Umaid Wasim – DAWN
KARACHI: It is an issue very common in the world of football. And now, it has come to Pakistan.
Khan Research Laboratories’ (KRL’s) aspirations of glory at the AFC President’s Cup are very much at risk after the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) called up two of their influential midfielders — Saddam Hussain and Bilawal-ur-Rehman — to the national team’s training camp for the tour of the Palestine.
The dates of the tour to Palestine, to be held from May 1-15, coincide with those of Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions KRL’s preliminary group stage fixtures in Asia’s third-tier club competition which will take place in Sri Lanka from May 1-11.
KRL have bowed to the PFF and they’ve sent the afore-mentioned duo to report to the training camp but their absence could have far-reaching consequences for a team who were beaten finalists in the last edition and have already lost two of their most exciting players to Kyrgyz giants FC Dordoi.
“This is a very important campaign for us,” KRL head coach Tariq Lutfi told Dawn from Islamabad, where he’s holding his team’s training camp for the continental event, on Tuesday.
“We need to get past the preliminary group stage as it will guarantee us a berth in the AFC Cup [the second-tier continental competition],” he added referring to AFC’s overhaul plan of its club events.
“However, since [Mohammad] Adil and Kaleemullah left for Dordoi we’re already short in big-game players and now Saddam and Bilawal have been called up to the national team.
“It will make our task very tough to progress from the group.”
Around the world, this problem has been addressed to a large extent by scheduling international matches within the FIFA international match calendar and clubs are obligated to release their players for national team duty.
However when national team games are scheduled outside the FIFA calendar, the games coincide with ongoing club competitions — a situation faced by KRL.
“We’ve made a humble request to the PFF to release Saddam and Bilawal from the national camp so they can take part in the President’s Cup and help our cause,” Lutfi said.
Saddam is a box-to-box midfielder who provides tireless running for KRL and is described by Lutfi as “the engine-room” of the team while Bilawal is predominantly a deep-lying playmaker who plays in front of the defence.
“I hope that the PFF release the players since it isn’t a crucial match but just a friendly series against Palestine … it isn’t a World Cup qualifier or a qualifying match for an AFC event.”
While the tour of the Palestine seems to be a pointless one, PFF secretary Col Ahmed Yar Lodhi defended the country’s football governing body’s decision to call up the KRL duo.
“These games [against Palestine] are for the coach [Mohammad Al Shamlan] to check players for September’s Asian Games,” he told Dawn from Lahore on Tuesday.
“Usually in the national team, there are eight players from KRL but this time around we’re taking just two of their players.”
Two of their most important players. “Of course we aren’t going there [Palestine] to lose,” Lodhi quipped.
Meanwhile, the PFF has invited two of Pakistan’s former captains — goalkeeper Jaffar Khan and midfielder Mohammad Essa — to train the 22 players at the camp which begins from Wednesday.
“Essa and Jaffar will take part in the training sessions with Shamlan,” Lodhi informed. “This is part of our move to train coaches for the future and it will increase their knowledge from a coaching point-of-view.”
Apart from the Saddam and Bilawal, the prominent players called up to the national team camp include midfielders Mansoor Khan and Mohammad Riaz.
Mansoor was influential in Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF’s) triumph at the Challenge Cup earlier this month when they beat Riaz’s K-Electric in the final.
Goalkeeper Ehsanullah, who helped Habib Bank Limited (HBL) take third place in the country’s premier cup tournament, was also named.