by Azhar Khan
In a nation where cricket often dominates the sporting landscape, a remarkable tale of talent hunting, preparation, and international recognition unfolded quietly but resolutely in the world of football. The Pakistan Under-16 football team, meticulously scouted and groomed, ventured abroad for international competition and received a well-deserved honor from the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Normalization Committee (PFF) and Candyland. This story is not just about the team’s journey but also the unwavering commitment of those who made it possible.
HUNTING THE GEMS
In October 2022, the PFF Normalization Committee along with Candyland embarked on an ambitious mission to discover the hidden talents born in 2008 and 2009. This nationwide talent hunt spanned cities like Hunza, Karachi, Peshawar, Muzaffarabad, Quetta, Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta and many far-flung areas, where no one even dared or think about going for a talent hunt earlier. The trials, conducted from February to June, saw an impressive turnout of aspiring young footballers. With the crucial assistance of Candyland, PFF identified 200 promising players from across Pakistan.
NURTURING THE TALENT
Guiding this pool of raw talent was Sajjad Mehmood, Head Coach of the Pakistan U-16 team. Coach Mehmood oversaw the players’ progress and further sifted the finest from the bunch. Camps were set up in Quetta, Karachi, Islamabad, Kohat, and Khanewal to refine their skills. Out of these, 50 players were chosen for the national U-16 training camp, which kicked off on August 1 and concluded on August 30. After rigorous training and assessments, a final squad of 23 members emerged, ready to represent Pakistan on the international stage.
CANDYLAND: THE UNSUNG HERO
Pakistani confectionery and snack food manufacturer, Candyland, played a pivotal role in realizing this dream. From funding trials to facilitating the formation of the final squad, Candyland offered unwavering support to the U-16 team. Their commitment to the development of young talent was commendable, reflecting their dedication to nurturing the future of Pakistani football.
THE ROAD TO BHUTAN
However, the journey was not without its challenges. Initially, the U-16 team faced hurdles in obtaining the necessary clearance to participate in the tournament in Bhutan. Candyland stepped in once again, helping PFF secure the required No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government. With the NOC finally in hand, the squad landed in Thimphu, Bhutan, a mere 24 hours before their first match. The team barely had time to rest, immediately diving into rigorous training.
PRACTICE AMIDST SERENITY
Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, offered a breathtaking backdrop for the team’s training sessions. The stadium, just a 5-minute drive from their hotel, was nestled amidst majestic mountains. The ethereal view, especially during twilight, served as a constant reminder of the beauty of the game they were about to play.
TRIUMPHS AND CHALLENGES ON THE FIELD
The team’s debut match against the hosts, Bhutan, was an intense encounter. Despite a predominantly Bhutanese crowd, Pakistan managed to secure an early lead, with Captain Ubaid Ullah Khan netting the opening goal with a header. The match concluded with a score of 2-1 in Pakistan’s favor. Their next clash saw them overpower the Maldives with a convincing 3-0 win, securing their spot in the Super 4 stage. However, Bangladesh proved to be a formidable opponent, and Pakistan faced a tough defeat of 2-1.
UNVEILING INTERNATIONAL EXPOSURE
For most of the U-16 players, this tournament marked their first international exposure. While some had experience playing for local clubs, representing Pakistan on the global stage was an entirely new adventure. Captain Ubaid Ullah Khan stood as the lone exception, having previously played for the Street Child team, which secured a runner-up position in the Norway Cup.
WHAT LIES AHEAD
The future of the Pakistan U-16 football team looks promising. The key lies in continuous support from the PFF Normalization Committee and the provision of opportunities to compete against clubs from different countries. Exposure to international competition will undoubtedly bolster their performance in upcoming assignments.
PFF NC’S VISION
The PFF Normalization Committee firmly believes that football holds a special place in Pakistan’s sporting landscape. Under their guidance, football activities across all age groups have resumed. Senior Men, Women, and Youth teams have been consistently participating in international competitions, providing the much-needed exposure that will undoubtedly benefit them in the long run.
Amidst their footballing journey, the U-16 boys took time to explore Bhutan’s rich culture and landscapes. They visited the Great Buddha Dordenma, a monumental Shakyamuni Buddha statue, and marveled at its grandeur against the backdrop of Thimpu’s mountains. They also witnessed the majestic Raidak River, which flows through Bhutan, India, and Bangladesh, offering a glimpse of the natural beauty that lies beyond the football field.
To conclude, the Pakistan U-16 football team’s journey is not just about sporting achievement; it’s a testament to the power of determination, collaboration, and unwavering support from organizations like Candyland and the PFF Normalization Committee. As they set their sights on the AFC U16 Qualifiers, we can only anticipate a brighter future for these young talents and Pakistani football as a whole.