Kaleemullah ecstatic after scoring first goal for Al-Najaf [Express Tribune]

Kaleemullah ecstatic after scoring first goal for Al-Najaf [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: One may not hear good news about Pakistan football national team, but the former captain Kaleemullah is doing his best to make a mark for the country in his own way.

“Would the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) care?” former Pakistan captain Kaleemullah asks a general question, once you congratulate him for being the first Pakistani footballer to make his mark in the gulf, after he helped his club Al-Najaf win a crucial match in the Iraqi Premier League.

Kaleemullah drew first blood in the match as he scored in the 20th minute against Al-Talaba FC on Thursday at their newly built home stadium.

The match has been crucial and according to Kaleemullah, a dream for him to score for his new club, as a new beginning for him, and the response he got from the players in the field and the crowds in the stands was phenomenal, something that he said, he had never experienced before.

Al-Najaf ended up beating Al-Talaba 3-2 despite being 2-1 down, but catching up to get their first win in their last three matches.

“The match was crucial for us,” Kaleemullah told The Express Tribune. “Our coach told us that we need to give our all, and we did, and it was a strong performance. As for me, I just can’t thank my coaches, the players and the management enough. And then of course the fans, who gave so much respect and I just wanted them to enjoy, see me play for their club, they make time, they come to watch the matches and there is respect and love for football from everyone. These were very important three points and we broke into the top 10 in the league. I’m just happy that I was able to contribute and prove why I’m there. Everyone celebrated with me, I felt that they trust me.”

The Iraqi Premier League has 20 teams and Al-Najaf is on the 10th spot with 30 points.

Kaleemullah revealed that he had a calf injury in his last match before Thursday and he was not sure whether he would be able to deliver his best, but his coach asked him to play and that instilled confidence in him.

“The coach suggested that I should go on. I’ve played four matches with them now, I feel I’m improving my game and I’m happy. I told him that I might not be able to give 100 %, but he told me that even 70% would help as well, because it was an important match for us, and I’m just happy that I was able to deliver, and this gave me so much confidence,” explained the former Tulsa Roughnecks FC player.

Kaleemullah had his transfer to Al-Najaf FC from Igdirspor FC in Turkey, but the 26-year-old had faced worst backlash at home from the PFF when he spoke against the lack of facilities, lack of professional league and professionalism in running the football affairs that affected the players adversely.

“It is hard for me to not get sad and not think about how it would have felt if our players could experience the same culture, the same love and support if we had a professional league in Pakistan, if I could experience this in my own country. In Pakistan Premier Football League the crowd is quieter, sometimes even disinterested, because we don’t have a professional league. We still have departmental system and this structure does not help the fans either. Here, for me, I’ve seen the crowd really pushes us, they cheer for us, they are involved,” said Kaleemullah.

The PFF is headed by politician Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, and for speaking the truth Kaleemullah had to face the brunt by getting threatened from the PFF officials, by facing hindrances in his club career abroad and worst, by being ignored for the national team last year.

Pakistan had not played any international matches after March 2015, they lost the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Yemen, and then the PFF controversy broke, where the PFF President Hayat was at the heart of it all, manipulating the elections to keep his post for the fourth term.

Pakistan national team got some action last year but again Hayat is not letting the team participate in any international events.

While The PFF had broken into two factions and then in December a new body took over the charge after the Supreme Court ordered to hold fresh elections, however, Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation do not recognise the new administration and still back Hayat, which leads to a deadlock, that is expected to break after May 28, when Fifa’s mission would visit the country to analyse the situation.

Till then Pakistan is likely  to suffer as the 2022 World Cup qualifiers are to be held on June 6 against Cambodia, but there is no clarification by Hayat faction whether the team would participate or not.

However, the new body led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain has set up a national camp in Islamabad and Kaleemullah’s name is among the list of the 33 players to attend it.

“My name is there, but how can I leave the league like this. I can only take the break when the Pakistan matches start; there is no concept of camp for us because I’m already playing in a top league. So I can’t join it, but it is a positive gesture, a good message, but I understand that it is still unclear and Hayat has not sent out any notice or announced any plan for the national team’s participation at the qualifiers. There aren’t any friendlies announced, so I can’t say,” said the Chaman-born striker.

He said that the new PFF body’s message is not a solution but a good way for the players stuck in domestic football structure to at least get some action.

“Of course this camp is not answering any questions, but our players in Pakistan need something to look forward to, this can be a way to at least get them out, they are not playing the league either,” said the former Khan Research Laboratories player.

Kaleemullah is not worried about his own fate at the national team, but more concerned about the bad name and damage that would ensue if Pakistan would miss the qualifiers.

“It is not good, and the players will suffer. I’m doing well for myself, I’m happy playing in Iraq, I hope more opportunities come my way, this is all new challenges, new personal goals too, and I’m working hard. I’m already out of the team. I think of it, as me playing on the streets of Chaman to now, playing with some very talented players from Brazil, Jordan, Nigeria and all of these countries here. I’m grateful, but Pakistan need to play the qualifiers and the players should demand it from the PFF. I have been out of the equation, thrown away by Hayat faction long time ago,” said Kaleemullah.

Published in The Express Tribune, 4 May 2019