by Shahrukh Sohail
The stage was Real Madrid’s magnificent Santiago Bernabeu, the Galactico faithful fully immersed in the theatre that is the UEFA Champions League. APOEL FC’s fans from Cyprus cheered on the visiting side. And, amidst it all, there was one man on the bench, waiting for his chance to make history.
On the 73rd minute of the match, after Cristiano Ronaldo put in a routine blistering shift on the same pitch, Ghayas Zahid stepped on the sacred Madrid turf, becoming the first player of Pakistani origin to play in the group stage of Europe’s premier club competition.
While Pakistani football continues to suffer, an ever-present highlight is the presence of Pakistani-origin players in some of the biggest leagues in Europe. However, until Ghayas, none of them managed to make it to the UEFA Champions League group stages.
Pakistan international Adnan Ahmed played qualifiers with Ferencváros back in 2009/10, Etzaz Hussain had a spell in the UEFA Europa League with Molde FK, while Nabil Aslam’s AC Horsens were knocked out of a potential group stage berth in Europe’s second-tier club tournament by a strong Sporting CP outfit in 2012.
Ghayas himself has had a taste of what it really is like playing against some of the biggest teams in the world, including FC Barcelona and Manchester United. Even for him, the experience of turning out against Los Blancos at their home in the Champions League was unprecedented.
“It was unbelievable,” said Ghayas in an exclusive interview with FOX Sports Asia. “I never thought I would be the first player of Pakistani origin to play in the UEFA Champions League group stage, and that too against Real Madrid.
“It was unbelievable but a fantastic experience at the same time.
Ghayas, who was famously courted by AS Roma two years ago, came through the ranks at Valerenga and turned professional there. Breaking through in 2014 for the Norwegian side, he notched nine goals in the top flight from midfield and went from strength to strength before earning a move to APOEL this summer.
“I started playing football when I was around three to four years old,” he explained.
“My family has a lot of interest in football, especially my cousins and my father. I spent plenty of my days on the football pitch with my cousins,” added the 22-year-old midfielder.
For Pakistani families across the globe, sport isn’t seen as a definitive career choice but Ghayas’ family supported him on a daily basis and encouraged him to pursue a career as a professional footballer.
The result has paid off and Ghayas has impressed in his new Cypriot surroundings. While he is still adjusting to things such as the weather and the city, the midfielder adds he is “happy to be here” and avails the “good opportunity”.
Ghayas’ father hails from the quaint little town of Lala Musa in Pakistan and the attacking midfielder himself has kept in touch with his roots, revealing that he speaks Urdu at home rather than Norwegian.
Interestingly enough, while he has been capped by Norway at various youth levels, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of turning out for Pakistan.
“I would consider it [representing Pakistan], of course,” Ghayas added.
“Currently, the Pakistan national team has not played for two years or something. They [Pakistan Football Federation] must do something to improve the team so players can aspire to play for Pakistan. They have to show football is important in Pakistan.”
For Ghayas, it has always been about playing football as a career and, while there have been ups and downs, he now has a solid foundation at APOEL to build on and move forward, capitalising a fulfilled dream he has been yearning for since he was a kid; playing in the UEFA Champions League.