Pakistan football: The British players starring on the world stage

15 November 2023 0 By Total Football News
Harun Hamid standing in front of a green metal fence with a grass field behind him. He is British Pakistani and is looking at the camera. He has short black hair and a short black beard and moustache. He is wearing a black puffer jacket and has a black hoodie underneath it. He is holding a white football under his left arm.

Image caption,

Harun Hamid scored what is probably the biggest goal in Pakistan’s footballing history

Even the biggest British football fans can probably be forgiven for not knowing the name Harun Hamid.

The 19-year-old was released by English second-tier side QPR at the end of last season and currently doesn’t play for a professional side.

But just last month Harun’s name was on the lips of millions of people in Pakistan when he scored the biggest goal in their World Cup qualifying history.

His goal was enough to beat Cambodia 1-0 for their first win in five years – putting them through to the second round of qualifying for football’s biggest tournament for the first time.

“I was just filled with adrenaline and had to hit the knee slide in front of the fans,” London-born midfielder Harun tells BBC Asian Network.

Pakistan’s reward for the win is their highest-profile game to date, a match against Saudi Arabia – the only team to beat World Cup winners Argentina at last winter’s tournament – at 16:30 GMT on Thursday.

“We’re playing against the team that beat Messi’s Argentina and we don’t even have a pro league,” Harun says.

Harun Hamid and other Pakistan players on the pitch celebrating their win against Cambodia last month. Harun is wearing a green football kit with a white number 11 on the back of his shirt and is sat on top of someone else's shoulders facing away from the camera. Other players are around him also facing away from the camera and in front of the players you can see the crowd celebrating.

Image source, Pakistan Football Federation

Image caption,

Harun – wearing the number 11 shirt – celebrates Pakistan’s first-ever World Cup qualifying win last month

Pakistan has the fifth largest population in the world with about 240 million people, but its football team is ranked a lowly 193rd – one place below the island of Aruba and two above the Seychelles.

The fact that it does not have its own professional league, as Harun says, is one of the key reasons that British Pakistani players like him are being called up to play for the national team under dual nationality rules.

“Growing up I didn’t even know Pakistan had a team if I’m honest, so I never thought I’d be playing for them one day,” he says.

“But the opportunity came, and to play on the world stage in front of huge crowds is a dream come true.

“Hopefully after the win, more young boys like me will consider playing for Pakistan.”

‘This is just the start’

Harun is not the only British Pakistani player in the squad. His team-mates include former England under-19 captain Easah Suliman and Otis Khan who plays for Grimsby in England’s League Two.

Another player hoping to be involved in the game against Saudi Arabia is 21-year-old Imran Kayani, who is joining the Pakistan squad for the first time.

He grew up in Woking and plays for non-league side Whitehawk FC in Brighton.

“When the opportunity came, it was an absolute no-brainer,” he says.

“I’m just so excited to get going.”

Imran Kayani looking down at a football which is not visible in the photo because it is cropped to his waist. He is British Pakistani and is wearing a grey and navy T-shirt that says PFF (Pakistani football federation) on the front. He has short black hair and a trimmed black beard and moustache. Behind him you can make out the top of a football goal and the net and there is a clear blue sky.

Image source, Pakistan Football Federation

Image caption,

Imran Kayani plays non-league football in England but is hoping to make his debut for Pakistan against Saudi Arabia

The win against Cambodia was a much needed boost for football in Pakistan, after a difficult period which meant they did not play a home match for eight years.

National football in the country has also been suspended twice by Fifa in the last four years for “undue influence from third parties”.

But Imran is confident that British Pakistani players like him can make a difference to their fortunes.

“A lot more light has been shone on Pakistan football in the last month,” he says.

“There’s a lot of British Asian talent in the UK, in the academies. We really want to push Pakistan in a good direction.”

One of the reasons Pakistan is happy to look to the UK for players is because their manager is Englishman Stephen Constantine.

He is known as one of the most accomplished football coaches in Asia – having managed seven national teams, including India twice, in a 20-year career.

“The difference with India, for example, is they have the Indian Super League,” he says.

“Players here are struggling to get regular games or even training.

“The diaspora players do but we’re not at a stage yet where we’ll have 11 players playing abroad.”

Stephen Constantine stood on the side of a football pitch. He is a bald man with stubble for a beard and moustache and is wearing a black jacket with the badge of a Cypriot club side on it.

Image source, Stephen Constantine

Image caption,

Stephen Constantine has managed several national sides as well as some clubs in Cyprus

Pakistan are now in a group with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan in their bid to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.

Stephen recently told BBC Sport managing them will be his “hardest challenge” yet, but he is confident he can find the players to build on their historic win.

“I do have a list of all the players who could play for us and I’m going to travel the world to see them,” he says.

“There is talent here like there is in every country. It’s just a case of developing it and going out to find them.”

And British players like Harun are well aware of what a big opportunity they have been given.

“It’s putting ourselves on the biggest stage. This is what we need to grow as a footballing nation, this is just the start for us hopefully.”

Additional reporting by BBC Sport’s Katie Stafford

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