LAHORE: Pakistan is looking to reshape the future of football in the country after reaching out to Saudi Arabia for first-ever international collaboration in the field, the top official of the FIFA-backed Normalization Committee (NC) currently running the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), said in a recent interview.
Last week, the PFF announced its chairman, Haroon Malik, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) in Riyadh to foster strong ties for the mutual benefit, promotion, growth and success of the sport in both countries.
Pakistan has faced many challenges in international football over the years, including multiple suspensions of the country’s domestic premier division in the last six years. The last one was in April 2021, when FIFA banned PFF due to “third-party interference” after a “hostile takeover” of the body’s headquarters in Lahore and the ousting of a FIFA representative by a rival group.
The international sports governing body restored PFF’s membership in June 2022.
“I think the benefit [of signing the MoU] is that SAFF considers Pakistan to be a brotherly country and they want to develop football across Asia and they are making sure that it helps to raise the standard,” Malik told Arab News on Friday.
The PFF official said the federation was working on next year’s calendar, which will include friendly matches with Saudi Arabia.
“We are very happy that it covers not only the men’s national team but it also applies to the women’s national team,” he added. “On the youth side, we hope that we will play some games, under 16, under 19.”
Football recently came into the spotlight in the cricket-dominated country after Pakistan got its first-ever qualification for the second round of FIFA qualifiers, edging out Cambodia after ending a 13-match losing streak that dated back to 2018.
The faceoff was attended by over 13,000 fans in Islamabad as the country hosted its first international match after eight years, sparking jubilant celebrations not just for the victory but a homecoming of international football too.
The 193rd-ranked Pakistan, however, has suffered two consecutive setbacks in the first two matches of the second round and is currently the lowest-ranked team in Group G, which includes Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Jordan.
Pakistan is scheduled to play its home matches of the FIFA qualifiers against Jordan and Saudi Arabia on March 21 and June 6, respectively, though the football federation appears to be facing challenges in hosting night matches against the two teams.
Asked about the situation, Malik said he was hopeful the PFF would be able to get floodlights installed under FIFA regulations by January.
“The [Pakistan vs Jordan] game on the 21st of March, I do not think can be played during the day,” he said, adding that his team was working with the government for requisite lighting to ensure they were in place for both matches.
“If not, we will have to consider a neutral venue,” he added.
‘PSL-like football league’
In a major boost for the sport, he said the PFF had been working on formalizing domestic football, promoting talent development through encouraging commercialization.
“If there is not enough commercial opportunity, the people, of course, will not choose [football] as a career option,” he maintained.
“We have All Pakistan Championship that is currently going on to find the best clubs that play in the country,” he said. “The second is to have a championship-style competition, something like the Pakistan Cricket League [Pakistan Super League].”
Discussing the national women’s team, the PFF chief said the federation was planning a football championship to establish a women’s league, to enable female footballers to display their talent and playing style.
The PFF, he noted, is also arranging visits from international teams to Pakistan, ensuring fans can enjoy high-quality matches.