Imran HERO

Hawks to the Falcons

Whitehawk’s Imran Kayani gets Pakistan call-up

Like many players in the Isthmian Football League, the international break is not something that greatly impacted the footballing calendar of Whitehawk’s Imran Kayani.

That was until he got a call from an unknown number over in Pakistan…

“I was just at university working as normal, and then this number comes up on my phone,” said Kayani, “so I thought I’d give it a call back, and thankfully I did, seeing as it turned out to be someone from the federation telling me they were interested in having me join up with the next camp.

“Only problem was that the date the camp started was the day after tomorrow! So, I had to get straight on the phone to Whitehawk to check if they were okay with me heading off for the games.

“But I needn’t have worried; everyone at the club was buzzing for me, especially the gaffer.”

With flights booked and bags packed, the 21-year-old only had one thing left to do, play one more game that night for the England Football Accredited club.

“It was a bit of a rush to say the least,” said Kayani, “but I love playing so I didn’t think twice about it, even though it meant that I was getting back home at midnight and then leaving again a few hours later to catch my flight first thing.”

Next thing Kayani knows he’s on the plane, flying out to prepare for the biggest game of his life, a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia.

“I think it all only started to sink in when I got to the hotel and started to meet the rest of the players,” said Kayani.

“When I arrived, it was just the local players there, and they were speaking to each other in Urdu, and thankfully I can also speak Urdu, so that really helped settle me in, because I was able to chat and get to know them all.

“They were saying how when players had previously joined up from abroad, they didn’t speak the language, and found it difficult to integrate with the rest of the lads.

“For me though, as soon as I arrived, I just wanted to get out training and playing, so I could show them what I could bring to the team.”

Imran Kayani and the rest of the Pakistan national team before their FIFA World Cup Qualifying tie

Imran Kayani (second from the right, front row) and the rest of the Pakistan national team, ahead of their FIFA World Cup Qualifying match against Tajikistan

Kayani was joining a Pakistan side who were still riding high off a remarkable win over Cambodia, that had propelled them into this second round of qualifying for the first time in their history.

However, going into to their game against Saudi Arabia, there was no danger of the supporters getting carried away, as they knew they were facing the same side that beat Argentina in the group stage of the last World Cup. Only now, with the addition of Roberto Mancini as manager, and Yaya Touré as his assistant.

For Kayani though, as one of the new faces in the team, he knew he had to focus on the job in hand if he was going to earn any game time.

“I knew I’d have to be patient, and just grab the opportunity if it came to me,” he said, “So when I got told at half-time that I was going to be coming on, I was just trying to stay calm and keep my head on the game plan.

“I had to do a lot more defending than I was used to, but the manager was pleased with my performance, which put me in a good position for our next game.”

With the nature of the occasion Kayani could be forgiven for feeling the pressure, but he took it in his stride.

“The first thing I had to get my head around was playing in a 19,000 seater stadium, because that was the largest crowd I’d ever played in front of by a long way,” he said.

“Then you add in the fact that a good number of those players are playing with the likes of Ronaldo week-in-week-out, and yeah there was a lot going on.

“But for me, once I’ve crossed that white line it just becomes about the game, no matter what’s going on around you.”

Despite containing Saudi Arabia for much of the game, their experience showed through in the end, as they ran out 4-0 winners.

Next up for Kayani and the rest of the side, a game on home soil against Tajikistan, a rare thing, owing to a suspension preventing the team from playing games in Pakistan.

Imran Kayani in action

Kayani in action against Tajikistan in front of a record home crowd for a football match in Pakistan

“It has been difficult for football to really grow owing to the ban, because unfortunately the infrastructure just isn’t in place for local players to be able to develop,” said Kayani.

“But there’s definitely a lot of talent in the country, and the nation is really starting to get behind the national team.

“Take our game against Tajikistan, I heard that tickets sold out in just half-an-hour, and on the journey up we had fans around the bus cheering us all the way.”

This massive increase in support for the national team has seen the players propelled to newfound notoriety, something that Kayani is still getting used to.

“In the run up to the game my phone was just going off non-stop, it was crazy,” he said.

“When I rang home to speak to my parents the night before the game, one of the first things my mum said to me was if I’d seen how many followers I now had on Instagram!”

Back on the pitch though, and Kayani had been rewarded for his performance on his debut, by being handed his first start.  

“To be shown that trust by the manager meant everything to me,” he said, “and to walk out with the rest of the team and sing the national anthem in front of that record home crowd of over 18,000 people is something I’ll never forget.

“Of course, the game didn’t go how we wanted it to, and we were really disappointed to lose 6-1 to them - but the important thing is that we’re taking part at this level of qualifying and giving that experience to the country.”

So, what now for Kayani?

“The next camp isn’t until March, and then after that we’ve got one in June, so for me it’s just going to be about working hard and try to keep performing for Whitehawk. If I do that hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to once again pull on the shirt for my country!”

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