FIFA and Pakistani football both caught offside

The fate of Pakistani football hangs in the balance as a scandal-ridden FIFA meets on 21 September to decide what happens next in the ongoing PFF crisis

This hasn’t been the best of years for world football’s governing body, FIFA. Decades of strong allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and political intrigue by world’s football officials finally exploded in May 2015 when the FBI and Swiss authorities swooped in and arrested numerous FIFA executives and other world football officials. These developments made world football turn completely upside down amid calls for immediate reform and restructuring of the opaque nature of football administration worldwide. The recently re-elected FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, was caught in a fix and he promised a fresh election in early 2016 and would step down as well as promising FIFA reform and transparency. The main driving force of this major shake-up is British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who openly advocates prosecution of Sepp Blatter as the proverbial head of a mafia controlling everything in world football and not being answerable to anyone but themselves.

So where does Pakistan come in all this? It is not renowned for its football prowess or mass appeal in Asia, let alone the world. But looking into its own football governing structures, Pakistan more or less seems an exact mirror image of FIFA’s ongoing crisis. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has been ruled by senior political Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat for last 12 years – 3 consecutive terms in office since 2003. Hayat’s tenures have been without any opposition given PFF, as per FIFA laws, is an independent body and not under control of the government. This virtual unchallenged power has allowed Hayat to not only maximise his power at home but also use his political skills in world football to gain favourable roles in both AFC and FIFA for both himself and his allies and close associates. Given the perks, privileges, and power enjoyed by football executives worldwide, it is not a surprise that the PFF Presidency is such a coveted post in this day and age – even if the actual progress in Pakistani football has been mediocre at best. When the bribery controversies initially hit FIFA and AFC last year, PFF was also suspected of taking bribes in forms of cash and development projects to vote for certain members in world football.

However, Pakistani football has also been in political turmoil since April 2015 given this year’s football elections nationwide. After seeing the Pakistan national team knocked out in the first round of joint 2018 FIFA World Cup / 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers by Yemen by mid-March 2015 due to some very poor planning by PFF that insisted on prioritising an AFC U23 event rather than the World Cup, the ruling PML-N government tried to wiggle into PFF and control the Football House on Lahore’s Ferozepur Road. But Hayat’s PFF managed to make rules for contesting candidates at district, provincial and PFF levels much tougher for outsiders. Not to be deterred, the ruling party is said to have made alliances with disgruntled football officials, especially in Punjab, to try and dislodge Faisal Saleh Hayat. The controversy began with the disputed Punjab FA elections in which PFF was accused of manipulating its own voting rules and FIFA-approved constitution to not only ban any opposition football officials for ‘misconduct and corruption’ but also suddenly changed the timing of PFA elections to make sure Sardar Naveed Haider Khan, a former PHF official and close Faisal Saleh Hayat ally in PFF since 2007, was voted as next PFA President. This controversial election caused Col (r) Farasat Ali Shah – a PFF Director and secretary of the PFF Electoral Committee – to publicly criticise Faisal Saleh Hayat for rigging the PFA elections, leading to his swift suspension and perhaps the first major crack in Faisal’s administration after 10+ years of zero transparency in PFF affairs.

Not surprisingly, the opposition took matters to the courts by involving the Lahore High Court. The LHC asked the government-affiliated Sports Board Punjab to investigate the Punjab FA elections, and SBP found out that not only the PFF bans on certain officials the day of the polls was a violation of its rules – given PFF made a disciplinary committee with its own Congress members rather than be independent as dictated by its own rules – but also the voting that made Sardar Naveed win PFA seat instead of PML-N’s Arshad Khan Lodhi was illegal. LHC accepted SBP’s ruling and declared the PFA elections null and void, causing Faisal Saleh Hayat to cry ‘government interference’ and regarded SBP ruling on PFF as beyond its jurisdiction and hoping a FIFA intervention. Then the newly re-elected Khyber Pakhtunkhwa FA President, Syed Zahir Ali Shah – a former PPP MPA – also went public about his objection to election controversy in PFF and decided to challenge Faisal Saleh Hayat in the PFF elections scheduled a few months later and vowed to write to FIFA and AFC to take action.

