Eyeing prospective Fulham future, team leave for SAFF U-16 Championship

Umaid Wasim – Dawn

KARACHI: If Pakistan successfully retain their SAFF U-16 Championship title later this month, there will be more on offer for the players than just the glory.

With the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) in talks with Fulham’s Pakistan-born owner Shahid Khan over the possibility of sending the country’s young talent to train at the English Premier League club’s academy, impressive performances could see many of the Nepal-bound squad off to west London at the end of the event.

The PFF finalised the squad for the regional competition on Wednesday at the culmination of a training camp in Lahore for the event which will be held from July 20 to 30 in Kathmandu.

“The squad will leave for Nepal on Thursday,” PFF secretary Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi told Dawn on Wednesday. “We are confident that they can retain the title [which was won in the inaugural edition of the event in 2011].”

The players for the event were selected after the National U-16 Championship held in Abbottabad last month and Lodhi is hopeful that the team will perform to its full potential.

“The coaches have been working really hard to improve the players’ skill and fitness and hopefully they will be able to perform to their best,” he added.

“Although we couldn’t arrange for some foreign exposure for them, I’m pretty sure that they are better than the squad of 2011.”

For a better future, the players need to be at their best.

PFF’s marketing consultant Sardar Naveed Haider Khan has been in talks with Fulham over the induction of players from this crop into their academy.

He is hoping that some of the outstanding ones get a chance to train with the London club.

“The boys are excited by that prospect,” Naveed told Dawn on Wednesday.

“This is one of the best teams the country has produced and I’m hoping if Fulham can induct a few of them into their academy and they stay there for five-six years, they can be good professional players as we in Pakistan don’t have those state-of-the-art facilities.”

The players might get a chance to train in England but their chance of featuring in the lucrative English Premier League — and following in the footsteps of Pakistan’s star defender Zesh Rehman — won’t come until the senior team improves its FIFA ranking.

Football Association (FA) stipulations for players to feature in the EPL require them to be full internationals with their national team having an average ranking of 70 over the last two years.

Zesh, who also played for Fulham, had to leave the club for England’s second-tier Championship when he decided to play for Pakistan.

But Naveed believes, even the chance to train at Fulham’s academy could open new doors for Pakistan’s youngsters.

“Even if they are able to train at the academy that will be more than enough,” he said.

“It will ensure them a bright future from the past they come from and even if they can’t play in the EPL, clubs from all over Europe can have a look at them and if they like what they see our players could be featuring in other top European clubs.”

Pakistan will be one of seven teams at the SAFF U-16 Championships after Maldives refused to take part in the event. The seven teams will be drawn into two groups of four and three with the draws set to be conducted on Friday.

Squad: Salman Raheem (captain), Rashid Khan (vice-captain), Mohammad Junaid, Wali Khan, Mohammad Shahbaz, Mohammad Zohaib, Mohammad Shoaib, Adnan Ashraf, Faisal Hassan, Muneer Ahmed, Zain-ul-Abideen, Mateen Akram, Zulfiqar, Arslan Ali, Mohammad Waleed Ayaz, Abdul Saboor, Rajab Ali, Adnan Khaliq, Hamza Shabir, Mohsin Fareed.

Officials: Sajjad Mehmood (Head Coach), Mohammad Hassan Baloch (Assistant Coach), Noman Ibrahim (Goalkeeper Coach), Kamran Mehdi (Physio).