Pakistan is the largest exporter of footballs but the game struggles for popularity within its borders

Hiba Khan - Writer 15:00 09/06/2020
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  • A boy kicks a tattered football across a stony plot of land, with tiny derelict houses lined on either side of the area. His peers dash into an all-out sprint, running alongside as the boy expertly dodges all attempted tackles.

    They run around with mismatched shoes, while quite a few of them play barefoot. Some of them have oversized jerseys on from prominent European clubs that dangle from their scrawny frames, sporting the names of eminent footballers on the back. 

    The children yell out and cheer for their friends and once someone manages to kick the ball through a makeshift goalpost, they all erupt in a cacophony of applause and booing, which is the only time you can tell the two teams apart. 

    One might think that this scene is from a nondescript village in Africa or South America, two continents that have established a reputation for churning out footballing stars of the modern generation. 

    However, this particular scene is from the oldest locality and one of the most volatile slum areas of Karachi, Pakistan.

    Avid Brazil supporters in the Pakistani neighbourhood of Lyari watch the the FIFA 2018 World Cup football match playing between Brazil and Mexico.

    Fans in the Pakistani neighbourhood of Lyari watch the 2018 World Cup match between Brazil and Mexico.

    Humble beginnings

    Political and social instability in the region have made Lyari synonymous with criminal activities and gang violence. 

    But behind Lyari’s façade as Karachi’s wild west, they have their sport-loving side, especially football, that has earned it the moniker of ‘Little Brazil’. Denizens of Lyari passionately support Brazilian football and are known for screening every World Cup match on the street so everyone can watch it together. 

    While the British were credited with bringing football and cricket to the Indian subcontinent during the colonial era, it was the Sheedi community, an ethnic group of East African origins, who have kept the sport alive in Pakistan.  

    However, football never reached the explosive popularity of cricket or even hockey, which contrary to popular belief is indeed the national sport.

    While Pakistan is the biggest supplier of footballs all over the world. The city of Sialkot in Pakistan is a major hub of the sport good manufacture.

    The country exported a total of 37.28 million footballs worth $153.018 million ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but despite being the biggest exporter of footballs, the sport is yet to dominate on a mainstream front within its borders. 

    Workers conduct quality control inspections at the Saga football factory in Sialkot, Pakistan.

    Workers conduct quality control inspections at the Saga football factory in Sialkot, Pakistan.

    Is there an appetite for football?

    The social media boom in the world played a massive role in bringing football to the forefront in Pakistan and as people had increasing exposure, the sport took root towards the end of the 2000s. 

    Sport360 caught up with Hasnain Haider, manager of FCPK (Football Club Pakistan), which is a social media agency set up to promote football in Pakistan. 

    Haider insists that while Pakistanis have a reputation all over the world for their undying passion for cricket, football still manages to eclipse in certain parts of the country, mainly areas like Lyari and Malir in Karachi, the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and small cities like Chaman in Baluchistan, which also happens to be the hometown of national football star, Kaleemullah Khan.

    “Until 2007/08, there was very little interest in football, but it picked up because of social media, and right now, we have nearly 13000 active clubs in Karachi who take part in tournaments throughout the year,” said Haider. 

    Pakistan also has a league of their own, the Pakistan Premier League, which runs from October until February, but the matches are neither televised nor at the level of the top leagues to attract any significant attention.

    “The football scene here gets no government support and all activities organised for the sport are done independently or by various departmental clubs, which constitute the Pakistan Premier League.”

    “The Pakistan Premier League currently has 16 departmental teams. The clubs are owned by the likes of K-electric, National Bank of Pakistan, Pakistan Army, Pakistan Airforce, Pakistan Navy, Wapda, Khan Research Laboratories, etc. Currently, this is the only tournament we have so far,” said Haider. 

    Haider insists that there is an appetite for the sport in the region and football fans do want to see homegrown talent, but they need a system in place that can get the sport more exposure and allow younger generations to be introduced to it. 

    Moreover, it is vital to get rid of this preconceived idea held by higher authorities that the sport has no scope. 

    Dire Straits

    It can be speculated that football’s confinement in and historic association with socially and economically volatile districts like Lyari prevented it from making a cut.

    However, the sport has an undeniable and massive presence in the north-western part of the country and in recent years football has experienced a surge in popularity in main cities as well.

    FCPK’s success on social media is a testament to that. With 637,000 followers on Facebook and 7,644 on Instagram, it is safe to say that there is definitely an interest in football but the current lack of broadcasting channels for the sport is what’s preventing it from spurring any interest on a mainstream front.

    And for that, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is considered to be at fault.

    PFF’s mismanagement and lack of initiative was one of the main reasons why football never made it to the forefront of the Pakistani sporting scene.

    PFF’s tenure led by Faisal Saleh Hayat was marred by controversy and corruption allegations, such as fund embezzlement and general incompetence.

    The federation had also become notorious for rampant nepotism or ‘parchi system’, which prevented talented and capable people from getting an opportunity.

    All these scandals eventually culminated in the national team getting a ban by FIFA in 2015, followed by a suspension of the PFF in 2017 because of ‘undue third-party interference’, which was just another one of their many transgressions.

    It was a massive blow to Pakistani football.

    The general mismanagement and lack of facilities pushed the scene further back and underlined the importance of a FIFA-appointed body that would oversee all the activities and ensure proper utilization of funds allotted to PFF.

    The suspension was lifted in 2018 and Football fans in Pakistan heaved a sigh of relief when the normalization committee, led by Hamza Khan, appointed by FIFA took over, however things are still far from functional.

    We reached out to the PFF, who are in the process of getting the sport back on track in the country but all things had come to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic and refused to comment further on what the future holds for football in Pakistan.

    Local football associations protest against the suspension of the Pakistan Football Federation.

    Local football associations protest against the suspension of the Pakistan Football Federation.

    Silver lining

    All eyes are currently on the normalization committee to undo years of damage that had been done to the sport, but in the midst of all the ongoing uncertainty, prominent Pakistani figures in football like Kaleemullah Khan offer a much-needed ray of hope, as he is vigorously campaigning for a PSL for football. 

    The 27-year-old football star was the first Pakistani player ever to play for the USL, the second division in the United States, and has made great efforts of his own to revive Pakistani football.

    “I want to use my experience and the network I have created all over the world to help the football scene in Pakistan. I wish to do more workshops with the children, so I can help them improve their game and give them something I didn’t have while playing this sport in Pakistan, which was a mentoring figure,” he told Sport360. 

    Pakistani football also made great strides in 2019, when Atletico Madrid opened up the first football academy in Lahore.

    The presence of the footballing giant in the country is a positive step forward for scouting talent and promoting the sport. 

    Even though things have come to a standstill due to the current circumstances, Pakistani football has never shown more promise.