by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: It was third time lucky for Kaleemullah on his much-anticipated K-Electric debut.
After failing to score on two opportunities, Pakistan’s star striker expertly volleyed home the equaliser for his new side to send them on their way to a 2-1 victory against Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) in their Group ‘C’ opener of the inaugural NBP President’s Cup at the KPT Stadium here on Wednesday.
“It was my first match for K-Electric so of course it took me time to settle down,” Kaleem, who has joined K-Electric on a short-term contract from United Soccer League (USL) side Tulsa Roughnecks, told Dawn after the match.
“But I’m glad I had a goal-scoring return in my first game,” added the 24-year-old who made his first competitive appearance for a domestic team since leaving Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) for Kyrgyz giants FC Dordoi in 2014.
“This victory holds us in good stead for the rest of the tournament and is good for the morale of the team.”
But the victory came in controversial fashion with PIA vehemently protesting at full-time against referee Dilawar Khan who they claimed was biased towards K-Electric.
“He gave away a soft penalty decision which led to our undoing,” PIA manager Zafar Iqbal told Dawn, referring to Mohammad Rasool’s 85th-minute spot-kick which saw K-Electric put one foot in the quarter-finals of the 12-team tournament.
“The referee was from Chaman and since most players in K-Electric are from that region, he was inclined towards them. Earlier, he also didn’t give us a penalty for a handball.”
There was also a small protest during the match against K-Electric for recently ending the contracts of 15 footballers, most of them hailing from Karachi’s Lyari area.
Earlier, another former KRL football team member enjoyed his competitive debut with a victory.
Coach Tariq Lutfi’s Sui Sothern Gas Company (SSGC) made a flying start in Group ‘B’ with Mohammad Laal’s first-half brace securing a 2-0 victory against Pakistan Navy.
“We could’ve won by a bigger margin but we were wasteful in the final third,” Lutfi, who led KRL to three successive Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) titles during his four years at the helm, told Dawn.
“Nevertheless, the victory puts us within touching distance of the quarter-finals and that is good for my [second-division] side. Hopefully this will spur us on for our next match.”
In his next match on Sunday, Lutfi faces his former side KRL in what promises to be an emotional reunion.
On Wednesday, though, it was Kaleem who was the star attraction but the controversy at the end marred his return to domestic football.
Rasool went down under minimal contact from PIA captain Haji Mohammad who was sent off and sparked widespread protest from the PIA bench.
Earlier, PIA ran a disjointed K-Electric ragged with incisive counterattacks led by star forward Shakir Lashari.
Kaleem had two opportunities to open the scoring, first with a free-kick which was saved by goalkeeper Bilal in the 10th minute before firing high and wide with a first-time effort in the 40th.
But it was Lashari who opened the scoring with a superb finish in the 58th, with a rasping shot from the outside of his foot after being put through by a superb through ball from Raziq.
With a highly-fancied K-Electric team facing defeat, the inspirational playmaker Mohammed Essa — who is their player-coach — was sent on.
And Essa turned it around, first with a superb pass wide to Mohammad Riaz whose cross was steered home by Kaleem in the 72nd before sending Rasool clear for the resulting foul and the ensuing penalty.
“When the team needs me, I have to do my bit,” Essa told Dawn afterwards. “It was a tough match for us but I’m glad we got away with a victory.”
Essa was mobbed by former K-Electric players and their relatives at the end of the match who claimed it was because of him that they lost their jobs.
“K-Electric should represent Karachi and the Lyari area has produced Pakistan’s finest footballers,” former FIFA referee Ahmed Jan told Dawn, protesting on behalf of the players. “It’s very sad on the part of K-Electric management release these players.”
The match between SSGC and Navy was free of any controversy with Laal’s clinical finishing illuminating the first half.
The forward ran onto a superb through ball from fellow frontman Saadullah before firing home in the 17th minute. He then doubled his team’s advantage seven minutes later with a brilliant solo run before rounding off the keeper and poking home.
Navy tried to mount a comeback but it eventually resulted in spaces opening for SSGC who missed some clear-cut chances to put the match beyond their opponents’ reach.
“We could’ve won 5-0 or 6-0,” Lutfi rued. “We can’t afford to do that against KRL.”