by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: When the draw for the National Challenge Cup was made the first quarter-final seemed destined to be a clash between top flight sides National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) and Karachi Port Trust (KPT).
Yet, after a topsy-turvy group stage for some Pakistan’s biggest teams, it was newly-formed Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) slugging it out with second-tier Ashraf Sugar Mills (ASM) here at the KPT Stadium on Thursday to decide the first semi-finalist.
Three years of turmoil in Pakistan football have levelled the playing field for local teams and the first tournament organised by the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) of Faisal Saleh Hayat has provided enough evidence of that.
Khan Research Laboratories (KRL), winners of four of the last six editions of the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL), and K-Electric, who won the last edition of the PPFL in 2015 before the country’s football plunged into crisis, joined NBP and KPT in failing to advance from their respective groups, upended by relative novices.
For the failures of both KRL and K-Electric, the underlying reason could be the departure of several key players, most of them joining upstarts Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC). Despite being in the second-tier SSGC have invested heavily and have a bevy of Pakistan internationals in their squad.
“Most players wanted to secure their futures,” Pakistan international defender Mohammad Ahmed told Dawn on Thursday. “The crisis in Pakistan football meant the players took any opportunity they got for a pay-raise and SSGC were able to take advantage.
“We didn’t know when football will be restored in the country or whether the teams would continue on. You can call it a lack of ambition for the players who went to a team which plays in the [second division] Pakistan Football Federation League (PPFL) but there wasn’t any option.”
Ahmed himself swapped sides recently but moved to another PPFL side, leaving KRL to join four-time national champions Wapda, who were Pakistan’s most dominant team before KRL’s rise at the start of this decade.
Ahmed has been a bit-part player in Wapda’s group matches at the tournament, coming off the bench in both the games as his side reached the quarter-finals where they play fellow PPFL side Pakistan Navy on Friday.
And the tournament has seen new players emerge while the more established players have struggled to perform.
“The young players who have come through in recent years have been at par with the big names,” ASM coach Najeebullah Najmi told Dawn after seeing his side lose their quarter-final 3-0 to PPL.
Najmi, whose side are financed by former Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Zaka Ashraf, said it was good that new teams had come to the fore.
“For us, it’s a really big achievement to be amongst the top eight teams in the country and a result of all the hard work that has been put in over the last few years. We’ve been consistently playing tournaments and our players showed they were fitter and better than players of top teams.”
Najmi’s side were undone by a team which was even more fitter.
PPL were only established a month ago. Having organised the Balochistan Cup for the last three years, the PPL management decided to raise their own team by including the top players to have emerged from the tournament.
They topped Group ‘E’ that included KPT and Public Works Department (PWD) and were rampant against ASM to book a spot in the semi-finals. The results might as well inspire them to aim further.
“The team has showed it’s uber-competitive,” PPL coach Karim told Dawn. “The players we have aren’t contracted but they’ve shown great spirit and I hope the management decides [after the tournament] to compete in the PFFL and hire the players full-time. The more we invest, better will be the results.”
Yet, such is the state of Pakistan football at the moment that investment doesn’t necessarily result in titles.
SSGC failed to advance past the group stage. Prior to the tournament, they signed Pakistan international goalkeeper Saqib Hanif from KRL but the shot-stopper didn’t feature at all as he was playing the league in the Maldives.
“The only purpose they achieved with that signing was nothing more than weakening a potential rival,” former Pakistan captain Mohammad Tariq told Dawn. “Some of the big-name players they signed have only been warming the bench.”
Some have pointed that the plight of the big sides could be because of the format of the tournament. The group stage saw the 24 teams divided into eight groups of three with the top team advancing into the quarters.
“It’s flawed,” Pakistan Air Force (PAF) coach Arshad Khan told Dawn on Thursday. “It meant you couldn’t have an off day at all. Big teams, big players can sometimes struggle but the format means you can’t really get back in contention once you lose.”
Arshad experienced that struggle firsthand. His side opened their campaign with a 2-2 draw against second-tier Pakistan Police and only made it through to the quarter-finals after a 2-0 win against another second-tier side State Life.
Pakistan Army were the only other PPFL side to survive the group stage and play PAF for a spot in the semi-finals on Saturday.
The last quarter-final features the two PFFL teams who ousted KRL and K-Electric — Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Asia Ghee Mills (AGM).
K-Electric striker Murtuza Hussain, who joined from KRL in a high-profile move ahead of the tournament, echoed Arshad’s views.
“The format didn’t really suit us,” he told Dawn on Thursday. “We lost the opening game to Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) and that was that.”
PFF’s technical director Shehzad Anwar, hired recently after the LHC reinstated Hayat as the country’s football chief in February even though the Supreme Court has since ordered fresh elections, dismissed the claims that the format was flawed.
“The teams which were better drilled, better prepared and more focused have advanced,” Shehzad told Dawn on Thursday. “The top sides haven’t played football much over the last three years and that’s not our problem.
“Teams like ASM and AGM have been playing regularly in locally-organised tournaments while the PPL players have been playing consistently over the last three months.
“Where are the top players?” he questioned. “They’ve gone missing and have been usurped by new players. At the moment there is no difference whatsoever in the Pakistan internationals or the players who are playing for the second-division teams.”
Wapda coach Mohammad Habib, a member of the tournament’s technical study group, agreed with Shehzad.
“There is no question of a top-flight team being better than a second-division team at the moment,” he told Dawn. “KRL and K-Electric might have been the top teams in the past but that’s not true now. The best teams are those which are in the final eight.”