KARACHI: The excitement was palpable as Zesh Rehman described what it would mean to win the SAFF Championship.
The Pakistan international defender is set to join the national team in Nepal on Tuesday for the region’s most prestigious football competition and he’s looking to go all the way and win it.
“We have the talent and the potential to go on and win the championship,” the Kitchee centre-back told Dawn from Hong Kong in an exclusive interview on Monday. “It would be great to win it because it is the biggest footballing prize in South Asia.”
Zesh arrives for national duty after weeks of negotiations with his club and the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
The former Fulham defender had made his intentions clear that he wanted to represent Pakistan in the biennial event but there was a clash of fixtures between those of his club and Pakistan’s at the SAFF Championship.
“It has all been sorted out and hopefully I’ll be leaving for Nepal tomorrow,” he said.
Initially Zesh had told the PFF officials that he would be joining the team after Kitchee’s Hong Kong 1st Division League opener against Sun Hei on August 31.
The PFF, however, wanted Zesh to be available a few days before Pakistan’s Group ‘A’ opener at the SAFF Championship against arch-rivals India on September 1.
“I had to take permission from the club to let me go for the SAFF Championship because I really wanted to take part in the event and that has been granted,” Zesh informed.
“The club has a busy couple of weeks with some important games coming up, most notably the AFC Cup quarter-final [against Jordan’s Al Faisaly].”
With everything sorted out, Zesh, who has also represented English sides Queens Park Rangers, Bradford City and Thai club Muangthong United in his storied career, is now focusing on inspiring Pakistan to their maiden title at the event.
“I would use all my experience to help the team to glory,” said Zesh, who was the first British Pakistani to play in the English Premier League during his stint with Fulham.
And having made his international debut in the 2005 edition of the SAFF Championship, Zesh is no stranger to the competition.
“It was a wonderful experience to play in the 2005 event,” he recalled. “The event means a lot in South Asia and of course the team which wins it earns bragging rights in the region.
“Since then, I’ve played more than 250 professional games and of course I’m more experienced now than I was then. Hopefully I can use all that to Pakistan’s benefit.”
His presence in the team would add solidity to Pakistan’s back-line which was torn apart by a rampant Afghanistan side in a 3-0 defeat in an international friendly last week.
Zesh acknowledged that facing India in the opener would offer Pakistan a stiff challenge but added that he wasn’t afraid of facing the defending champions.
“It is a big match … it is a big rivalry,” he said. “But I think we’re capable of beating them. The team which has the most belief will win the match and eventually the Cup.
“I think we are on the same wavelength with India. The only advantage they have is that they have foreign players in their league which helps their players to improve their own skills.
“In general, there is really no gap between the teams in South Asia so on a given day any team can beat anyone.”
Winning the championship would arguably be the pinnacle of Zesh’s international career which has seem him come under criticism from Pakistan’s local-based players for not giving his full for the national team.
“I’m going to Nepal to win the event. I’ve won a lot of silverware recently and I’ll be looking to add to that,” added Zesh, who won the league and cup double with Kitchee in his first year with the club before winning the Hong Kong FA Cup last season.
He also hopes winning the SAFF Championship will put end to doubts in the minds of Pakistan’s former players that the country’s foreign-based players don’t take pride in playing for the national team.
“We [the foreign-based players] have a lot of desire to wear the green shirt of the national team and we’ve always given our best for the national team,” he reiterated.
“Even though many of us weren’t born in Pakistan, once we put on that green shirt, it’s an absolute privilege.”
With a new coach in Mohammad Al Shamlan at the helm, Zesh expects Pakistan to improve as a team under the Bahrain gaffer.
“I’ll get a chance to talk to him and learn from him,” Zesh said about Al Shamlan, who will be traveling with the team as a consultant with assistant coach Shahzad Anwar taking charge.
“It is a good acquisition for Pakistan football as he’s worked in the past with the team [as assistant of Pakistan’s former Bahraini coach Salman Sharida]. If we do well in the SAFF Championships, hopefully it could be the start of something good.