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Official Review by Gary Butterworth, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Lahore, Pakistan’s second city, has long been heralded as a cultural capital. Living up to its reputation, Lahore boasts an impressive array of parks, museums, universities, and yes, even sports venues. While an active athletic community keeps the city’s sports fields busy, the stands usually sit empty.
Historically, Pakistan is a country where the culture of spectator sports begins and nearly ends with international cricket. Sadly, a 2009 terror attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team not only scared off visiting international cricket teams, it all but guaranteed that Pakistan wouldn’t be able to participate in the worldwide revival of interest in the domestic version of the game.
Pakistan’s sports associations, though, are not content with the status quo, and efforts to boost domestic leagues and lure back foreign teams are beginning to show results in a variety of sports. We were lucky enough to be in Lahore for a planned two-game friendly football series against Palestine, which is considered a full-fledged country by FIFA. Although the series was shortened to a single game at a lackluster venue, we were impressed by the professional production of the match. We left optimistic about the future of Pakistani football and sports in general.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Punjab Stadium lacks any permanent space for vendors. Three or four street vendors did circulate in the crowd selling what they could carry, but the options were slim. A fist-sized portion of fried daal (lentils) in a cone of newspaper cost 10 rupees (10 US cents, or 8 Euro cents). Slices of coconut were also available at similarly low prices, equivalent to what one would pay outside of the stadium. Fans seated in the VIP area (sponsors, football officials, several Westerners, and affluent-looking fans who were escorted to the area after appearing as though they belonged there) were treated to free bottled water, Coca-Cola, and 7-Up. While we didn't see anyone attempt to bring in outside food, it seems unlikely that it would be prohibited. Smoking is allowed in the stands.
By October, daytime temperatures in Lahore begin to drop into the "comfortable" range, but most fans still took shelter from the sun under the roof at midfield along the western sideline. In addition to the shade, the western grandstand offers the majority of the venue's seating, as well as a view that Stadium Journey fans would enjoy. From here, fans can easily spot two neighboring major sport venues: National Hockey Stadium and Gaddafi Stadium.
The midfield area directly under the roof is reserved for VIPs and features padded restaurant-style chairs. These chairs continue past the VIP fence to just beyond the neighboring Palestinian fan section. Beyond that, the remainder of seating is on concreted steps.
An athletics track means that the regions behind the goals are far removed from the action and best avoided. For the Palestine friendly, the stadium was under 20% of capacity, and fans were free to roam and find their preferred place.
If this venue ever attracts a near-capacity crowd, caution should be used in deciding whether to attend. The first row of seating at Punjab Stadium sits about 10 feet above field level, and there are surprisingly few exits from the seating bowl to ground level. This layout creates the potential for a dangerous crowd dynamic in a full stadium. For smaller crowds, though, this poses no real danger.
Public address announcements were adequately audible and made in English. A manual scoreboard was updated when goals were scored, but no match clock is visible. Organizers did an admirable job of decorating the venue with Pakistani and Palestinian flags, as well as signage specific for the match. Given the few attempts the Pakistan Football Federation has had at staging international friendlies in recent years, they succeeded in making the match feel like an event.
Three major stadiums, a noteworthy regional cricket ground, a few smaller sports fields, and an arts and culture center make up this complex. On those all-too-frequent days when none of the venues are attracting a crowd, this complex could be a black hole in the center of the city. Thankfully, it's not, as Lahore has succeeded in doing something that many US city planners promise, but struggle to deliver: turning the stadium district into a year-round destination that sees plenty of life even on non-event days.
Gaddafi Stadium is the center of the complex's everyday use. Restaurants, a banquet hall, and a book store are among the commercial establishments built underneath the cricket venue's stands. With direct access from the stadium's exterior, these establishments draw enough everyday traffic to keep the complex lively despite the dearth of event dates.
Lahore's well-known, moderately-priced Liberty Market provides an alternative shopping, dining, and lodging destination within a long-ish walk from the stadium. Given Lahore's spread-out, decentralized and car-centric nature, most would choose to drive. Posh MM Alam Road is not much farther. All of these areas are safe and pleasant places to walk around.
Given Pakistan's historic ambivalence to football, the lack of a truly engaged crowd is not entirely unexpected. Despite free admission, less than two thousand turned out on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Some wore Pakistan cricket jerseys. The crowd was well-behaved and cheered politely at the appropriate times, but was far from passionate.
Next to the VIP area, a contingent of travelling Palestinian fans set up a small visiting supporters section that was livelier than the local crowd. The drum beats and rhythms were the same as one hears at football matches around the world. The words to the chants, though, were changed to reflect the unique geopolitical challenges of the visitors, as well as the close relationship between the competing teams.
"Meri zameen, meri zameen?" ("My land, my land?")
"Filasteen, Filasteen!" ("Palestine, Palestine!")
"Meri jaan, meri jaan?" (My beloved, my beloved?")
Between this chant and "Long live Palestine! Long live Pakistan! Death to Israel!" it felt as though fans were supporting both teams. Indeed, no one in attendance seemed disappointed by Pakistan's eventual 2-0 loss. The crowd took the idea of a friendly match to a new level.
The crowd for this particular match was more than 99% male. While men dominate public life in much of Pakistan, women are generally far from invisible in Lahore. There were no signs that women were mistreated or unwelcome; in fact, a female security guard was available to screen women upon entry. Still, single women might feel more comfortable attending events here in a group.
For the match, parking at Gaddafi Stadium was doubled from its non-event rate of 20 rupees. Even at 40 rupees (USD 39 cents), parking is a bargain in a global context. For very large matches, the stadium's own parking areas could easily fill up. However, large crowds anywhere in this complex are unheard of since 2009.
All taxi or auto rickshaw drivers in Lahore will be familiar with either this venue or the neighboring Gaddafi Stadium. The venue is centrally located, but central Lahore's unpredictable traffic adds guesswork to travel time. This particular event produced no real traffic.
Punjab Stadium can also be reached from the Gaddafi Stadium stop on Lahore's new Metro Bus BRT system.
Upon arrival at the stadium, all fans go through several layers of security checks. While such checks often feel annoying at sports events, they are truly necessary here. Checks are professional, moderately thorough, and non-invasive. Men are checked more thoroughly than women. Bags and seat cushions are allowed in without any trouble after inspection. A female officer is available to inspect women and their belongings.
Upon entry, fans need to ascend a set of stairs to reach the seating bowl, from where they can begin moving around the stadium. Between this and the lack of restrooms, fans with special needs may have difficulty at this venue. For most, though, attending a game here is a breeze.
A full international match for free is the best value you'll find anywhere. In a country where international matches of any type are a less-than-annual occurrence, the value is even greater.
The attack on the Sri Lankan team occurred just over half a mile, or just under one kilometer, from Punjab Stadium. Since then Palestine has made two trips to this complex for football, and China has made a visit for field hockey. Sports, it seems, soldier on. The fact that these events are able to be staged at all is a triumph for Pakistan. Pulling them off with such professionalism is an even greater victory.
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