Easah lives close to England cricketer Moeen Ali’s residence in Birmingham and he is a fan of Indian cricket legend Virat Kohli. He loves T20 cricket and ardently follows the Indian Premier League (IPL).
But the first love, for Easah Suliman, has always been football.
From playing as a child in his backyard to donning the captain’s armband for the Pakistan national football team, Suliman’s journey is about returning to his roots, leading by example, and sometimes, shouldering responsibilities that are possibly larger than he can fathom.
Pakistan has looked enervated in the two matches it has played in the SAFF Championship till now.
Without a single point in two matches, its exit from the tournament was quiet compared to the hullabaloo created ahead of it’s arrival in India. This setback is momentary, and for Suliman, this team has a lot of chapters to write in the coming days.
“It is the first time all of us have been together. Even if you bring 11 very good players together, you still need time to be organised as a team,” Suliman told Sportstar.
“With India, you can tell the team has been playing with each other for a while. They have a structure, organisation and a way of playing. I felt that on the pitch.”
“Privileged for my upbringing”
Suliman started his career in football at the youth academy of the Premier League side Aston Villa, staying at the club from eight till 21.
Playing for clubs Cheltenham Town, Grimsby Town and FC Emmen, the centre-back created history when he joined Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes, making him the first player of Pakistani descent to play in the top flight in Portugal.
But it wasn’t the first time Suliman had written his name in the history books.
Actively involved in the youth levels of the England national team, between under-16 and under-20 sides, he became the first British Asian to captain an England side at any level.
He led the young Three Lions and started every match in its victorious campaign at the 2017 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, scoring in the final against Portugal.
During his time with England, he has shared the pitch with players like Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal), Mason Mount (Chelsea) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool).
“England is on a different level when it comes to all other countries. It goes back to grassroots; it goes back to youth football; it goes back to education when you were young. I feel privileged that I had that upbringing in England,” he said.
“Over there, you have the best coaches and the best opportunities. It is a big reason why I am playing professionally, and I am where I am.”
Asked about a realistic timeframe regarding when India and Pakistan can reach a level at par with England and other top-ranked nations, he is quick to point out that it will take a long time. While it is something that cannot be solved with quick fixes, Suliman said that a systematic structure is imperative.
“I’m not too sure at the moment how it works in Pakistan…A competitive league is important; I don’t know whether Pakistan has a competitive league yet,” he said, “That could be a start where players are playing regularly. One of the positive things about India, which is very good, is that they have the Indian Super League.”
When Pakistan came calling
Suliman never had playing for Pakistan on the cards. So, when he was presented with the opportunity, there was some deliberation on his part. The functioning of the Pakistan football team lacked clarity, and so, he needed some time to figure out what his next step would be.
“I tried to understand their [Pakistan Football Federation] intentions and checked whether they are doing things properly now. I needed to be sure because if I was to come here, things would need to be done properly. But once I had made my decision, I was happy to come and give my whole,” he said.
“My grandparents were born in Mirpur (now known as New Mirpur City) in the Azad Kashmir district). So, of course, I am proud of my heritage and my origin.”
Suliman is still getting used to captaining the Pakistan football team at the age of 25.
Making his debut in a 1-0 loss against Kenya in the Four-Nations tournament, he has just played four matches for his country. But in his nascent career with the Pak Shaheens, he has to deal with the spotlight being on him due to his footballing experience.
“In terms of feeling pressure about leading the team, you can feel that, of course. You have the local players looking at you, what you can do at every given minute – what food you’re eating, how you’re recovering after games, what you’re doing before the game. In that way, I need to be a bit more conscious and set a good example in that way,” he said.
“I have had players already asking me for things like training plans and training programs. I have sent that to them. I have told them that they should be doing this not just when they play for Pakistan but daily.”
India vs Pakistan - the experience; shaking hands with Stimac and facing Sunil Chhetri
Suliman and his team did not have the smoothest of transitions from Mauritius to Bengaluru.
From issues with their visas to several players missing their flight and landing just hours before kick-off, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
“It was such a big game, with such a big crowd, and given the occasion, we would have liked to be a more prepared,” Suliman said about the match.
The Pakistan team was showered with incessant booing at the Sree Kanteerava, something Suliman had already expected, but what he didn’t expect was the touchline scuffle that Pakistan players had with India head coach Igor Stimac, which led to the latter being sent off.
“From my point of view, we tried to take a quick throw-in, but he [Stimac] stopped us from taking that. Obviously, at that moment, you are very frustrated. But I saw him at half-time, and I shook his hand. The respect that he has - he is involved in his team and is passionate.”
While Suliman still thinks it is unacceptable for a manager to get involved in a game like that, now that the moment’s passed, he said Stimac did what he needed to do for his team.
Suliman’s battle with Sunil Chhetri was always going to be talked about, with the former playing as a centre-back.
“It was disappointing for me because it built up as a 1v1 battle- a case of you vs him. It is not just about me.”
The Pakistan captain said that the unfortunate part was the errors committed by his team that “gifted” Chhetri his goals.
It was Suliman’s handball which gave India the penalty – one that was converted by Chhetri, completing his hat-trick.
“The ball did hit my hand, but it was very close. I did not have time to react. I could see why that was given as a penalty, but I think it could be given either way,” Suliman said.
Pakistan’s SAFF Championship campaign ends with a dead-rubber match against another eliminated side, Nepal.
Though it wasn’t a fruitful visit to India, the captain is optimistic about achieving something with the national team of Pakistan – a country that holds a special place in his heart. Suliman, in his own words, wants to get the “Pakistan football team rolling again.”
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