KARACHI, April 26: Stuck at the Delhi airport for ‘apparently being a Pakistani’, Zesh Rehman showed no fallout from that as he guided Kitchee to the knockout round of the AFC Cup.
The British-born Pakistan international defender was a star at the back of the Hong Kong giants’ defence as they thrashed Indian side Churchill Brothers 4-0 earlier this week to reach the round-of-16 in Asia’s second-tier club competition.
But that did not come before Zesh was stopped by Indian authorities at the Delhi airport for 24 hours after Kitchee arrived for their Group ‘E’ clash with the I-League champions-elect in the early hours on Monday.
Whilst his team left for Pune for the game, Zesh had to stay back and despite having travelled to India on his British passport, immigration officials asked him for his secondary passport — his Pakistani passport.
And after a 24-hour ordeal at the immigration office, he was finally allowed to enter India.
“The longest 24 hours ever,” Rehman said on his Twitter account. “Finally, all paperwork sorted out for me to stay in India.”
Kitchee, who are regarded as the ‘Barcelona of Hong Kong’, were left fuming.
“He [Zesh] is just a sportsman coming to India to play in a football match and we are very disappointed he has been treated like a criminal,” Kitchee president Ken Ng Kin told the South China Morning Post.
“We know there would be problems for Rehman to play in India because of his nationality and we therefore started processing all the necessary documents a couple of months ago.
“But despite all these efforts, the player still faced so many difficulties in getting through the immigration that we considered sending him back to Hong Kong and not playing.”
Rehman is one of Kitchee’s key performers ever since he arrived at the club from Thailand’s Muangthong United in 2012 and guided them to the Hong Kong league title, one they relinquished to South China earlier this month.
The match against Churchill Brothers, thus, was of intense importance for Kitchee as they look to success in the continental competition to salvage their season.
And the former Fulham defender forms Kitchee’s first-choice central defensive partnership with Spaniard Fernando Recio.
The towering centre-back was actually looking forward to the trip to India and believes football can bring arch-rivals India and Pakistan closer.
“I am looking forward to the visit,” he told Indian media ahead of his trip. “If there is anything that can bring India and Pakistan together, it’s sport, particularly football. There is so much fan-following for football, it’s a global game and has enormous power to unify.”
And he didn’t make much of an issue out of his stay at the airport.
“I have no complaints,” he said. “The immigration authorities were just doing their job; there was just an issue with some paperwork.”
Kitchee had Spanish striker Pablo Gonzalez to thank for two early goals in the first half before Jorge Tarres and Cheng Siu-wai added to the tally in the second-half at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune.
“We secured our passage into the round-of-16 for a second consecutive season,” Rehman wrote on his blog on Friday. “It was not easy to play in the soaring heat but we put in a professional performance.”
Rehman was strong at the back, keeping Churchill Brothers’ strike duo of Sunil Chettri and Balal Arezou.
While Indian striker Chettri is on loan at Churchill Brothers from Sporting Lisbon, Arezou is arguably the best striker Afghanistan has ever produced with his performances helping his country qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup finals next year.
India and Pakistan, incidentally, missed out on qualifying for the event.
Rehman might as well come face to face with the duo when he turns out in Pakistan colours for the SAFF Championships later this year.
But prior to that, he’s eyeing the friendly match against India in the tri-series involving Pakistan and Bangladesh scheduled to be held in London in June.
“Irrespective of location, any India-Pakistan match is exciting but being in London it will be extra special because it will give the British Asians a chance to watch these two national teams,” he told reporters after the match in Pune. “I am very much looking forward to it.”