By Shahrukh Sohail, Chief Editor, Islamabad
He skips past defenders without breaking a sweat and calmly fires a vicious shot into the top corner, running back to celebrate with his teammates as they edge closer to a win. The crowd is awed, the opposition overwhelmed, yet Murtaza Hussain is composed. After all, unlike most of the players at the NUST FootyMania, Murtaza plays football for a living. And the difference in quality is obvious.
“Why do you like to torment youngsters when you are clearly above their skills set? I ask the 23-year-old jokingly after he agreed to talk over a cup of ice-cold coke at my house.
“I can’t help it, I just enjoy football. Even my club tells me not to play in amateur tournaments to avoid injury, but I always end up playing anyway,” he grinned ecstatically. “I used to play in school in Tehran while my father was a lecturer there. I started with the school team where i played futsal and I haven’t left the game since.”
After departing Irani pastures for the Pakistani capital, Murtaza found himself searching for a team and for a while he couldn’t adjust. “I stuck to my friends at the Irani school and I rarely played football outside the school grounds. But then one day, me and a couple of other mates ventured to play at the multi-purpose ground in F-6, and I was astonished to see an astro-turf pitch in the city!”
The ground, which stands in tatters today, resulted in Murtaza being scouted by Islamabad’s biggest club; Mehran FC, whose players found that the youngster had talent in a visit to the facility. The club’s President Mohammad Zaman, more commonly referred to as ‘Zaman Bhai’ in Islamabad’s storied football circles, quickly signed him up and offered him a chance to play against some of the best in the region.
“When I joined Mehran in 2006, the team was amazing and we had all these international players such as Kamran Khan and Yasir Sabir. It was fantastic playing alongside them and I worked hard in training, finally making it to the senior team in two years and playing regularly for the first eleven.”
“Things changed for me when I played in the 2011 Islamabad Football Association (IFA) League and ended up as the competition’s top scorer with 14 goals. That got me into the Islamabad side for the U-19 National Championships, which was a great experience in itself. I did really well there and helped the team into the quarter-finals while bagging 5 goals,” he added.
With his burgeoning reputation, current AFC Pro License candidate Shahzad Anwar drafted him into the Pakistan U-19 training camp, which was preparing for the AFC U-19 Championship to be held in Iran. But for Murtaza, it became difficult to continue as he had to choose between his intermediate exams and a chance of representing his country in a major Asian tournament.
“My parents simply said no,” he laughs. “For them studies always came first, so I excused myself from the training camp and I went back home.”
Like any good son would do, Murtaza studied and applied to universities, eventually getting selected in and opting for a law program at Islamic University, Islamabad. While not known for its academic strengths, the university’s football team has regularly been the envy of other institutes due its mix of quality foreign students and toughened local stars. Murtaza felt right at home and immediately made the first team squad, resulting in a call-up to the overall Higher Education Board (HEC) team that takes part in the 2nd division of Pakistani football – The PFF League.
“I played the 2013/14 season for HEC in the PFF League and did really well for myself. Most of the matches were in Karachi and despite different match conditions; I ended up getting the league’s top scorer award.”
Even though football isn’t the biggest of sports in Pakistan, the PFF League is a decent tournament and since the matches were scheduled alongside the country’s top tier Premier League, many sides fancied Murtaza after his goal-scoring exploits.
“KRL liked what they saw in Karachi and their Sports Manager Ayaz Butt approached me with an offer to play professional football,” added the striker. “My family insisted on putting education first and despite being in the 3rd semester, I told them I would be able to manage the rigors of professional football with my educational commitments!”
But things changed quickly for Murtaza as he made his competitive debut for KRL in the 2014 AFC Presidents Cup in Colombo, Sri Lanka and had a fiery taste of the top level as the Rawalpindi-side crashed out. That was just the start and the next few months saw the forward more or less training 24/7 and when the Premier League came around, he hadn’t attended any of classes and the professors weren’t going to let him sit in the exams.
“I knew I had to make a choice. I couldn’t have the best of both worlds and I chose to drop out of university after a very serious discussion with my family.”
For Murtaza, the choice may have been difficult, but it worked out for the better and saw him score a brace on his league debut against Baloch F.C. And to top it all off, at the end of the season, he chalked up a cool 14 goals in 22 Premier League appearances, leading to admiration and praise from the entire football community.
Since then the striker has scaled many heights and has been in reckoning for the National Team after being called to train a couple of times before. He’s even trying to get his studies back on track and has secured a scholarship at the Roots University in Islamabad. But for Murtaza Hussain, football is and will always be his career choice in life.