the football-watching population hooked on the league.”
Being a professional herself, a majority of my questions to Sana revolved around her experience as a player and the problems she faced.
“It is difficult enough for a woman to play any type of sport, let alone football – that too in Pakistan, which is a relatively conservative country.
Once you’re in the National Team the media tends to mock you more than support you. They don’t realize that the Pakistan National Women’s Soccer team just formed in 2010. Our girls don’t have the resources to practice all year round and hence are unable to win their first international competition, instead of making a mockery of them, they need to be supportive.”
Sana was also particularly critical of the lack of facilities and monetary benefits.
“There is a reason why our girls do not practice all year round – firstly, we have no facilities that are easily accessible to all. Secondly, there is no monetary benefit. We only get paid when there is an international event, and that too for the period we train prior to the even, i.e. hardly a month.”
“Many of our players choose to keep their day jobs, and continue education, as opposed to other countries (like India and Nepal), who dedicate themselves to football 11 months a year, and receive compensation for it.”
While Shahrukh has actively tried to raise awareness against the country’s football board and has issued numerous calls for better services, he remains hopeful of a better future for the sport in Pakistan.
“Football does stand a very strong chance, but only if we have the right people in the right place. The government can try to increase funding for football, help in bringing in overseas partnerships and help introduce the game at grassroots level.”
Kaleemullah Khan could set example for future generations
I brought up the topic of Kaleemullah Khan (The Pakistani striker who was declared the best player of the 2014 season in Kyrgyzstan) with Shahrukh, who said that despite the striker’s great accomplishments, it’s not enough. For him to garner more attention in the public’s eye, he needs to perform at a bigger level and be backed by national media as well.
“Well, we need a standout player in a bigger club to reach the masses. But the media must play its due part in that. Telecasting Pakistan’s international matches will be a great way to start things off.”
Having personally played at an All-Pakistan University level, I can’t help but be impressed by Kaleemullah. Despite the numerous difficulties as mentioned previously, the young striker from Chaman, a city in Balochistan, has overcome all obstacles with pure talent and not the usual prevalent nepotism, which currently exists within Pakistani football.
From his humble beginnings as a footballer in the street, the 23-year-old is the first ever Pakistan-bred player to join the United Soccer League in the USA. Though his career is just taking off, it should serve as a reminder that despite our problems, a country that proudly supplied footballs at the 2014 World Cup, and at several occasions previous to that, has unearthed footballing talent.
All it needs is the right individuals in the management who have been part of the game as a player at a decent level. Once the issue is sorted at the top level, things will slowly trickle down into better infrastructure, local/regional competitions and more telecast of football.
Till then I will keep watching Kaleemullah, hoping he gets a break in one of the European leagues, with the intention that he might start something that would motivate future generations for years.