Terrorism once again hit Pakistan’s sports hard when FIFA postponed the 2018 World Cup qualifiers’ first round second leg tie between Pakistan and Yemen which was scheduled to be held at Punjab Stadium Lahore on March 17.
And after a few hours Pakistan’s football received another body blow when the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) shifted the 2016 Under-23 Championship Qualifiers Group B which Pakistan were going to host, also at Punjab Stadium, from March 23-31.
Both were very important events and smooth organisation of them could have played a major role in boosting the image of the country. But suicide attacks at churches in the Youhanabad area in Lahore on March 15 sabotaged the efforts of Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
The Yemenis’ security fears were augmented when they were forced to cancel their training session last Sunday, hours after the churches at Lahore were attacked.
A violent protest erupted on Firozpur Road where the FIFA Football House and Punjab Stadium are situated.
FIFA, at one stage, had hinted that the game should be held closed-door and the PFF was ready to do so because it did not want the match to be shifted from Pakistan because all was set for the showpiece.
But Yemenis thought otherwise and refused to play the match.
In the light of the reports of the match-commissioner and Yemen’s management, FIFA had no option but to postpone the tie.
On March 18, FIFA announced that the match would now be held at Manama in Bahrain on March 23.
It was not the first time that a foreign team had to leave the country without completing the tour due to security fears.
In May 2002, New Zealand cricket team had to abandon their Test series against Pakistan when a bomb went off outside the Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi where both Pakistan and New Zealand teams were staying. The teams were preparing to leave for the National Stadium when the explosion occurred. The Black Caps flew back home through the first available flight.
The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in March 2009 in Lahore sounded the death knell for international cricket in the country.
I think Yemen, who also had to opt to host Pakistan in Doha on March 12 due to political unrest in their country, should have played the game. After the incident the situation had been brought under control and the PFF had agreed to hold a closed-door game. Yemen’s refusal hurt the image of Pakistan beyond repair.
This time the PFF’s new marketing wing had done a great job and they were expecting a jam-packed stadium for the tie. Around 500 posters and 30 streamers, carrying the pictures of the players, had been prepared to pull crowds. Arrangement of bamboos had been made in order to add to the beauty of the environment inside the venue. But the shifting of the game not only destroyed the whole plan but it also saddened the football lovers in Pakistan.
Had this match been planned in Islamabad the country could have avoided this embarrasment. But why it could not be arranged in the federal capital is a sad story and the following lines will make it clear.
On February 16, a friendly game between Pakistan and Afghanistan had been successfully held at Punjab Stadium in front of a thick crowd. Afghanistan initially wanted to play the game at Islamabad, but due to differences between PFF and Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) over the implementation of the national sports policy the Board did not agree to let PFF host the game at Jinnah Stadium, Islamabad.
According to sources, the PFF approached the PSB for holding the AFC Under-23 Championship Qualifiers in Islamabad but again their request was turned down.
An official of the PSB told ‘The News on Sunday’ that the Board was not in a position to hand over the Jinnah Stadium for Pak-Afghan tie and the AFC Under-23 slots because of the serious security threats to the centre.
“How could we hand over the venue to PFF without taking clearance from the security agencies,” a PSB official said.
The incident has isolated Pakistan in football like it has been in cricket. Although PFF’s chief Faisal Saleh Hayat has strong relations with FIFA and AFC and after some time Pakistan may be allotted an international event again, PFF should seek an alternative for this.
I personally feel that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could be a suitable centre where the PFF could host international football events because of the presence of the Pakistani community there. Big crowds could be pulled if the matches are held under floodlights.
But doing all this in the UAE would not be very easy and PFF would need to take bold steps.
Let’s turn towards the Pak-Yemen tie, which is now to be staged in Bahrain. After losing the first leg 3-1, Pakistan have no option but to beat Yemen 2-0 if they are to qualify for the second round.
Only an aggressive display with diligence in the deep can serve Pakistan’s purpose. Pakistan played well in the first leg in Doha but some individual mistakes in the deep and poor finishing from the experienced players hurt them.
Pakistan, who will be in Bahrain when this article appears, will be without their key Denmark-born defender Nabil Aslam, who has been advised a two-week rest due to a knee-injury.
Let’s pray for the team which was deprived of a great opportunity to showcase its talent at home ground.