Following revelations by Dawn journalist Umaid Wasim about PFF badly managing AFC and FIFA awarded development projects for Peshawar, Jhang, and Karachi, LHC also ordered the FIA to investigate corruption and mismanagement of funds charges on PFF. These scandals created a storm of controversy well in light of FIFA’s own bribery scandals involving World Cup hosting rights and development projects, causing tremendous bad press for PFF. Faisal also predictably labelled as ‘government interference,’ threatened legal action on ‘malafide journalism’ and a ‘violation of FIFA rules,’ despite the fact that FIFA also respects national laws of any country. And that wasn’t all, the controversy of the Jhang project – awarded as a flood-relief by AFC and partly financed by the now under-fire FIFA President aspirant Dr Chung Mong-joon – over accusations of zero activity, bribery, and issues of land acquisition has caused AFC to move Dr Chung’s case to FIFA’s ethics committee.

Opposition towards the under-fire President grew and in mid-June 2015, dissident PFF Congress members called in an Extraordinary Congress meeting to suspend and dethrone Faisal Saleh Hayat as PFF President and appointed Arshad Lodhi as interim PFF President until the coming PFF elections. Faisal Saleh Hayat called this Extraordinary Congress as ‘illegal’ and vowed to punish those members with it. This effectively split PFF into groups with elections less than a month away, and dissident members captured PFF House and kick out Faisal’s people in a coup d’etat. FIFA and AFC remained quiet and stated they were ‘monitoring’ the situation without trying to officially back anyone. On the day of the scheduled PFF elections, both factions held their own at different venues: dissident extraordinary congress folks in PFF House while Faisal group in Changla Gali. But the LHC quickly moved in and issued a stay order to stop them from taking place until an administrator is appointed that shall oversee the elections on a later date. The Arshad Lodhi group duly complied but the Faisal Saleh Hayat group still went ahead in Changla Gali with a token AFC official as observer and voted Faisal for a 4th consecutive term. This earned Hayat and his General Secretary Lt Col (r) Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi a contempt of court notice and its election declared illegal. Faisal’s appeal to the Supreme Court to overturn LHC decision has apparently also reached a dead-end.

Eventually LHC appointed Justice (r) Asad Munir as PFF administrator for next 4 months to oversee a much awaited PFF audit while FIFA finally decided to send a delegation to meet both rival factions and report back to FIFA HQs in early August 2015. The world body has decided that its Member Associations Committee shall meet on 21 September 2015 (tomorrow) to decide the fate of PFF with both sides confident they will prevail over the other.

However, this crisis has had a significant damage on the state of football in Pakistan. Pakistan to pull out of the AFC U16 and U19 Championships’ qualifiers as domestic and international football commitments of PFF came to a screeching halt. With men’s national senior and junior teams effectively out of top level action for next 2-3 years and the Pakistan Premier Football League also postponed, football’s future and progress in Pakistan is under severe jeopardy. Pakistan’s own participation in the 2015 SAFF Suzuki Cup – scheduled for late December 2015 in India – is also under doubt and dependant on PFF’s fate by FIFA and judiciary. Politics has taken a priority over players’ welfare once again in the country.

With FIFA already under fire and Blatter’s close associates facing legal troubles, it would certainly want PFF mess to be quickly cleaned up. LHC probably realises it will have to cooperate with FIFA in regards to future of PFF, but given PFF is still representing the country it is bound to ensure domestic laws are also fully implemented to ensure some desperately needed transparency of PFF’s finances and administrative conduct. FIFA could ask for an interim setup that re-holds the football elections or it can simply recognise Faisal Saleh Hayat as official PFF President and order his reinstatement. The latter seems increasingly less likely given the negative press surrounding the poorly managed development projects worth millions of dollars. It would be advisable for FIFA and the Pakistani judiciary to be cooperative with each other regardless of what decision is taken by FIFA on 21 September if football has to be rescued from a self-made crisis of self-interests which is typical of Pakistan as a whole.

Politicians and bureaucrats with zero professional and technical knowhow of the sports industry have capture the system through voting without having necessary teams to facilitate the professionalization of sport in Pakistan through communities, corporate and public sector involvements. Football has especially suffered given the domestic structure is outdated and requires a major thorough overhaul which simply did not happen under 12 years of Faisal Saleh Hayat despite his numerous promises and many ‘feathers in the cap’ boasts in media towards completely clueless reporters and TV anchors.

Usually such mess in PFF has happened before and media only gave token coverage. But given this mess is now being seen in larger context of FIFA’s own crises, has made many await what Blatter does on 21 September. It is hoped that FIFA will do the right thing and address the administrative and political mess that has plagued Pakistani football and ensure all its promises of transparency, accountability, and ethics are fully met without any discrimination.

Ali Ahsan is a Multan-based International Relations researcher

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