Who said the grass is always greener?

…hell, who said there had to be grass at all? Vampy Archer walks us through football in Pakistan.

Welcome to the country where football doesn’t need any grass or turf to be played, just a wide, muddy ground, and some enthusiastic “Adebayors” who don’t know what offside is.

Welcome to the land where goalkeepers used to dribble into the final third of the opposition half so often, they were repeatedly accused of trying to do a ‘Maradona’.

In fact, until the broadcast of games from England’s Premier League in the mid 90’s, nobody really knew what a ‘formation’ was.

Welcome to Pakistan.

Ranked at 162 in FIFA’s rankings, the history of football in Pakistan has been stifled by the suffocating competition provided by the national sport of hockey, and the ever popular game of cricket.

As four time World Champions, hockey in Pakistan is flourishing, and after healthy investment in cricket bore fruit in 1992 when Pakistan took the cup and ruled the world under the graceful yet disciplined leadership of Imran Khan, football was left further behind. You must have heard about the ‘Hand of God’ and ‘Goal of the century’ in football, but in Pakistan it’s more about the ‘Hands of a God’ and ‘Balls of the century’ in cricket - Take a look here.

How could football ever flourish when the captain of your World Cup winning cricket team claims his sport as the national obsession? Pakistan was in love with art of Wasim Akram’s bowling, and Akram was followed by Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, and recently Mohammed Aamir. These men had served the roles that the likes of Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, and Messi occupy in football, and the game is squeezed out.

Yet football in Pakistan has survived. Still children took to those muddy fields in spite of the lure from cricket and hockey, bare-footed and with 2 bricks to serve as goal posts. Bricks don’t give that delightful sound when you hit the post but they do lend themselves to mastering drilled shots along the ground, just as I did in my childhood (at least, that’s how I choose to see it!).

Coming back to where we started, the exposure to the English Premier League on a weekly basis was a whole new experience and changed perceptions about the game. It showed us a game beyond the one we played in the fields - we began to plant the posts (without a net), wear shoes and shin-pads, we got proper kits with famous footballers’ names on the back, we learned about a formation and tactics, we realized the fact that the goalkeeper shouldn’t be doing a ‘Maradona’ but trying a ‘Schmeichel’, and of course the offside-rule came into being (much to everyone’s disgust).

With things now in place, Pakistan watched France ‘98 through the same eyes that the rest of the football world viewed the tournament. The World Cup in 2002 brought more excitement than ever due to the fact it was held in Asia. Just a side-note: Pakistan provided the World Cup balls for France ’98.

The thing is, education and sports go hand in hand in Pakistan and knowing English is the first step to becoming an educated person. If you know English then it’s a sign that you are an educated and knowledgeable person because of what you’ve been exposed to. With that in mind it goes some way to explaining the success of cricket – if you’ve been educated you can understand the games vast set of laws and terminology - but increasingly knowledge of football is also being taken on the same terms.

Football is no longer a sport just played in villages across the country, but a game played in cities where the literacy rate is much higher. You will now see many proper football grounds in the big cities, many with patches of grass but none fully turfed due to the weather. You can even find some lavish academies and big stadiums in the cities like Karachi, Lahore, and the capital Islamabad.

This brings us to the competitions, inter-cities tourneys, and national league. The league here is not an official ‘promotion and relegation’ set up but is mostly played in a Champions League type knock-out format where the ‘last men standing’ are crowned with a trophy and honored as champions. Improvements are being made and soon we’ll have a full national league.

On an international level, Pakistan is taking part in World Cup qualifiers in the Asian zone but struggling. The reason behind the shambles is the under-developed facilities and a lack of high level coaching. If Bryan Robson can manage Thailand and broaden their opportunities then Pakistan is in dire need of that level of management and coaching.

The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) have recently taken a step to address that problem and recruited Graham Roberts as a consultant for a short-term solution. Roberts believes that an increase in country’s international fixtures would improve the FIFA rankings eventually. The PFF is looking to possibly tying up Roberts on long-term contract for overseeing the country’s football affairs, and it looks likely to happen as Roberts has adapted to his new surroundings well and likes the culture. His first assignment would be to oversee the progress of national team in upcoming Asian games and be responsible for trying to find some future stars that could make a difference on the big stage.

When it comes to players of note, perhaps the highest profile Pakistan has produced would be Zeshan Rehman who played for Fulham in 2004 when Louis Saha used to grace Craven Cottage. Rehman made 20+ appearances for Fulham that year but was then loaned out for the next 2 seasons and then transferred to QPR in 2006. He made 40+ appearances for QPR but was loaned out again and since 2009, he’s settled at Bradford City and enjoys playing as a giant centre-back at Valley Parade.

So there you have a roller-coaster tour through football in Pakistan. It is possible that if this nation starts taking this sport as an obsession like it took cricket, the possibilities are endless and if there’s one thing this country doesn’t do, it’s quit.

Vampy Archer writes his for his blog; namely football stryder, and can be followed on twitter @VampyArcher.