by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: When Tariq Lutfi took over at Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) at the start of the year, he tried to downplay expectations that his second-division side would soon be going shoulder to shoulder with the country’s aristocratic teams.
Yet in his very first tournament, SSGC reached the semi-finals. The loss to Wapda in the last-four of the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) President’s Cup Football Tournament in January saw former Pakistan coach Lutfi calling for a lot of improvements. But it was a sign that a team was emerging.
Since then SSCG have undergone a revolution in terms of both personnel and structure, and it has brought not only style and swagger to the side but also silverware.
As SSGC began their quest for a third trophy in three months at the Naya Nazimabad Quaid-i-Azam Departmental Football Tournament on Thursday, they looked like a team transformed. There were no-look passes, cheeky flicks and some showboating as well as they opened their Group ‘A’ campaign with a 5-1 thumping of Sindh Police at the KMC Stadium. They could’ve scored 10 if they hadn’t been so over-elaborate.
“That would’ve been a huge statement from us but I’m glad we didn’t score that many,” Lutfi, a serial winner with his former side Khan Research Laboratories, told Dawn, still trying that his team keep their feet on the ground and focus on the ball.
But with the signings he’s made since taking over SSGC it is only natural that there is hype surrounding the team.
A slew of Pakistan internationals have joined the side since January including midfielders Saddam Hussain and Mahmood Khan, striker Jadeed Khan Pathan and full-back Ahsanullah. The quartet joins fellow internationals Bilawal-ur-Rehman, Saadullah and goalkeeper Ehsanullah and the players are making no secret that the team is desirous of not only being on an equal footing with the country’s top guns but also beating them.
“The aim is to be counted amongst the top teams of the country,” Bilawal told Dawn on Thursday. “And for that we have to ensure that we’re good enough to compete and win against them. Little by little, we are gaining their respect and we are working hard to realising that dream.”
In September SSGC won the Major Tufail Shaheed Memorial Football Tournament and followed it up by clinching the title at the All Pakistan Salahuddin Dogar Memorial Football Tournament last month.
“Those titles gave the team a huge lift,” Saddam, who has played for clubs in Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain and Northern Cyprus, told Dawn on Thursday. “It strengthens our belief that we’re going in the right direction. We really want to be up there, fighting with the top teams.”
For that, SSGC need to gain promotion to the top tier of Pakistan football: the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL).
They will have to wait for that though. The PPFL and the second-division Pakistan Football Federation League (PFFL) haven’t taken place since 2014-15 due to a dispute in the country’s football governing body, the PFF.
That dispute in the lead-up to PFF’s presidential election in June 2015, saw it split into two factions and brought intervention by the Lahore High Court (LHC) which appointed an administrator to manage football affairs.
While the PFF case continues to be heard in the court, world’s football governing body FIFA has banned Pakistan.
In these dire times for the game in the country, SSGC has been actively recruiting top players, offering them good contracts. And Lutfi believes that the suspension of football in the country has helped in the recruitment drive.
“I think it helped,” he said on Thursday, after his team’s win courtesy two goals each from Jadeed and Mohammad Lal and a strike by Saeed Ahmed after Sindh Police had taken a shock third-minute lead through Wahid.
“With the league not taking place, there was no first-division or second-division and only tournaments like these. Hopefully by the time the league resumes, we will be a well-drilled outfit.”
Despite knowing that they will be playing in the second division once league football eventually resumes, the players have had no qualms in moving to SSGC.
“Tariq Lutfi being the coach was a big factor in my decision to come here,” Mahmood told Dawn on Thursday. “I’ve come here for the project that has started here.”
The aims are high but the players are undeterred. “If we continue doing what we’re doing, we will realise our ambitions,” Mahmood added. “Winning tournaments and playing good football are the keys to getting there.”
SSGC are doing exactly that at the moment.
The result also benefitted Pakistan Steel, who qualified for the quarter-finals of the 14-outfit competitions. Chaman’s PACA and Gwadar Port had withdrawn without informing the organisers.
Despite the victory, SSGC coach Tariq Lutfi was not happy. “The boys missed chances,” Tariq told ‘The News’. “The main reason behind this is that we played without any preparation. The players’ fitness level was not as high as it is when they train in a proper camp under a specific system. Our key player Salam did not play today due to a hamstring injury which he had received during the training session last day. We had to change Bilal after he injured his knee and Mehmood Khan also had fitness issues,” said Tariq, a former Pakistan coach.
He said that the KMC ground was very heavy and it was not easy for the players without proper training. “KRL have come to the event after one-month training,” the coach said. He said that Jadeed played well but he missed six chances. “Each time he went on to the minus position but did not give the ball to anyone,” Tariq pointed out. SSGC also missed striker Saadullah who is playing in the Maldives.
On Friday (today), former champions KRL face KMC in their Group B outing at the same venue. Both KRL and KMC have won their initial matches.