by Mir Shabbar Ali
It was a footballing high for Pakistan Football in November 2013 when they bagged the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) ‘Aspiring’ member association award.
The award was received by President Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Faisal Saleh Hayat but was the result of Khan Research Laboratories Football Club (KRL FC) becoming the first team from the country to make it to the AFC President’s Cup final which they lost 1-0 — that too by conceding a scrappy goal in the dying minutes of a hard-fought game.
KRL, the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions then, were a team blessed with some of the best talent from all over the country and were perfectly put to function as a unit by their Head Coach Umar Farooq Tariq Lutfi.
Shining at this big stage for a side from a country which was ranked 172nd in the FIFA Rankings then was definitely something commendable. The feat was a proof that players from Pakistan Football had enough talent to compete on the world level.
“A footballer from Lyari at the age of 12 years is as talented as any footballer from Brazil or Europe at the same age,” says Lutfi who has been a part of Pakistan’s footballing scene since the 1970s.
Lutfi said the same for footballers coming up from remote regions of Balochistan like Chaman, Quetta and Pishin.
‘However’, he said, “Players from Punjab, specially Faisalabad, are known more for their physical strength than ball-playing skill unlike their fellows from the South West and Southern parts of the country.”
The 65-year-old said that the talent must be groomed in academies but Pakistan has almost none of them.
Lutfi has not just randomly gained such insight about the dynamics of football in the country. The coach has served a long time in the mix.
The man from Karachi started off his footballing journey from the play grounds of Azizabad, a famous neighborhood of the city, where he played for the Young Azizabad Football Club before making it to Makran Sports FC and then Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which is one of the top departments of the country.
But, how did a young boy from the early 70s come to fall in love with the game even when elite leagues from Europe weren’t aired on television?
“I fell in love with the game when I started playing it with my friends. The thrill, the action and the speed kept inspiring me to play more and more football,” says Lutfi indicating how vibrant was the sporting culture in Karachi in those days.
Lutfi’s time at PIA was mostly spent on the bench as the first team boasted the irreplaceable likes of Ali Nawaz, Aashiq Ali, Jabbar Sr. and many other big names.
However, he was introduced to a new opportunity when PIA’s new sports head offered him and three other players to travel to England to do a coaching course.
Lutfi accepted the offer and flew to England where he did his first coaching course at the Bisham Abbey, one of the top footballing institutions of the country.
“The experience in England made me feel interested towards coaching in the early stages of my career,” says Lutfi.
“The advance coaching patterns and an excellent footballing atmosphere in UK convinced me that I should learn the skill further,” adds the former PIA attacker.
Lutfi, however, did not abandon his playing career and stayed at PIA for 11 more years as a player and did more coaching courses becoming a FIFA and AFC qualified coaching instructor as well.
Lutfi’s impressive set of qualifications and experience landed him the post of the Pakistan senior team head coach in 1985. He experienced moments where the national side showed some mettle.
The highlights of Lutfi’s career as the national football coach were beating India to win the 2004 SAF Games and then losing just by 2-0 to an experience Morocco side in the 2005 Islamic Solidarity Games.
Morocco, then, was the runners up of the African Cup of Nations and Lutfi takes pride to talk about his only meeting with the African giants as the Pakistan boss.
“After that result against Morocco, Pakistan rose almost 25 places in the FIFA rankings during my tenure. That’s what playing against good teams can do,” says Lutfi.
So what went wrong with Pakistan football that the ranking has come down to 200 now?
Lutif believes the PFF lacks people coming from a football background is the main reason behind the game’s destruction in the country.
“The President has no footballing background. The people working inside the federation are learning in the federation and have no past experience or knowledge of the game,” he says.
Another key reason behind Pakistan’s poor ranking is that footballing activity has come to a standstill. The PPFL has not been held since its last season in 2014-15 and Pakistan have been withdrawing from almost all international competitions since that time.
Reason? Infighting within the PFF.
The federation fell into dispute after a controversial election of the Punjab Football Association (PFA) in April 2015 after which it was split into two factions heading into its presidential elections in June.
With both parties heading into elections, the Lahore High Court intervened and ordered a stay on the elections but the Hayat group went ahead and conducted the election in the presence of an AFC observer.
The move made the LHC appoint an administrator to control the PFF affairs and the matter is not resolved yet as the country faces a ban from FIFA.
But, Lutfi, who led KRL to three consecutive PPFL titles during his time with the department from 2011 to 2015, believes football will make a comeback soon and that too ‘with a bang’.
“The boys are hungry. And once it resumes, a lot of hype will be created,” he says.
“The highest ranking we ever achieved can be reached again,” says a hopeful Lutfi who is currently working for second division side Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) as head coach.
“My aim is to take SSGC to the first division and then make them one of the top sides of the country,” he says.
Lutfi, with all his qualifications and experience, never chose to move out of Pakistan in pursuit of a potentially better career.
“I feel comfortable here in my own country helping my people through what I can offer to them with my knowledge,” says the 65-year-old.
“I’ve been working on the national level for the last 30 years. What else do I need?” adds Lutfi.