LAHORE - In Pakistan, Football was thriving during the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, instability, unsuitable infrastructure and a lack of funding, together with other misfortunes caused a substantial decline for the country’s tangible football prospects, as well as the overall football culture in the country. The fact that Pakistan fell to 201st in the FIFA Rankings of 2017 did not help the matter, and the unfortunate icing on the cake was the banning of the Pakistani Football Federation due to third party interference, late last year.

Being aware of all that, it is definitely surprising to imagine that – courtesy of Coca-Cola – the FIFA World Cup Trophy is set to arrive here in Pakistan on February 3! Built with18-carat gold, it was first commissioned and introduced in 1974 after the theft of the Jules Rimet Trophy. (Jules Rimet was FIFA’s longest serving president and the initiator of the first World Cup in 1930) Since then, this “new” FIFA World Cup Trophy has embarked on 3 such tours – in 2006, 2010 and 2014. This is the first time Pakistan is included, however, and is in fact one of the only three South-Asian countries selected for 2018’s Trophy Tour. A delegation of sixteen Pakistanis, including representatives from the media, The Coca-Cola Company as well as the Pakistan National Football Team will join the tour in Chiang Mai, Thailand to receive the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy and bring it to Lahore, Pakistan. The trophy will remain in Pakistan for one day and will be unveiled for a viewing experience to the media and thousands of fans at the Coke Fest in Lahore. It is an extraordinary opportunity for people to share their passion for the sport; football is not only an emerging sport in Pakistan but also fast becoming a key platform of self-expression for the youth, connecting them beyond social and cultural boundaries.

And for Pakistani football, this tour is just the beginning. “We’re in this to develop this fast-growing sport,” Coca-Cola’s country manager Rizwan U Khan said. “That’s the sole aim and as a first step we’re going to bring the World Cup Trophy to Pakistan.” After the anticipated event, Coca-Cola Pakistan will undertake a series of initiatives across the country to promote and celebrate the fans’ love for Football. They will roll out a consumer promotion offering fans the chance to attend the FIFA World Cup in Russia, including the exclusive opportunity to represent Pakistan at the Coin Toss ceremony in one of the matches. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for football enthusiasts, who have never been presented which such involvement opportunities in the sport that they whole-heartedly love.

It is also therefore the hope that after these foreseeable ideas and their implementation that other corporations, institutions and bodies get on board in order to do their respective parts in promoting football within Pakistan. There have – in the past year or so – already been a few such events, exclusive of this, which did succeed to bring to light the sheer volume of interest and enthusiasm of the sport in the country. “Ronaldinho and Friends” is an example, where in the summer of 2017, thousands of football fans showed up to the two exhibition matches in Karachi and Lahore, absolutely thrilled to be in the presence of these global stars. The only way in which football will progress in Pakistan is if similar initiatives are taken on a local and international level. This would increase confidence, investments in football, and overall, the culture of the sport in the country.

Football is however, being played and taught increasingly at a young level, with competitive sides beginning at five or six years of age to train players. Football education is very important at this stage of life, and there have been worthy instances of its implementation in Pakistan, such as by Karachi United’s youth academy which regularly tours the Middle East to play against top quality youth. Not to mention, the recent introduction of FIFA-certified pitches such as Kick Off In Rawalpindi, is definitely something that is bound to receive more traction after the large scale trophy tour by FIFA itself. And this is only the beginning.

With close to 150 days left until the start of the biggest single-sport event in the world, the demand for 2018’s World Cup is constantly increasing from football fans all over the world. Campaigns and plans that resonate so deeply with the respective populations and support the development of those who want to actively pursue football is truly important. And the Trophy tour undeniably opens up new avenues for this happening here in Pakistan.