By Umaid Wasim – DAWN
As the sun began to set behind the Army football stadium on a nippy Lahore evening in February 2014, Kaleemullah received the ball on the right wing.
Three Pakistan Army defenders converged, tightly closing the space for the Khan Research Laboratories’ (KRL) striker. But Kaleem found a way, dragging two on his left with him before cutting quickly past the third on his right. He played the ball into space towards Mahmood Khan.
Mahmood returned the ball quickly to Kaleem as he ran across him and with a scintillating first touch, the nifty striker threaded a perfectly weighted through-ball to teammate Saddam Hussain who rounded off the goalkeeper and tapped in to make it 2-0 to KRL.
Kaleem had put KRL ahead seven minutes earlier in the game. They only needed to draw to ensure a third successive Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) title.
Saddam’s strike had effectively done that 18 minutes into the match before Dawood Khan added a third on the hour mark to give KRL a 3-1 win under a red-hued sky.
They celebrated their title triumph but coach Tariq Lutfi was mindful that this was the pinnacle for the team he had built and soon there would be a number of sides around the world chasing his most coveted talents.
One of those stars, winger Mohammad Adil, had already signed for Kyrgyzstan giants FC Dordoi Bishkek and was set to fly after KRL’s last match of the season in three days’ time.
There were a number of sides after Kaleem too and Lutfi acknowledged after the match that the Chaman-born star striker would be the next to go the same route.
Kaleem knew he would be miss the service Adil provided him with.
That particular season had been less prolific for the striker who had struck a whopping 32 goals a year before to show how incredible a striker he was.
The tally was down to 21 goals as KRL completed a hattrick of domestic titles but his all-round game had improved. With Adil, he had formed a front duo that terrorised defences in the PPFL.
“Kaleem has been the most influential player this season,” Lutfi had said after that game against Army.
“He’s become a complete player this season. He’s shown that he has the temperament to be a top professional.”
Instead of preying around the box, Kaleem had dropped back in the 2013 season. He was linking up play with the midfield, creating space for others to take advantage of and setting up goals for the others with the vision in his passing.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to hold onto him for too long,” Lutfi, who Kaleem describes as one of the most influential people in his career, added.
Lutfi was right. Almost a year and a half later, Kaleem had set the Kyrgyz Shoro League alight with his dazzling talent and earlier this June signed a four-month deal with Sacramento Republic FC in the United States.
“It’s just the beginning for me,” Kaleem tells Dawn in an exclusive interview since joining the US club.
His journey thus far, though, is an inspiring one – one that Kaleem hopes will push kids in Pakistan to seriously think about football as a career
Kaleem caught the attention of the football fraternity with a stunning breakthrough season in 2012-13.
Then a rangy young lad with unkempt hair and beard, he plundered 32 goals – the most scored by a player in a 30-match PPFL season.
“Football kept me going. It’s more than a way of life for me.” — Photo by Umer Sayyam
His feat was even more remarkable considering the he hadn’t found the target in the first nine games of the season.
“I used to play on the left wing in the beginning and it took me a bit of time to adjust as a centre-forward but when that happened, the goals came thick and fast,” Kaleem recollects.
“That was a fantastic season for me.”
That season came two years after Kaleem suffered a huge personal loss – the death of his father in 2010 which followed the sad demise of his mother three years earlier.
“I wasn’t there when my mother passed away and I also missed my father’s funeral because I was in Myanmar at that time [playing in the AFC President’s Cup with KRL],” Kaleem recalls with a heavy voice.
“It was tough for me, really tough. I was 18 and I’d lost both my parents. I wanted to show my parents that I could be a top professional footballer.
“Where I am today is because of their prayers. I miss them a lot but I hope they’re happy up in the heavens when they look down on me.
“Football kept me going all this time. It’s more than a way of life for me.”
Kaleem admits that in the beginning, his parents weren’t really supportive of his interest in the sport.
The lack of support stemmed from the fact that not many people at that time thought that there was a future as a footballer – this despite Chaman producing a number of famous players notably former Pakistan captain Mohammad Essa who is Kaleem’s cousin.
“People used to tell me football doesn’t pay that well … that there was no future as a professional footballer,” Kaleem says of the time when he was still a student at the Government High School Chaman.
“They told me I would never make it to the top and as a footballer my future would be limited to Pakistan since by that time none of our local stars had gone abroad to play professionally.
There were no proper academies either where the young aspirant could train to be a professional.
“But I kept going. I used to train alone on a field near our house where I would have a kick-about in the evening.”
“They told me I would never make it to the top.” — Photo by Umer Sayyam
It was during one of those self-training sessions where Kaleem’s potential was first spotted.
“I was training on my own in the field when a couple of individuals from the district team spotted me,” says Kaleem.
“They thought that I had the talent in me and the team signed me up.”
A few sterling performances for the district side piqued the interest of PPFL side Afghan FC Chaman and in 2007, Kaleem was inducted in their youth team, Young Afghan.
A year later, Kaleem was promoted to the senior team.
“This was when my father realised that I had the necessary talent to make it to the top as a footballer,” Kaleem informs.
The biggest realisation, however, came when KRL came calling.
“KRL saw me play for just 20 minutes as a substitute for Afghan FC in a match against them and decided to sign me. It was at the time the biggest day of my life.”
It was KRL manager Ayaz Butt who Kaleem says instilled the belief in him that he could cut it at the top level.
“Ayaz Butt told me he wanted to nurture my talent,” Kaleem says.
“He believed in my abilities.”
