1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Michael Owen thinks Pakistani football is onto a winner

John Duerden
June 6, 2024

The Pakistan Football League has been unveiled, a new franchise-based competition that has former England star Michael Owen as its ambassador. The move follows years of infighting in the country’s football scene.

Michael owen wearing a branded collared shirt standing among a group of men at a football pitch
Ex England star Michael Owen on a previous visit to Pakistan in 2022Image: Sabir Mazhar/AA/picture alliance

There has been no official football league in Pakistan since 2019 due to various FIFA suspensions and political infighting, but that is set to change. The Pakistan Football League (PFL) was unveiled this week in Islamabad.

The new men's competition, set to kick off in November, is not only different because it is franchise-based. It is also headed by Michael Owen. The former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester United striker is the PFL's global ambassador.  

Owen, who first went to Pakistan in 2021, believes the only way is up. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has no regular league, no president and the men's national team is ranked 195th in the world

"I could see first-hand there are plenty of players with the potential to become professional footballers," Owen told DW. "That's why a consistently high standard of organized training and competitive matches is key. I believe the Pakistan Football League will provide a real opportunity for players to reach their full potential."

Previously, Owen visited the country as the ambassador of Global Soccer Ventures, a UK-based company that aimed to launch a new league in 2022 but shelved plans amid the uncertain political situation in Pakistan. Now rebranded as PFL, backers believe the time is now right.

The potential in Pakistan remains, with a population of 260 million and links to FIFA since 1948.

"Pakistan is a nation with a real passion for the game, and while many will say that cricket is the country's main sport, the fact that there are 3.4 million registered footballers in Pakistan tells you just how popular the game is," Owen added.

"I am very keen to try to help improve the existing infrastructure."

Owen's toughest challenge

Usually, that would be the job of the PFF, but the organization has been under the control of a Normalization Committee (NC) since 2019. The committee was trying to organize new elections.

But in March 2021, a group of PFF officials stormed the PFF building in Lahore and tried to wrestle power back, resulting in FIFA suspending Pakistan from international football. The ban lasted 15 months. The NC is still in control.

The question is whether a new franchise league headed by famous ex-footballers can now bring about real change.

"Fans are divided over the venture," Umaid Wasim, sports editor of Pakistani national newspaper Dawn, told DW.

"For some, it's a chance for domestic football to make a long-awaited return along with the glitz and glamour it will bring. For others, a franchise league isn't what they want. Rather, they want a proper club-based league."

Michael Owen in action for England against Germany in 2001
Michael Owen is one of England's most famous footballers. He is now trying to boost the game in Pakistan Image: Ben Radford /Allsport/Getty Images

While there have been sporadic men's competitions in Pakistan since the end of the 2018-19 season, the 16-team Pakistan Premier League which sits on the top of the football pyramid, has been inactive.

This is much to the ire of national team coach Stephen Constantine. The Englishman was at the helm of Pakistan's World Cup qualification win over Cambodia in October. It put the Green Shirts in the second round of qualifying for the first time in decades.

"You don't need every district to be part of the league," Constantine said earlier this year. "We had a Challenge Cup with 32 teams. Just take 16 teams from it and start the bloody league."

Indian example

With no regular club-based league on the horizon in the near future, the PFL is set to be the only show in town.

There is an example to follow just over the border to the east. India started its franchise-based Super League in 2014.

Then, it was an eight-team standalone tournament that lasted 10 weeks. Next season, 13 teams will play in an almost eight-month campaign, and it is now the top tier of Indian football.

"India was different as there was already a football pyramid in place, but that is not the case in Pakistan," Karachi-based fan Shoaib Patel told DW.

"We are almost starting from scratch, which makes it harder but also means that fans are desperate for something to happen because nothing has happened in Pakistan for years. We just want to watch some football."

'Unsanctioned league'

Instead of action on the pitch, there is still infighting off it. Haroon Malik is the head of the federation NC and wants to launch a rival competition to the PFL.

"We have plans for a franchise league," Malik told DW. "There are two interesting aspects for us: a short-form league which we require to bring eyeballs onto the sport to convert people into fans, then they will start watching a proper league that exists for 30 weeks."

Malik says that the federation is not working with the PFL and has not approved of the competition.

"They never approached the PFF, and this is an unsanctioned league," Malik said. "Someone can't randomly take over and launch a league without talking to us. If they had asked, we would have said, 'It's a great idea, and then we are going to do a proper proposal process, and we would welcome you to participate in that.'"

The row between the PFF committee and the PFL could intensify, but the latter has been gathering political support. On June 3, Pakistan's Ministry of Inter-provincial Coordination said that a meeting with the PFL was "a significant milestone in the government's efforts to promote sports, in line with the vision of the prime minister (Shehbaz Sharif)." 

Former prime minister and current Senate Chairman Yusuf Raza Gilani also expressed his support.

Dawn sports editor Wasim said: "In countries like Pakistan, the government's backing means a lot. It got the nod from the ruling government, and that might bring the PFF NC to the table. At this point in time …things seem to be heading towards a dispute. And this will take time to resolve."

Edited by: Mark Meadows