by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: Saqib Hanif ran from his goal towards the centre circle, fists clenched as he punched the air, screaming in delight before jumping on top of his delirious team-mates celebrating their last-gasp equaliser.
What made it so special for Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) was that it was against a Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC) side to which many of their players have defected to. This was a grudge match, of the old order against the rising upstarts, and KRL wanted to make sure that SSGC were put in their place.
Seconds earlier, Saqib had made a crucial save to prevent KRL from falling further behind, latching onto quick shot on the turn by Imran Hussain and swiftly initiating a counterattack. Umair Ali was at the other end of that 87th-minute counterattack and the striker smartly beat the offside trap to get on the end of a throughball to make it 1-1 in a breathless first semi-final of the inaugural Naya Nazimabad Quaid-i-Azam Departmental Football Tournament here at the KMC Stadium on Thursday.
Once the celebrations died down, the onus was back on Saqib for the penalty shootout. The Pakistan international goalkeeper was up to the task again, saving efforts from Mohammed Lal — who scored SSGC’s 17th-minute opener — and former KRL team-mate Mahmood Khan, before Umair scored the decisive spot-kick to secure a 4-2 win on penalties.
It sparked another massive celebration. This time, the whole KRL bench ran onto the pitch, hugging and embracing their team-mates on the other end of the pitch. They were joined by a near capacity crowd of 12,000 at the KMC Stadium who spilled onto the pitch after witnessing yet another classic on this iconic venue. Fans from all ages gathered around the KRL players; the younger ones clicking ‘selfies’ with them, the older ones congratulating them.
This is how it’s always been in Pakistan football. Nowhere else in the world do the fans get so close to their idols immediately after a match, with the players having always responded warmly to them. On Thursday, it was like the old times. Only that so much has changed in Pakistan football in the last few years. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) was banned by FIFA in October but football activity had come to standstill more than two years earlier.
It is independently-organised tournaments like these which have kept football alive and kicking despite the testing times for the sport off the field. On the field there is the same passion and competitive spirit when departmental teams, who once used to meet regularly in the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) and the second-tier Pakistan Football Federation League (PFFL), clash. At the KMC Stadium on Thursday, KRL once again showed their enduring class.
The match seemed gone from their grasp before Umair struck. It was like the KRL of the old, the team that never gives up, the team that is desperate to reassert their superiority on Pakistan football once the league resumes and the country’s football governing body emerges out of its current crisis.
“We couldn’t lose to SSGC for the second tournament in a row,” Saqib told Dawn after the match, referring to SSGC’s victory over them in the semi-final of a tournament in Multan prior to the one currently underway here.
“They have so many of our former players and there was so much banter before the match. After they struck the opener, SSGC players celebrated in front of us and so I had to do the same when they scored.”
With the PPFL suspended since K-Electric ended KRL’s three-year stranglehold on the title in 2014-15, clashes like the one on Thursday have been a rarity. KRL did beat K-Electric on their way to winning a tournament back in January but Saqib believes that the only way his side can reclaim their title as domestic kings is by winning the PPFL.
“That will be the real indicator,” he added.
Ayaz Butt, the KRL manager, looked at the match from a broader perspective.
“Of course I’m glad that we won but most importantly football won today,” he told Dawn. “I’m glad that the match lived up to its billing and the football fans who had gathered here witnessed a spectacle.”
It was a spectacle only few would have envisaged two years ago when SSGC were stuck in the second division. The crisis in Pakistan football and the suspension of the leagues has meant the team has been able to recruit top players and emerge as a serious threat to the country’s established order.
Tariq Lutfi, the SSGC coach who was at KRL’s helm during their era of domestic dominance in the early part of this decade, echoed Ayaz’s views.
“It was a great match,” he said before adding, “The better team won today.”