KARACHI: The 2012 Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) season has represented a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of Kaleemullah.
Khan Research Laboratories’ dominance of the country’s top-flight event could not have been so absolute if it hadn’t been for their ace marksman who scored 32 goals to emerge as the shining star of Tariq Lutfi’s well-drilled outfit.
And for a player who started his playing career as a full-back, the season has seen the 21-year-old Kaleemullah make his mark as one of the finest strikers the country has seen.
“Football is a family tradition for me,” Kaleemullah, a cousin of former Pakistan captain Mohammad Essa, told Dawn. “I played football at home and Essa was always there to help me in my early days. He was the biggest inspiration for me when I was young.
“Then I started playing for my school team, the Government High School Chaman, and it was then that I decided that I want to make a future in football.”
Dribbling abilities came naturally to Kaleemullah but he was initially deployed as a full-back when he signed up for Young Afghan FC — the youth wing of PPFL side Afghan FC.
“I used to play as a left-back but always had a knack of going forward and joining in the attack,” he recalls. “I used to drift in to midfield and then join the team as they took the ball forward.”
His break came as a 17-year-old in 2008 when he made his PPFL debut with Afghan FC.
Playing as a midfielder, Kaleemullah had done enough to impress the KRL management, who swiftly swooped to sign him up in 2009 along with his fellow midfielder Mehmood Khan.
“He came to us as a kid,” recalls KRL manager Lutfi. “His beard hadn’t even come at that time.”
Nurtured by KRL’s academy, Kaleemullah initially played as a left-winger but he consistently showed flashes of his potency up front; none more so than in the National Challenge Cup in Multan in 2010 when he finished as top-scorer.
Lutfi had seen enough. And at the end of last season, Kaleemullah was asked to play more ahead than his usual left-wing position.
It allowed Kaleemullah to model his game on the player he idolises — Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
“Messi is brilliant — the way he plays, the way he dribbles and the way he finishes,” Kaleemullah says. “When I was asked to play as a striker, I remodelled my game so that I could play like him.”
And that has paid dividends, so much so that Lutfi rates him as the Messi of his team.
“He popped up with goals whenever we need them the most,” Lutfi said on Monday as KRL wrapped up their third consecutive PPFL title. “He’s for us like Messi is for Barcelona.”
After nine games of the season, Kaleemullah hadn’t gotten on the scoresheet but then there was a remarkable turnaround. It seemed he’d found his scoring boots as he started to score goals for fun — and that too with unenviable ease.
Exquisite finishes from inside the box, some blistering strikes and a few absolute stunners meant Kaleemullah scored his 32 goals in 17 matches.
“We call him ‘Thandey’ in the dressing room because he’s so cool headed in front of goal,” Lutfi disclosed. “He’s a wonderful talent.”
On the international scene, however, Pakistan coach Zavisa Milosavljevic seems reluctant to play him as a lone striker.
“I was played in midfield during the national team’s tour of Singapore and the U-23 side’s tour to Sri Lanka,” Kaleemullah informed. “But that was the decision of the coach so I played in that position.”
Such has been Kaleemullah’s scoring form, though, that he’s attracting foreign interest.
“I got an offer from Bangladeshi club Dhaka Mohammadan which I didn’t take,” Kaleemullah said. “There were also a few Thai clubs looking at me but I’m on the lookout for better options.”
His dream is to play alongside Messi one day but admits that it is a “distant dream”.
For now, though, Kaleemullah is aiming for more glory with KRL and the national team.
“We have the AFC President’s Cup coming up and we’ll look for a good performance there as it would provide us with a platform to make a name for ourselves on the continental level and then I’d like to perform well with the national team,” Kaleemullah said.
Essa, arguably the best playmaker the country has seen, rates him as “the future of the country” and the hotshot vows to fulfill his cousin’s — and his country’s — expectations.
“It is just the beginning for me and I hope to perform even better in the future,” he concludes.