KARACHI: As millions of cricket fans are glued to TV screens for thrilling World Cup contests in neighboring India, there is also good news for the much smaller group of football lovers in Pakistan: international football is returning to the country.
The South Asian country is going to host its first international football fixture after a long absence of eight years, a qualifier against Cambodia for the 2026 World Cup that will be played in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday.
Pakistan played its last international match on home soil against Afghanistan in the northeastern city of Lahore in 2015, while they last faced Bangladesh in a home World Cup qualifier in 2011.
“We are taking it as a new beginning, one that will give an opportunity to the soccer lovers to see international players in action after a long, long break,” Mohammad Yashal, an official of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) told Anadolu.
According to him, security concerns and internal rifts within the PFF were the key reasons for the absence of international football.
In 2015, a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup against Yemen scheduled to be held in Pakistan was shifted to Bahrain’s capital Manama “due to security concerns,” Yashal said.
In 2019, a qualifier for the 2022 World Cup, which was also against Cambodia, was shifted to Qatar after FIFA suspended the PFF’s membership due to “third-party interference” in the country’s football governing body.
FIFA restored the PFF’s membership in June 2022.
The ban was imposed in April 2021 after the “hostile takeover” of the PFF headquarters in Lahore and the ousting of a FIFA representative by a rival group.
The internal power struggle had also led to PFF’s suspension in October 2017, which ended in March 2018.
Football is a popular sport in Pakistan, particularly in rural areas, but the national team ranks an abysmal 197th in the FIFA world rankings.
Straddling the edge of the Arabian Sea, Lyari, a town in the south of Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi, has long been plagued by gang wars and drug trafficking.
However, it is also known as “mini-Brazil” for the talented football players that it has produced over the decades.
Home to 1.5 million people, mainly ethnic Baloch, the area has produced a large number of players over the last 74 years who have won many titles for the country, especially between the 1950s and 1960s, known as the golden era of Pakistani football.
Nonetheless, lacking glamor and government funding, while having to deal with intra-federation schisms and land-grabbing mafia who have been sweeping up sports grounds, football in Pakistan has gradually declined from its previous rank as fourth on the Asian continent in the 1960s.
Sports goods haven
Pakistan, for years, has been supplying soccer balls for mega events across the globe.
The South Asian nuclear country was the official football provider for the 2014, 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Located on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Sialkot, Forward Sports, which makes footballs for the German Bundesliga, the French league and the prestigious UEFA Champions League, provided footballs for the last three World Cups.
The city, which borders India, has been famous for producing the finest quality sports goods and has been supplying equipment for major events for years.
Production of high-quality footballs is not Sialkot’s only forte. It also exports other goods from cricket bats and balls to hockey sticks and other accessories like kits, shoes and gloves.
Pakistan earns $1 billion annually from sports goods exports, including $350 million to $500 million from footballs alone.
The ball being currently used in football tournaments is technically called “thermo bonded,” which was first introduced in the 2014 World Cup.
Before that, Pakistan had supplied handstitched soccer balls for most of the World Cups from the 1990s to 2010.