In his very first season, he won the double of PPFL and the National Challenge Cup but it was the next year in the country’s premier cup event when he really made his mark.
Top-scorer in the event in Multan, he helped KRL retain their title before Lutfi took over KRL for the 2011-12 season as head-coach.
“Lutfi is the sort of coach who backs his players,” Kaleem says.
“He pushed me to get better and better.”
Another Challenge Cup and PPFL title followed with Kaleem scoring 13 goals in the campaign.
Primarily used as a second-striker who made surging runs from the left, Kaleem was pushing for a place in the centre.
Rizwan Asif, Kaleem’s young teammate at KRL, was thriving as a centre forward before he was struck down with injury at the start of the 2012-13 season.
Kaleemullah (c) celebrates Pakistan’s 2-0 win over India in Bangalore. — AP
Opportunity knocked on the door for Kaleem and Lutfi put his trust in the player, making him the focal point of the team’s attack.
It proved to be a masterstroke with Kaleem pumping in goals for fun as KRL cantered to the title. His burgeoning reputation as the next big thing in Pakistan football was at a new high.
Pakistan’s Serbian coach Zavisa Milosavljevic was also taking notice, although he preferred to play Kaleem in a withdrawn role during international matches.
It all changed at the 2013 SAFF Championship under interim coach Shahzad Anwar when Kaleem formed the first-choice strike pairing with Hassan Bashir.
Pakistan crashed out at the group stage but Kaleem and Hassan’s performances were praised – as well as the team’s which gave it’s all.
By that time, Kaleem had also made his mark on the continental level, scoring four goals during KRL’s 8-0 thrashing of Bhutan’s Yeedzin in the first round of the AFC President’s Cup – Asia’s third-tier club tournament.
He created more headlines in the final round of the tournament in September of 2013, scoring against his future employers Dordoi and Palestine’s Hilal Al-Quds as KRL reached the final and become the first side from Pakistan to do so at an Asian event.
Kaleem and KRL suffered heartbreak in the final, though, losing 1-0 to Balkan FC of Turkmenistan, but the striker had made his mark.
“Performances in the President’s Cup really helped,” Kaleem says.
“Dordoi saw what I was capable of and so did the other teams.”
Kaleem had not only developed his game but matured otherwise too.
By the time the next PPFL season came along, he had undergone a personal transformation and was beginning to look more like a professional player destined for bigger things.
That performance at the Army Stadium in February 2014 was just one of many that lit up the season. His runs now had more meaning, his passes usually found the target and his vision to bring others into play was for all to see.
That was his second to last game in a KRL shirt before he lifted his fourth PPFL title with the club. Bishkek and Dordoi beckoned.
“Going to Dordoi offered me a chance to test myself and whether I could perform in another country,” says Kaleem.
Perform, he did. Initially signed on a five-month contract, his performances were such that Dordoi – coached by Milosavljevic – offered him a two-year contract worth Rs10 million.
He finished top-scorer in the league with 18 goals and also won the Kyrgyz Cup and Super Cup before being named Player of the Year.
Kaleemullah coming on as a sub in his first game for Sacramento. — Photo by Umer Sayyam
It prompted immediate interest. There were invitations for a trial in Iceland and China while Kaleem had been signed up by sports agency Kora Stars.
His agents, though, arranged a one-month trial at United Soccer League Pro (USL Pro) side Sacramento Republic FC.
“Every sportsman wants to reach the top and I’m no different,” Kaleem says.
“Sacramento Republic offered me that opportunity to get closer to the top.”
The USL Pro club invited him for a tryout but even for that, Kaleem needed to rescind his contract with Dordoi.
“It was a risk but I believed in myself. I was putting everything on the line.”
It was this belief that kept Kaleem, who turns 23 in September, going at a time when everything seemed lost.
The Pakistani-American community in Sacramento has another reason to support their football team. — Photo by Umer Sayyam
“On the first day of my trial, I twisted my ankle and was advised a weeks’ rest,” he tells.
“Despite the injury, I kept training. There was no other option and I knew it was going to be now or never.”
There was another setback in the last three days of his tryout.
“The club management told me that last three days were going to be crucial but on the first day, I suffered an injury to the same ankle.
“I was devastated. I could barely walk and I decided that I’d had enough and would go back to Pakistan. My body was giving up but my head pushed me on to give it one last shot.
“I found the strength and on the final day of the tryout, when the club director was there, I made a few decent moves and they signed me on a four-month contract.”
Kaleem will also get a chance to play against English Premier League sides Sunderland and Newcastle United during his stint at Sacramento
The brief stint at Sacramento, the Pakistan captain says, will be the turning point in his career.
“The next four months are going to define my career,” adds Kaleem, who has featured in two games so far as a substitute.
“I’m going to learn as much as I can and hopefully earn a longer contract. I’m focused at giving my best here.”
During the course of his contract, Kaleem will also get a chance to play against English Premier League sides Sunderland (July 14) and Newcastle United (July 18), who will be in the US on their pre-season tours.
“This is a chance for me to rub my shoulders against the best players in the world,” he says looking forward to the two games.
“Not only is it a great opportunity to learn but also a great chance to shine.”
He admits that he desires of playing in Europe one day but he’s happy in the US at the moment.
“Football is growing in the US,” he says.
“Next season, there will be players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard playing in Major League Soccer (MLS),” he says with an expectant look on his face.
And as California becomes the latest stop on his trailblazing path, he believes his story will give youngsters in Pakistan some hope of making a future as a professional footballer.
“I think at least people in Pakistan can now see that there is future in football.”
“It isn’t impossible to dream.”