by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: The glow of the floodlights seemed to have lit up Pakistan International Airlines’ (PIA) chances on Thursday.
With dusk approaching, PIA had fallen behind to a scrappy goal at the end of the first half against Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in their quarter-final of the DG Rangers Aman Football Tournament at the Peoples Sports Complex.
They were a different side altogether in the second half.
Shakir Lashari drew PIA level with a clinical strike before they sealed their spot in the semi-finals, prevailing 3-0 in a tense shootout.
“It’s a good victory for us and we will carry this momentum into the semi-finals,” goalkeeper Bilal, who made an outstanding save for PIA in the shootout, told Dawn after the match.
Football matches under lights are rare in Pakistan — the Aman Tournament, criticised for its knockout format by the departmental teams, offering a chance for fans to throng to the stadium during the cooler summer evenings.
“The matches have generally drawn a good crowd, especially those which have been played under lights,” tournament organisers told Dawn.
“We couldn’t have had anything other than a knockout tournament,” they added on the criticism on its format.
Pakistan Army coach Major Shafqat Mahmood was of the view that the 32-team tournament could’ve done well to have incorporated a pool stage for the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) sides.
“The departmental teams don’t really approve of a knockout-style tournament because it all comes down to one bad match and they have no second chances,” he told Dawn.
“They could’ve put the PPFL teams in the final round, starting a qualifying round for the rest of the 24 B-division and provincial teams.
“Eight teams advancing from that stage would’ve joined the eight PPFL teams in a group stage before the quarter- finals and so on.”
Others have been bothered by the congested fixture-list as the organisers aimed to squeeze in games.
Nonetheless, the tournament has reached the last eight with the other three quarter-finals to be played on Friday with Army squaring off against National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) in the pick of the matches.
The other quarter-finalists are Karachi Port Trust (KPT), DFA West, Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police.
Army edged past Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 3-2 in the opening round before beating Pakistan Public Works Department (PPWD) 2-0 in the last 16 on Wednesday night while NBP started off with a 5-1 rout of DFA Malir before edging Karachi United 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
NBP head-coach Nasir Ismail praised his junior team for advancing so far and wished them luck for the quarter-final.“We’ve put out a junior team with a little smattering of the seniors and they’ve done well to go this far,” he told Dawn.
He was also critical of the way the tournament has been held.
“They’ve held many matches in a very quick time and very haphazardly,” Nasir said. “They can do better in the future.” The fans, though, aren’t complaining.
“Finally we’re getting to see football action,” said a young fan in the stands, wearing the shirt of La Liga giants Barcelona.
Football has suffered over the last year with infighting in the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
With the PFF heading into its presidential elections in June, the country’s football governing body split into two factions after claims of incumbent president Faisal Saleh Hayat tampering with the constitution to keep himself in the power.
It led to the Lahore High Court (LHC) intervening and calling for a stay on the polls but the Hayat faction went ahead with the elections.
The court subsequently issued a contempt notice to Hayat while appointing an Administrator, Justice Asad Munir, until the issue is resolved.
Last month’s PFF Cup was a breakthrough and has been quickly followed by the Aman Football Tournament.
But players and coaches want more.
“There should be more events,” PAF coach Mohammad Arshad told Dawn after his side were knocked out. “It’s good that the focus is back on football. The players and the fans deserve more.”