If you didn’t know what was happening inside the Fortress Stadium last Sunday, the traffic outside was a great indication. Entering the venue was painfully slow and messy, as thousands of cars clambered to enter. Leisure Leagues, a provider of small-sided football leagues that was initiated in the UK, were going to present football fans across the nation with just what they wanted, as ‘Ronaldinho and Friends’ provided a base for countless footballers to finally dream of a future where the beautiful game was promoted and nurtured in a country unquestionably dominated by cricket.
The event was supposed to start at 5pm, so most people had got in as early as by 3pm to beat the traffic. Unfortunately, they had willingly trapped themselves in a heat bubble as temperatures soared and spectators fought for the limited fans available.
The players entered the field a little after 5pm and were greeted by a roaring crowd. For most of us, it was the first time we had seen our footballing heroes, so this was a memory to be cherished. As expected, most of the crowd left their seats and crowded around the players, only to be blocked by the army personnel who were guarding the guests.
There were surprisingly fewer fans inside than you expected, considering the kind of footballing idols were involved. One reason for this might have been the ticket prices. For an event aimed at supporting and spreading football in the nation, the tickets were too expensive to achieve that. A price range of Rs2,000 to Rs30,000 could be considered extravagant for a nation whose most talented sportspersons are made in the streets.
Football being a sport that is dwarfed by cricket, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than the great supporters of the game who would attend. It is simply too expensive otherwise to sit in an open stadium on a July midday and watch retired footballers play in a 7 a side match.
Ritualistically, the army was ever present at the proceedings. COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa welcomed the players, promising a safe and entertaining weekend for fans and players. The former footballers were given VVIP treatment in the form of armed escorts, complete protocol, and loud cheers as they entered the Stadium. Although it is sensible and fair to treat honorable guests in one’s nation, the nature of their protocol raised many a critic’s eyebrow.
The organisers claimed that the event would usher in a new era of football in the country. They also hoped to bring in current footballers rather than the retired ones. Does this mean even greater protocol and security measures when the next batch (of footballers) visits us?
Hype will no doubt increase as similar events continue to happen. The question is whether it is feasible to have armed escorts and roadblocks every time a high-profile foreigner is visiting Pakistan.
The current state of football, if not all sport, in Pakistan is below par. Pakistan ranks 200 in the FIFA in a list of 206.
For the past 10 years, our ranking has consistently fallen. There is little, if any, opportunity for budding footballers to shine in Pakistan, as there are hardly any local leagues for them to participate in. Apart from privately sponsored football events, there is no government initiative to support our athletes. It is not difficult to imagine why, as our national political situation has been seeping into our sporting ambitions for a long time now. UNESCO has ranked our footballing federation as one of the most corrupt in the world. Our national league, the Pakistan Premier League, has not even been held this season due to an ongoing dispute. To make matters worse, FIFA is threatening to suspend the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) unless it hands over all football affairs to its elected president, Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat. With corruption seemingly ingrained into the sporting body, it is difficult to see what the future holds for the game in Pakistan.
Leisure Leagues sought to spread the popularity of football across Pakistan with its initiative. At Rs2,500 per team that has 6 members, one wonders if this is just another private event for boys who have some spare money and want to play football in their free time.
An important aspect of any sport is its talent, and this programme will no doubt create a greater awareness of the sport. Unfortunately, without systematic planning and help from the government, it is not unfathomable to imagine Leisure Leagues becoming another money-making scheme that attracts the top one per cent of Pakistan.
Back in the Stadium, as the game kicked off, Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs became the focal point of the chants, although the fans were giving all of the players love and support. Two great goals were scored; Ronaldinho assisted one of our local boys in what is now the greatest moment of his life.
Despite the lack of water and the terrible heat, fans remained passionate for the remainder of the game, participating in player chants and several Mexican waves. They were treated to a performance by Ali Azmat and Momina Mustehsan during the halftime break and a fireworks show at the event’s conclusion.