Former Spanish football player Carles Puyol (C) kicks a ball at the final Twenty20 Pakistan Super League game at the National Cricket Stadium in Karachi on March 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Asif Hassan

Pakistan successfully hosted eight matches in the fourth season of its franchised cricket league last week in Karachi, despite international games not being played in the country due to security reasons.

The T20 cricket competition, called the Pakistan Super League (PSL), had been played almost entirely in the United Arab Emirates, where Pakistan had been hosting international cricket since 2009 since an attack on the Sri Lankan team in Pakistan. No teams were willing to tour there.

In the decade since that attack, Pakistan has been deprived of international sports at home and because of terrorism in the country, there was a plunge in tourism and other entertainment activities with foreign celebrities reluctant to visit.

However, despite the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team causing international athletes and artists refusing to tour Pakistan, the country has been using the sports arena as a showcase of its counter-terror successes.

While terror incidents declined in recent years, a mere reduction in the frequency of militant attacks did not make people want to go there. Hosting world-class athletes in the country has been a major step forward.

After the 2009 attack, the Zimbabwean team became the first international cricket side to tour Pakistan when they arrived in May 2015. That was followed by the PSL final being held in Lahore in March 2017, with Pakistan going on to host an ICC World XI side, Sri Lanka and the West Indies over the next 12 months.

“The Zimbabwe tour was incredibly difficult to pull off. It was that series which opened the door for other events,” former Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Najam Sethi told Asia Times.

“We had a control room filled with over 100 officials, including those from the Inter-Services Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau, led by the Interior Ministry, constantly monitoring threat levels and coordinating at a scale never witnessed before in Pakistan,” he added.

Sethi said that given the investment by overseas firms in sports, it is only a matter of time before all PSL matches will be held in the country and international sides play full tours in Pakistan.

“The security issue is becoming a thing of the past for Pakistan. The amount of money in sports is huge and it is helping Pakistan overcome its security challenges. The next step is for Pakistan to get its stadiums up to shape to host these international events,” Sethi said.

The reduction in militant attacks has not only resulted in the gradual resumption of international cricket in Pakistan, it has helped bring other sports to the country. In fact, Pakistan football hit an unprecedented milestone when the country hosted global superstars like Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs in two exhibition matches in Lahore and Karachi in 2017.

Former Barcelona and Spain football star Carlos Puyol attended Sunday’s PSL final in Karachi to formally kick off the World Soccer Stars (WSS) exhibition matches, which will take place in Pakistan next month.

Former French football star Nicolas Anelka, who will be a part of the WSS matches along with Puyol, Kaka and Luis Figo, told Asia Times in an exclusive interview that he was “pleasantly” surprised after visiting Pakistan.

“When you’re from another country you don’t really know much about Pakistan. It was a pleasant surprise for me when I came here for the first time two years ago, which is why I’ve come back again. We’re here for football, for the kids, to enjoy on the pitch and to make [the crowd] happy,” he said.

Anelka arrived in Pakistan on March 5 on his second trip to the country after the 2017 exhibition matches with ‘Ronaldinho and Friends.’ The former Real Madrid, Arsenal and Chelsea star was collaborating with the TouchSky Group and the Pakistan Football Federation to help the domestic football structure in Pakistan.

“You need people who bring knowledge [to them] from a young age. This is when you start playing football. We are here to teach [Pakistan youngsters] become better,” Anelka said, adding that watching big footballing names in front of them would boost football in the country.

“It’s important for budding footballers to watch their role models in person to show them it’s real. Hopefully, we’ll encourage more Pakistani youngsters to become football players as well.”

Another sport that has been bolstered by Pakistan’s successful counter-terror efforts is tennis. The country hosted Davis Cup for the first time in 12 years in their tie against Thailand in 2017, which was followed with matches by South Korea and Uzbekistan last year.

Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, Pakistan’s number one tennis player for the past two decades, credits Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricketer, with the turnaround.

“It is 110% true that sports is helping Pakistan overcome the security challenges. In tennis, we are now hosting Futures events, ITF events and of course the Davis Cup as well. Prime Minister Imran Khan should also be appreciated in this regard, most notably his peace gestures towards India,” Qureshi told Asia Times.

Qureshi has been a prominent ambassador of peace for Pakistan, having been appointed a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) goodwill ambassador in 2010. He was awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his partnership with Indian tennis star Rohan Bopanna and was lauded for his partnership with Israeli player Amir Hadad, despite a backlash at home.

“I regret that I couldn’t play in front of my home crowd during my peak years. But I am happy to have played my part in delivering a message of peace from Pakistan around the world,” Qureshi said.

The former US Open finalist also acknowledged that the improving security situation in the country was helping Pakistanis overseas as well.

“I feel that during the airport security checks, where I’m now being treated like anyone else. I remember back in 2010 an official asked me during the security check, ‘oh so you’re not a terrorist?’”

The incident prompted Qureshi’s famous speech in the Arthur Ashe stadium in New York, where he reminded the world that “we’re a friendly, loving, caring people. We want peace as much as you guys.”

And now with the symbiotic relationship between sports and counter-terrorism bolstering cricket and football in the country, Qureshi hopes Pakistan would finally be able to find his replacement at the international level as youngsters engage in healthy sports activities once again.

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