Natasha Raheel – Express Tribune
KARACHI: Khanewal may not be one of Pakistan’s bigger cities, but the lure lies in its ability to attract larger crowds for football events than in the more famous cities.
Thirteen-year-old Naeem, the goalkeeper of the National U14 Football Champions Karachi-Hyderabad zone, believes that while the choice of venue for the major event was a surprise, Khanewal pulls audiences the same way as Lyari.
“Khanewal is very far away [from Karachi], so winning a title away from home was great,” Naeem, who was adjudged the best keeper of the tournament, told The Express Tribune. “It means a lot to me since I conceded only two goals in the entire championship.”
The youngster said the general atmosphere of the tournament was a source of motivation, thanks to the active participation of football enthusiasts. “I was happy that so many people came to see our matches. In Lyari, we say that if there are no spectators, there is no football. In Khanewal, we were given plenty of reasons to play at our best.”
Two of Sindh’s teams emerged as Pakistan’s best talent in the championship, which was featuring 13 sides including squads from all provinces and different zones.
Karachi-Hyderabad (zonal team) defeated Sahiwal-Faisalabad Zone 1-0 in the final, while Sindh (provincial team) bagged a bronze medal after defeating Fata.
A good experience overall: Karachi-Hyderabad coach
Karachi-Hyderabad coach Ghulam Shabbir said that the overall experience in Khanewal was a good one, and despite some problems with accommodation, the teams were treated well by the hosts.
“We were accommodated at a school, which was inconvenient as regular classes used to take place in the mornings there,” said Shabbir. “Other than that, it was alright. My players got to see a different side of the country.”
The coach also praised the initiative to hold the champion in one of the smaller cities. “I believe that holding this event in Khanewal was a good idea because we can promote football in smaller cities this way.”
Shabbir pointed out that the increase in prize money is also a good sign; the winners received Rs100,000, while the best players of the tournament pocketed Rs10,000 each. “It’s not much, but we received daily allowances for each player and for the coaches too,” he said. “And previously we used to get Rs50,000 for the winners so it’s a positive increment.”
Meanwhile, Pakistan Football Federation official Pervez Saeed Mir said that the championship was successful despite the novelty of the venue. “We are grateful to the players that they travelled to Khanewal,” said Mir. “We understand that it wasn’t easy for the parents to send their children here, but this venue is safe and also a hotspot for football fans.”
Mir added that the championship has given the federation at least 40 players for the national camp, which will take place soon in order to prepare for the Asian Football Confederation U14 event in Central Asia in May.