Imagine a dusty pitch, a ground where half the audience don’t have a place to sit and no protection from the searing heat. For majority of people around the world, it might not be an ideal setting for a football match but in the Balochistan province of Pakistan this is what it takes to enjoy the game they love the most.
Over the years, frequent terror attacks and lack of basic facilities, such as health, education and employment opportunities, have made life difficult for people in the province but football has always been a breath of fresh air in the darkest of times.
Being at a local football match in Balochistan is an unforgettable experience. Thousands of fans turn up for matches especially when it’s the Chaman Derby between Afghan FC and Muslim FC. People who can’t get a place inside the venue, sit on the boundary walls and if that is also not an option the trees nearby also come in handy.
The half-time break is normally dominated by Chaap, which is a traditional folk dance of Baloch people, or fans praying on the pitch. Meanwhile, the matches regularly end with pitch invasions.
Overall, cricket might be the most popular sport in Pakistan but the same can’t be said for its largest province, Balochistan, since football here is a tool that promotes social cohesion among communities and helps them escape the harsh realities of life.
“It is unfortunate that in Balochistan, as well as the entire country, there is rift between different ethnic groups like Balochis, Pashtun or Punjabis due to various reasons. However, watching football and other sports together in a stadium, especially in Balochistan, has improved relations between different ethnic groups,” said former Pakistan head coach Akhtar Mohiuddin, who hails from Chaman district of Balochistan.
“I believe sports is also one of the reasons why terrorist activities in the province have also reduced. The Balochistan sports ministry deserves a lot of credit for bringing different communities together under one roof,” he added.
Meanwhile, Pishin-born midfielder Saadullah Khan, who has made 42 international appearances for Pakistan senior team, also echoed similar thoughts.
“I remember around 12 years ago, whenever there was a football event in a place where Balochis resided, very few Pashtun-based teams participated. Similarly, Balochi teams didn’t feature in large numbers during events on the Pashtun belt,” he said.
“However, now that has completely changed and both communities actively take part in each other’s tournaments. I must say that Football and other sports has played a major role in bringing people together in the region,” he added.
However, despite the ever-growing interest in football in Balochistan, only a few are lucky enough to pursue the game professionally due to lack of a proper system and employment opportunities.
The departmental structure in Pakistan usually shows little interest in the development of players, promotion of the sport and working at the grassroots level since it is already funded by the government. This add to misery of places like Balochistan which is in dire need of investment on sports and especially football.
Meanwhile, the club structure, which is a hallmark of top football nations in the world, struggles to compete with the departmental setup since the latter offers job security and regular income.
Although, if the club system is backed by the Pakistan Football Federation, the government and the private sector, things can gradually get back on the right track. Bearing in mind that the AFC Club Licensing Criteria is designed to raise professional football standards, the entire country, and not just football in Balochistan, will benefit from the club setup.
“There is a lot of talent in Balochistan. Many players have also gone on to play for the national side and 7-8 players are regularly part of the squad from Balochistan. Despite supplying many players to the national team, there is still no proper academy for players in Balochistan,” said Saadullah, who was first selected for the Pakistan national football team at the age of 19.
“We need to work on the grassroots level and work our way up step by step in order to give our self a chance of playing in international tournaments. Look at the example of Japan, who work extensively with all age groups and have a professional league structure. Without a proper football league system in place, we will never be able to compete at the highest level,” he said.
Mismanagement and rift between players and officials has always been an Achilles heel for Pakistan football over the past few years and the same is the case with Balochistan.
With Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) suffering from administrative infighting and bans by FIFA in the recent past, little or no attention was given to issues in Balochistan.
“One of the reasons behind is that the football associations in Balochistan are not on one page and there are different groups who have their own agenda. I have also noticed that many players get involved in politics as they grow older. They divide their team in groups and try to influence decision making. This leads to a lot problems and it hinders the development and promotion of football in the province,” said Akhtar who has closely followed football in Balochistan since the 1980s.
