Football analyst, Shahrukh Sohail has been watching sports from a young age, and his favourite game has now become his life. He has played a key role in bringing international players to Pakistan with the event Ronaldinho and Friends.
Being associated with FootballPakistan.com, Sohail has been an Islamabad correspondent and then Chief Editor. We caught up with Sohail to talk about his passion for the game, its current structure and the future of football in his country.
Kinza Tahir: Thank you for your time. Let’s start of by diving straight into your career graph. How did you get involved in football 10 years ago?
Shahrukh Sohail: Like most great things in life I got in involved with football in Pakistan by accident. I used to be a very hardcore football follower who used to follow Manchester United and still am but back in that day, I used to follow to the extent that I used to watch matches at 4 am.
I would watch whole seasons and not miss a single game, which developed my interest in Pakistani football as well. Back in 2010, I had been following footballpakistan.com for about a year and one day I just emailed them that I’m based in Islamabad and if you have work available, let me know.
Subsequently, I got in touch with the team of footballpakistan.com. There were a lot of people from whom I learned a lot. That was how I basically got into Pakistani football and even 50 years later, if I tell someone the story that would be the starting point.
How did you make your career out of football?
I had no intention of becoming professionally involved with football. Honestly, I just wanted to write on football. I was passionate about it. With footballpakistan.com I served as the Islamabad correspondent for about three years, when in 2013, I got a chance to be promoted to Chief Editor.
There was a vacancy and then after that, I got to oversee the entirety of operations in Pakistan and work with the Pakistan Football Federation and the Pakistan national team.
I also started writing because of Football Pakistan. I was already covering the website but then I started writing for Dawn News, The Express Tribune and a number of other Pakistani publications on Pakistani football.
In 2013 I also got a chance to work with Lagardere, the largest marketing agency in Asia. So, we as footballpakistan.com, worked with them on the 2013 SAF championship.
They asked us to make a digital promotion for the website and we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t have any sort of budget. We saved up money to make it.
That promo ended up going viral in 2013 and got about 6000 shares on Facebook alone. It generated a lot of hype over footballpakistan.com and with the Pakistan national team as well. I then got a chance to cover a championship in Nepal.
I was invited by Lagardere sports to be the analyst on the pre-match show. I was only 19 at the time, so that was a very big, life-changing experience for me. As for the Pakistani team playing in Nepal, I covered the SAF championship.
When I came back, we tried to professionalize footballpakistan.com a bit more. We were able to successfully do that to the point where our national team, whenever they played, we were reaching out to millions of people on our social media.
After that, a major change came when Leisure Leagues decided to launch in 2016. I worked with them as their consultant.
That was the start of my professional career in sports management, where I got a chance to work with Leisure Leagues, but then I also had a chance to work with a number of other brands on football which included Coca Cola when they brought the World Cup trophy tour.
I worked with Redbull when they did their Neymar Jr. Five competition and also with Ufone (a telecommunications company in Pakistan) when they were doing their Baluchistan Cup and with Leisure Leagues, we ended up doing “Ronaldinho and Friends”, which was Pakistan’s first international football event with the likes Ronaldinho, Ryan Giggs and Robert Pires.
We had a national championship of all those cities, all the leagues that were playing were broadcast live on PTV sports and the winning team went on to represent Pakistan at the ICF World Cup.
I think it was great exposure over the last four or five years, learning this from hands-on and since then I’ve tried to invest in my own learning. I attended the world football summit in Malaysia last year which was great exposure too.
I’m also looking to do my Masters in sports management. I planned it for this year, but because of COVID-19, I’ve had to postpone that plan. But that would be a summary of what I’ve been doing professionally in football.
For a country like Pakistan, we practically have to start from scratch, because we don’t have an end, we don’t have the relevant infrastructure and we don’t have a system in place.
How can we get attention to the local football players?
I think one of the main things that we can do is obviously highlight these players. With the media, there are a lot of stories that I’ve tried to tell. There are other people that have tried to work on this.
Football Pakistan has been doing this for the last 17 years now and trying to highlight players and let the media tell their stories. There are so many of them, like Kaleemullah [Khan]. He has gotten a sizable following now.
But so many others alongside him, even his teammate Muhammad Adil, who was practically a sugarcane seller and then went on to play international football for Pakistan and even club football abroad. So one big element is obviously the media which is extremely important.
But the other thing is that broadcast on media with all of these players. Ultimately though, in order to make these players household names, you need to come up with a league structure where people can follow them.
They can play regularly and all of the fans can tune in and watch their favourite players and then I think it’ll be organic growth on their own.
What changes can be adapted to highlight players from compromised backgrounds like Lyari?
I think for a country like Pakistan, we practically have to start from scratch because we don’t have an end, we don’t have the relevant infrastructure and we don’t have a system in place.
