The 2012 European Championships will kick off this summer in Poland and Ukraine. The Euro 2012 betting hugely favours Spain and Germany, but beyond the favourites and indeed beyond the 16 teams competing at Euro 2012, there are plenty of footballing lessons for Pakistan and Pakistani football to learn from, and hopefully apply to our own national team’s cause.
This is not to say that Pakistan can reach the level of European giants with a few simple fixes. Instead, what we’re looking at are long-term, gradual changes that help Pakistan be more competitive in Asian football and then, if not in a decade then in two, mount a serious challenge for World Cup qualification. For the 6th most populous country in the world, that’s not an unreasonable objective to aim for.
Investment in grassroots training and development infrastructure
European countries that succeed internationally more or less have the same pattern when it comes to youth development – find talent at an early age and groom them as much as possible. At this point a comparison between England and Netherlands is most apt – where English schoolchildren – quite like our own – are overburdened by school timings and homework, Dutch schoolchildren have a more balanced lifestyle, dedicating equal time to education and play. The end result is that when these same players grow up, the Dutch counterparts are technically much more proficient than their English counterparts.
And then there is considerable investment made in footballing academies and training for children in Netherlands – something that is glaringly lacking in England.
What can we learn from this in Pakistan? For starters, there needs to be a cultural change that promotes a positive, balanced lifestyle, increasing competitive play time and decreasing school load, and most importantly, getting kids out of the house, away from the TVs and gaming consoles and into parks and grounds and academies where they can hone their skills. There are unique security challenges in Pakistan that don’t apply anywhere else but even then, there is plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to parents and their priorities for their children.
Secondly, you can invest / incentivise football training academies by providing football training equipment (like the M Station) and qualified coaches that work with the national football association to develop and implement training programs for different age levels.
All of this costs money, which brings us to point number two:
Heavy financial investment in Pakistan’s sporting future
This applies to other sports as well, but for now we’re just looking at football. In terms of international perception, few things are as ‘game-changing’ as sporting success. Few things can galvanise a nation’s energies and improve the national mood as well as sporting success. Smart investment in Pakistan’s footballing future can take the country from where it is now (a laughing stock) to legitimate WC qualification contenders – and just that step up can help change the mood in Pakistan and about Pakistan at a local and international level.
The most successful footballing countries in Europe make football a national priority when it comes to spending, to national / political importance and to investing in the future. Add the social and health benefits to the cultural changes associated with a sport-loving population and there is considerable motivation to invest – smartly – in Pakistan’s footballing / sporting future.
How to do that? That takes us to our third point.
Leverage the strong football support in Pakistan
Football is easily the second most popular sport in Pakistan. It does not have as active a participation as cricket but it more than makes up for it by the sheer number of people who watch, follow and enjoy football. This support comes from all sections of society – from children who play in school and after school to parents who support a European club or team to university students and working professionals who find common ground with their colleagues in sport (a pleasant departure from our other national past-time, debating politics).
This widespread support needs to be tapped into and leveraged to create the levels of local and government-level investment required for long-term footballing success in Pakistan. You can’t simply rely on the government for all the support – although in most countries that is where the support originates – you also need to tap into the existing football fanbase and convert it from passive followers to active participants in the country’s footballing future.
In Europe – there are plenty of examples of countries who have prioritised football at a national and social level with long-term planning to achieve success 10, 20, 30 years down the line. It’s how Brazil re-invented themselves in the 90s, it’s how France become such a global force in the 80s and 90s, and it’s how Spain started their dominance – by investing in grassroots football 10, 15, 20 years ago.
Football is not cricket, where Pakistan has a 50 year head start on most countries only 7-8 countries are any good at the sport. It’s a truly global sport, and Pakistan as a footballing nation has languished far behind through neglect and a general lack of understanding of what’s needed to fix football.
But if you can tap into the local fanbase and galvanise them into action, if you can provide quality training from a young age and if you can finance the whole operation, Pakistan can realistically be a force to be reckoned with in Asia, if not the world over.