“I hope that the PFF Normalisation Committee can intervene to mediate between the groups put football in Balochistan on the right track.
“The coaches also lack technical knowhow about the game. The game has changed a lot over the past few years but the coaching methods in Balochistan have not been updated accordingly. During my time with the PFF, we tried to carry out coaching courses in Balochistan and hopefully such initiates will resume in the future as well.”
When talking about football in Balochistan, it is hard to ignore the work done by Sana Hurumzai. The Pishin-born, who works in the local health department, was unable to pursue a career in football due to injuries but he kept his love for the game alive by broadcasting local matches on his Facebook page.
With football in Balochistan largely ignored by print and electronic media, Sana works tirelessly to share all the updates about the sport in the province on his page despite not possessing a high-end phone or even a mic. He also travels to different cities of Balochistan, while bearing all the expenses, to cover local tournaments.
“As you know, majority of the people in Balochistan live below the poverty line and lack of employment opportunities also adds to their troubles. The players are also affected due to this since they don’t have jobs apart from some who are employed by departments,” Sana said while painting a deplorable picture of football in the province.
“Footballers engage in physical labour or farming to earn a living which makes it difficult for them to play full-time. High inflation has also forced many footballers to leave Balochistan for better income opportunities rather than pursuing a career in football.
“Majority of the footballers don’t have money to buy proper shoes and they depend on donations for football equipment.
Despite the hurdles Sana was adamant that he will “continue to raise voice for the footballers in Balochistan till his last breath”.
During former Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan’s tenure, between 2018 and 2021, the local government placed special emphasis on improving sports infrastructure in the region.
Despite Kamal’s exit last year, the Secretary Sports and Youth Affairs Balochistan Ishaq Jamali and his team are still trying their best to uplift the condition of sports in the province, through regular tournaments, and continue the good work done by the previous government.
In September this year, the CM Balochistan football Gold Cup was held in Quetta with top clubs from all over Pakistan participating in the event.
Meanwhile, the Sindh-Balochistan football tournament began today in Sibi with 30 teams, which includes 17 from Balochistan and 13 from Sindh. The matches will also be played in Uthal and Dera Murad Jamali with the final set to be held on December 25.
“This is the first time that the sports department is organsing a Sindh-Balochistan football tournament. Whenever, the government holds a tournament we give full sponsorship. This includes free tournament entry, transportation, accommodation, daily allowances and refreshments during matches for the players and officials,” said Jamali.
“The cash prize for the winning team is Rs300,000, meanwhile the runner-up will get Rs200,000,” he said.
The football grounds in Balochistan are in desperate need of upgradation, which is why it is among the priorities for the local government.
“In every district of Balochistan, we are working on the development of stadium despite limited resources,” said Jamali.
“The Ayub stadium’s properly maintained but it still require renovation, in terms of increasing the length of the wall, adding steps and improving the lights, which is part of our plans.
“We have resolved the issues with water supply and improved the playing surface and it grass at the Railway football ground and Sadiq Shaheed stadium. The same goes for grounds in Sibi, Dera Murad Jamali and Uthal.
“However, we need to understand that these stadium had not received any attention for many years which is why things will take time to improve. We are trying to ensure that these venues are in condition to hold national events at least.
“We have also repeatedly send proposals to the government to allocate us budget for stadium development so that they can upgraded.
“We have a cost-sharing agreement with the federal government with regards to mini sports complexes. As part of the agreement, we will work in 20 districts of Balochistan with 80 percent of the budget allocated for new complexes while the rest will be used to upgrade old facilities.”
However, with a limited budget, the government alone can’t solve all the issue which footballers face in Balochistan which is why it is the need of the hour that all the relevant stakeholders, especially the private sector, come forward and support the game in the province.
Pakistan’s journey towards putting itself on the football map is long and tough but in the words of legendary Arsenal manager “If you do not believe you can do it, then you have no chance at all”.