by Umaid Wasim
KARACHI: For the first time in their history, Karachi United went into a Pakistan Football Federation (PFFL) match with their destiny in their own hands.
This was their chance to fulfill their long-time ambition. This just had to be their time.
Since 2014, the club — founded in 1996 — has failed to earn promotion to the top-flight Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL).
Pakistan football’s archaic system means that instead of playing in the club leg of the second-tier PFFL, United have to play in the departmental leg — against teams run by government institutions which have a greater budget and more resources.
It was the same on Sunday here at the Drigh Road Union Ground when they were playing Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) in the final match of a Covid-19 affected season where they needed just a draw to become one of three departmental teams to be promoted to the PPFL.
And for all the noise from several quarters that United will be favoured for promotion since one their former players Humza Khan is the PFF Normalisation Committee chairman, they achieved their objective on the pitch — and in remarkable fashion.
In an enthralling finale, a bullet header from Amir in the 86th minute secured a 1-1 draw and United’s place at Pakistan football’s top table six years after they became a professional club.
At the final whistle, United’s coaching staff ran onto the pitch in delirium. It’s been a long, hard road for the club and its players, most of whom are on meagre salaries as compared to their departmental counterparts.
“We could’ve done it this way only,” United head-coach Kareem Kerai told Dawn, his excitement knowing no bounds after he ran the length of the pitch at the end of the game before stopping to console one of the GPA players.
GPA, who needed a win to earn promotion, needed no consolation though.
It was only after the game had ended that news filtered through that GPA had been promoted instead of Pakistan Railways after it emerged that PFFL’s technical regulations stated that the head-to-head record would be first differentiator if teams were to finish level on points.
In hindsight, it seems it was only apt that the clause in the technical regulations came to the fore only after the game otherwise the build-up, the atmosphere to a ‘winner-takes-all’ final game would’ve been absent.
It was a clash of similar styles with both United and GPA being teams that prefer to play the ball on the ground rather than taking the aerial route.
After a goalless first half, the match exploded into action in the second.
Knowing that they needed to win, GPA upped the ante past the hour mark and took the lead on a quick counterattack that was finished by Pervez in the 65th.
As Pervez’s shot hit the back of the net, Kareem slumped in his seat in the technical area. The goal seemed a debilitating blow to United’s dream of playing at the upcoming PPFL season.
But as Kareem went into thought, his assistant Sheikh Hamdan kept rousing his charges.
“At that point, I was only thinking what we needed to change,” Kareem said afterwards, with United having failed to create clear-cut chances. “I thought we needed to take off a midfielder and throw a striker on just to create that bit of pressure in the final third.”
The change brought its reward four minutes from time. Anees saw a corner cleared back and as the ball rolled back to him, he kept his composure to whip in a magnificent cross that found Amir’s head and flew in.
As United substitutes ran onto the pitch to celebrate, the GPA players sank to their knees. They knew their chance had gone and it would’ve been worse for them had Anees found the far corner with just the goalkeeper to beat in stoppage time.
Had that gone in, it would’ve seen GPA finish a point behind Railways in the standings. But after Sunday’s dramatic finish, they will join departmental leg champions Masha United, Karachi United and club leg winners Baloch FC in the PPFL.
“GPA are very deserving of a place in the PPFL,” Kareem said before the announcement of GPA’s promotion was confirmed. “They’ve played some great football in the PFFL this season and its sad to see such a team miss out.”
In the end, neither Kareem’s United nor GPA missed out.