By Faizan Lakhani,
Known as Pakistan’s Messi, Kaleemullah is one of the finest footballers produced by the country. Inspired by his cousin Essa Khan, Kaleemullah started playing football at his school in Chaman from where was picked by Chaman’s Afghan Football Club and within a few years, Kaleemullah reached playing fields of California.
After memorable stints with KRL at home and Dordoi Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, Kaleemullah is now playing for Sacramento Republic Football Club in California. He is the first-ever Pakistani to play league football in USA.
In a recent interview with ‘The News on Sunday’, Kaleemullah spoke about his journey from Chaman to California and his future plans.
Following are the excerpts from the talk.
The News on Sunday: How did your journey commence?
Kaleemullah: I started playing Football in High School in Chaman. I was inspired by my cousin Essa Khan who was playing for Pakistan. In our area, football is a traditional game and Essa got a lot of respect from the people of the vicinity, which encouraged me to pick football.
But some people used to say that there was no future in football, but it didn’t stop me. I used to practise alone. Then I got the opportunity to play for a local team and never looked back. In 2007 I was picked by Afghan Chaman, initially for the junior team and later for the senior team. After a few months I was selected by KRL, one of Pakistan’s top football teams. Meanwhile I was also picked for Pakistan under-23 team and then the national team.
I got the real breakthrough in 2015 when I joined Kyrgyz Club Dordoi Bishkek, which changed my life. Earlier this year I got the opportunity to play in America. I joined Sacramento Republic Football Club. But this is just the beginning of my journey. I’ve a long way to go. I have to achieve a lot.
TNS: Footballers in our country don’t get much public recognition. Does it hurt?
Kaleemullah: Sometimes I feel this, but I cannot blame sports fans for this. There’re football fans in Pakistan who always support me. If our fan club is limited, it is because of people sitting at the helm of affairs in Pakistan Football Federation.
It is their job to make football attractive. Make our league a professional league and see how fans start following us.
TNS: People say that Pakistan has talent in football, but when we look at Pakistan’s ranking, we realise that something is missing. What is that?
Kaleemullah: We have raw talent, but how’ll the talent get enhanced? You don’t have any proper system to get the raw talent polished. Local players in Pakistan don’t get proper playing fields, they don’t get professional coaching, they don’t get proper plan and game analysis.
I can categorically say that talent-wise we are not behind anyone but we are behind only because there’s no system to transform a talented player into a professional athlete.
If Pakistani players get facilities like Lionel Messi or Christiano Ronaldo had, then Pakistan can also produce footballers like them.
The buildings of Goal Projects and Technical Centers won’t help us if there isn’t any playing field. We don’t need buildings; we need playing fields. You don’t prepare players in good-looking buildings; players are developed in proper playing field.
TNS: Do you think a foreign football coach is answer to Pakistan’s football problems?
Kaleemullah: You can’t achieve long-term goals by appointing a foreign coach with your national team for a limited time period. A foreign coach may help the side get some better results, but what will you get after he has gone? If you want football to improve, then get a proper system in place. Promote football at the grassroots level. Start football academies, call professional coaches, who should work not only with players but also with our local coaches. Invest in training of junior players, because they’re the future.
TNS: How do you compare Pakistan’s football league with leagues of the other countries?
Kaleemullah: Honestly speaking, our PPFL is the worst league in the world. I’ve been to other countries and I’ve observed how they organise their premier football leagues. Pakistan’s football league can never transform a player into a top level footballer because there is no professionalism in Pakistan’s league. We don’t have proper playing fields, we don’t have concept of professional football coaches, we don’t have concept of video analysis.
It was ridiculous to see Football Federation celebrating a sponsorship deal for kits’ supply. I wish they could realise that kits don’t create players. They could have used the sponsorship money to prepare better playing fields, but they thought otherwise.
TNS: How was the experience of playing at Dordoi in Kyrgyzstan and then Sacramento Republic FC in USA?
Kaleemullah: My stint with Dordoi changed my life. I had offers from Bangladesh and some Thai clubs, but I didn’t join them as I was waiting for a better opportunity and Dordoi provided me that opportunity. It wasn’t easy for me when I joined them as other players there were very good. It took me five to six games to adjust with them and was able to prove myself. It boosted my confidence and made me realise that I could do better.
Playing for Sacramento Republic is an honor for me. Playing alongwith some top footballers in US helped me improve my game a lot. What makes me feel good to be here is the support of Pakistanis and local community here. I feel proud when fans at Sacramento fly Pakistan flag when I am playing. I believe that when I am on field, I am not representing only the club, but also my country.
TNS: How has the current tussle between two factions of PFF damaged the game?
Kaleemullah: It has halted our progress. Our U16 and U19 teams missed South Asian and Asian events. These kids were supposed to be our future but now the tussle between the officials has almost pushed them back to oblivion. They are fighting for power without realising the loss players are suffering.
TNS: Pakistan is scheduled to take part in SAFF Championship in India later this year. What chances do you see for Pakistan team?
Kaleemullah: I am really looking forward to the SAFF Cup and I believe that we stand a very good chance of winning this tournament because teams in South Asia are more-or-less of the same standard. The match against India on 23rd December will be important for us. It will be our first game of the tournament and the first game decides your sail in any tournament. If we manage to beat India, then I am sure we’ll win the title.
TNS: Is there anything you want to achieve in your career before you retire?
Kaleemullah: Retirement is far away, but I am looking to improve my game day by day. I desire to play in Europe and am eagerly waiting for an opportunity. It is not easy to get on board there, but I am hopeful that I will soon get something because I believe I deserve it.
I want to become something young footballers can look up to. I want to become a benchmark for footballers in Pakistan. And one more thing I am looking forward to is building a school in my hometown, Chaman.