In UK, India and Pakistan put differences aside to form 'other' World Cup team
Harpreet Singh and his team Panjab FA have completed a remarkable journey to put together the team.
For as long as one can recall, two opposite forces have been colliding in the Southern part of Asia. Divided by the British, India and Pakistan have been in conflict for what seems like an eternity. Whether it is in the realm of politics or the field of sports, the two great nations have tried to trump each other at every given opportunity.
However, far away from the hustle and bustle of the subcontinent, there is a small footballing community that is bringing together people from both India and Pakistan.
In 2014, the Punjabi community residing in the United Kingdom came together and decided to form a football team. And thus the Panjab FA came to be -- a team that represents a heritage that makes up the bread-basket of the subcontinent.
At its helm was Harpreet Singh, the founder, chairman, and director of football of Panjab, who wanted to help people through football just like the sport had helped him growing up.
"Football saved my life," Harpreet told Sportskeeda, "Growing up I was very sad. There is a lot of domestic violence and alcohol abuse in the Indian communities and that affected me as well. I had a very troubled childhood and I was very sad."
"However, when I embraced football it changed my life. And now I want to use the same means to help others." said the man, determined in his will to help people.
A new dawn for Panjab
With a noble cause in mind, Harpreet established the club a few years back. He cited it as an opportunity that couldn't be missed. Panjab FA gives people like him a chance to represent their heritage and make a name on the international stage.
"The club was formed in 2014," Harpreet recalled, "I have always been a big fan of football and a lover of my heritage, that is Punjab. Since I've been involved in football for a long time, when an opportunity arrived to establish and register Panjab FA under CONIFA, I took it."
"As a result, we started this journey. Although it has been short in time, it feels like I've been doing this for hundred years. Everything has moved very fast and is growing very quickly. People can see that we are doing very good work. This whole experience is enhancing and enriching people's lives."
Panjab FA is currently registered at CONIFA, an organisation which is helping teams build an identity on an international level.
As Harpreet explained, "CONIFA is an organization like FIFA. While FIFA provides opportunities to free nations to participate on an international level, CONIFA does so for the communities. For example, there are a lot of communities in England, apart from the English, who want to be represented on an international level. CONIFA helps with that."
"Twenty-five players are selected to play for England. However, If I believe I am good enough, and I want to represent my Punjabi heritage on an international level, where do I go? I don't belong to England, I don't play in the Premier League. I just want to represent my roots, my culture, and my traditions. CONIFA has opened the doors for the same."
"I can now play for my culture, my heritage, and my roots," revealed a jubilant Harpreet.
In fact, CONIFA has given the freedom to several communities and ethnic minorities to play football on an international level. The organisation is the international body for non-affiliated football and futsal associations and has created two competitions for the same -- the CONIFA World Cup and the CONIFA European Championships.
The CONIFA World Cup has been held so far, in 2014 and 2016, with Panjab FA finishing as the runners-up in the latter edition of the tournament. This year brings yet another opportunity for teams like Panjab FA to represent their heritage in the CONIFA World Cup.
Bridging the communal gap
Heritage is the basis of the CONIFA World Cup. It is, however, a complicated idea. It is what forms a community, bringing together people who believe in the same things. And so when some of these communities cross paths, there are sparks.
The subcontinent has seen a lot of such communal sparks. Sparks, which have spread on to induce a fire. Both India and Pakistan have been victims of this catastrophe, engulfed by the fires of hatred. To this day, a conflict between the two nations is ongoing.
However, thousands of miles away from the subcontinent, Harpreet Singh and his team are putting aside this conflict, bringing together people of both India and Pakistan under the banner of Panjab FA.
"Where's the conflict over here?" he asks rhetorically, "People are happy over here. People from both India and Pakistan play together. We don't get involved in the politics. Our only motive is to bring people together and we are doing it through football.
"I don't care if a player is from India. I don't care if a player is from Pakistan. If you fill our recruitment criteria and if you can kick a ball, you can play for Panjab FA."
Empowering players and communities
Panjab FA's recruitment criteria are very simple. Harpreet explained, "We are just looking for two things. Firstly, you must hail from Punjab, or have a lineage tracing back to undivided Punjab. Secondly, you must be good enough."
Two of the players who have been selected to put on a Panjab jersey by him and his team are Daniel Singh Cheema and Jhai Dhillon. Cheema and Dhillon have been playing in England for a while now but this year, they will be representing Panjab in the CONIFA World Cup.
Daniel Singh Cheema, who had once attracted clubs like Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, and Sunderland, opened up about how Panjab has helped him realize his dream.
"Panjab has helped me realize my dream by showing me how much a football community can come together and be like a family. It feels really good to be a part of this environment and it makes me realize that this is who I want to be a part of my life," said Cheema, "To be able to put on the jersey of Panjab is a real honour for me and my family. It is an honour I'm very proud of and will be for the rest of my life."
Jhai Dhillon also expressed his feelings, similar to Cheema. Dhillon, who was chosen to be a part of Chelsea's Asian stars program, talked about how thankful he was to be given an opportunity to represent his heritage, "Not only has the club given me an opportunity to represent my people, it has also given me, the rest of the players, and the coaching staff a platform to showcase our talents."
"It is an honor to be able to represent Panjab," says Dhillon, "It is something very few people will get the chance to do. I've been able to play in international tournaments and against top-level teams with Panjab FA."
Cheema and Dhillon are just a part of a community Panjab FA is looking to help. However, going beyond the community, Harpreet and his team are looking to empower whole of the subcontinent.
"I want to see people of India, people of Pakistan come forward. I want to see South-Asian players excel. Our main motive here is to make Panjab FA so strong, that it helps South Asia.
"We are sick of seeing people we cannot relate to. While we all support Ronaldo and Messi, we cannot relate to them. I want to see our people flourish in football," Harpreet said.
The big match against Liverpool
Panjab FA heads to Merseyside to play a Liverpool U-23 side on May 14, a match that will certainly be a landmark in the history of the club.
The Liverpool U-23 side has had a good season, finishing as runners-up to Arsenal. Panjab FA will also encounter a familiar name in Yan Dhanda when they face the Reds. Dhanda is one of the few Indian origin players to be playing for a Premier League side.
After their match in Merseyside, Panjab FA will head to the CONIFA World Cup 2018, hoping to do better than the last time, when they lost in the final, on penalties.
However, the quality at the World Cup is improving and Harpreet said that Panjab FA will face tough competition, "It would make me very happy if we win the World Cup. We were very close to lifting the trophy last time around and will hope to do better this time. However, we have a difficult group and it'll be very hard."
According to him, winning the cup is the ultimate goal -- a feat, which he and his team hopes, will bring Panjab FA into the limelight.
"If we can get more support, it'll be fantastic," he said, "If more people get to know about us, it'll make us proud and we hope that in time we can make them proud."
Harpreet Singh and his team have done fantastic so far in finding and establishing a club, that not only represents a community but also gives them a chance to play. In the end, the whole existence of Panjab FA can be narrowed down to a few words Harpreet said, "The ball is not just for one group of people, the ball is for everybody."