The system that exists currently in the form of the parks and Premier Leagues is very broken. We need to come up with a revamped system.
We need to create multiple opportunities at each level for a place that starts at under six and that goes up to under 23 and then the senior level of course.
So the best way to again go about this would be the creation of a League which acts as a centre of your football ecosystem because with the League you then have clubs with private owners that can invest into football, football infrastructure, and then also take some of the responsibility for developing their own place that can ultimately benefit Pakistan.
When you start developing you come to a place where you need to get that talent playing on a regular basis. So a league is very important for that. And of course, the Pakistan Football Federation needs to play its role far more seriously.
We currently do not have any sort of Academy system in Pakistan that’s run by the Federation to develop young talent. You don’t have an expedition system for the private academies that is functioning. We do not have a single residential Academy for football in Pakistan at the moment.
So I think there is a lot to be done but if you take a singular approach, I think the next crucial step for Pakistan is developing a league so that everything can start following that after that.
How can NGOs have an impact on football for social development?
There have been a few projects. There was Dosti run by the British Council Azad foundation which ran a few football programs back in the day. I think in a wholesome football community the development sector can play the role.
Football as a sport and as an intervention tool for the development sector can be particularly important because when players, children and young adults of a certain age are involved heavily with sports, they tend to negate other societal evils are around them. Even for football, of course, it can be used as a method to inculcate a lot of life values and social values into these players.
We need to create multiple opportunities at each level for a place that starts at under six and that goes up to under 23 and then senior level of course.
I think the development sector can take initiative in that sense and develop programs using football as a tool and of course, they can partner or work with the Pakistan Football Federation to give an opportunity to talented players, but at the same time, they can use this to build social values to help children develop.
Then, of course, work on multiple strategies that range from drug abuse to other societal evils. I think it’s a good intervention tool and a lot of developments and agencies have used this. Even Muslim hands, USAID, everybody has tried to use this formula, and it is relatively successful.
But more so, once the popularity in football rises, everybody wants to become a football player. So I think that could be important for the future.
What players do you look up to and how does football in Pakistan compare to other countries?
I have a pool of favourite players. Ryan Giggs is my all-time favourite player. I was able to meet him in person and work on bringing him to Pakistan.
That was a dream come true for me personally. But if you compare football as a whole to in Pakistan to other nations in Asia and abroad, I think we are far behind most of the Asian nations right now.
Once you dwell into details and problems, our league is a big issue. Our lack of development and lack of infrastructure is a big issue. If I were to summarise this in its entirety, currently, there are 47 member nations in the Asian Football Confederation, 46 of them have won a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Pakistan has not.
This includes the like of Guam, more or less, Bhutan and Mongolia. Pakistan is now the only country in Asia that has never won a World Cup qualifier. I think that gives you a state and a good comparison of where we stand in the world.
How can football be marketed in Pakistan?
My own personal speciality is marketing and management. I think football is a story that’s never been told in Pakistan. We’ve never highlighted players that have had individual successes.
We’ve never done that. But in order to market football, I think the first step after you develop the league is broadcasting. And when you market football, you’ve got to realize that this is unlike any sport in the world.
Football is the biggest sport in the world and when you talk to the audience in Pakistan, the product that they’re consuming is not local, they are watching Leagues from Europe and beyond.
So the product quality of what your market is very important. So whenever you go about marketing football, it has to be developed and packaged in a way where it would be relatable for the Pakistani audience and they don’t shun it.
Broadcast needs to be of very high quality. You need to showcase your local players in a manner that tell their stories. At the same time, you need to sell the dream of becoming a football player in Pakistan. You need to create that opportunity but you instil that dream also and to unite the country.
I think if you have announced a strategic mission to take Pakistan to the World Cup, I think that will get a lot of attention and if you take start taking the right steps. I don’t think there is a better way to market football if you go about that.
What advice would you give to players who want to start out professionally?
Right now, I think anyone who’s trying to make it as a footballer is up against a very broken system. It’s very tough to become a professional footballer anywhere in the world. In Pakistan, it is problematic because the system is not good enough.
It’s very important to start as early as possible. If you’re at the under five or under six levels I think parents can play a vital role.
Getting to the right coaches, going to the right Academy where you are taught the basics of football and so on, but at that age, it is very important to have fun as well.
If you get players to the right coaches and the right environment at a certain age, I think that makes all the difference. In every country, world players start young.
The problem in Pakistan is, a lot of times, the players have reached a certain age. After the age of 18, you can’t really teach anyone football.
We’ve had this problem in the past where the senior national team has been working on the basics which should never be the case.
I think in Pakistan, anyone that wants to play football should work on the basics. That’s the key difference between good players and great players.
It’s all about the basics, getting the basics right. Go to the right academy and practice. If you are an individual, try to practice as much as you can. Try to learn your weaknesses and strengths, play around with them and try to get access to coaches that can help develop you as a player.