Departmental Level Football


With a population of 220 million, most of them cricket crazy, football was always going to play second fiddle as a sport in Pakistan. But no one could have imagined that one day, Pakistan would be the only nation among the 47 members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) without a single win in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.


The reasons range from chronic political disputes to a severe lack of funding. But take a deeper look and you realize the missing piece is a top-tier professional football league, which acts as a hub for the entire football ecosystem. Player development, infrastructure, funding, grassroots, and clubs are the pillars on which countries have built footballing dynasties, but Pakistan has missed out badly here.


The Pakistan Premier League (PPL) was revamped in 2003 upon Faisal Saleh Hayat’s election as president of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), but it hasn’t changed much in the last 17 years. The league takes its roots from the National Championship that started in 1947 and, apart from a short revamping stint that saw Lifebuoy become the title sponsor under Hafiz Salman Butt (1990-93), it remains practically unchanged for the last 73 years.


Departments rule the roost and teams include the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), the Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), the Karachi Port Trust (KPT), the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), the Pakistan Army and other government entities, which use investment in sports as evidence of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with little desire to develop talent or professionalize their set-ups. The few clubs that are present are primarily from Baluchistan, where the fierce Chaman derby between Afghan FC and Muslim FC commands crowds in the thousands. Most of the league, though, is played silently, without any fanfare.


In 2007, a breath of fresh air arrived in the shape of the Geo Super League, with teams based on cities and live broadcast of all the games. It gave live coverage to domestic footballers for the first time and merited a second attempt in partnership with K-Electric in 2010. But the league did not continue because the organizers and sponsors reportedly did not want to work with the PFF again.


Subsequently, the Pakistan Premier League (PPL) has never bagged a regular sponsor (a five-year-deal with KASB fell through after a single season in 2009), runs on an ad-hoc basis for four to five months, and has never been broadcast on television.


This brings us to the key question: what should Pakistan’s league look like? Should it be a franchise-based model like the Pakistan Super League (PSL) in cricket, or should it take a route similar to Bangladesh’s?


Since a PSL team is extremely expensive ($6.2 million per year for Multan Sultans, for example) and while football will be cheaper, it is crucial that the money be spent on football and infrastructure development rather than paying team costs. An alternative route is revamping the PPL with an immediate phasing out of departmental teams and their replacement with city-based teams that can be acquired through one-off payments or low franchise fees with long-term installment plans.

This approach allows for the marketing and hype associated with a franchise model but also prevents a completely new league from being at odds with the football pyramid. As a result, the entire system, including a second-tier league and below, can be remodeled to ensure promotion and relegation, a fundamental principle of global football that the franchise model ignores.


Meeting requirements for the AFC Cup will require organic growth from clubs and the league, but the long-term aim should be qualification for the AFC Champions League (Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League). This requires a host of features, including 14-15 teams in a league, 27 minimum games for each side and a maximum of two teams sharing a single stadium. The list is extensive, covering everything from ticket pricing to club administration. It’s a lofty dream, but one which can be achieved with the right vision and strategic planning.


A football league is a certainty in Pakistan in the next few years and the PFF recently made it clear that they hold the rights to such a venture, not any third party. However, for Pakistan to truly realize its potential, what’s needed is harmony between the private sector and the federation. Most importantly, it needs to have a league model, where the priority is football.


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