An old story of football almost starts a new one between regional rivals10 December 2011

New Delhi: For nearly 12 years, Pakistan’s veteran goalkeeper and skipper at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) cup, Jaffar Khan has crouched underneath the bar, brow writ tightly in concentration, tasked with preventing opposition teams from scoring against his country. However, just a few years ago he switched sides, defending the posts instead for a team representing, of all countries, India.

The match in question took place in Congo in 2007 where Jaffar, who serves as a captain with the 41st Frontier Force of the Pakistan army, was stationed as part of the UN Peacekeeping force. To break the monotony, soon Jaffar and his unit appropriated a pair of rusted goalposts and planted them along an airstrip which served as a playing field.

“We would play informal matches with the troops from the other nations who were stationed there. We would usually win because not many other teams had a national level goalkeeper playing for them,” he says. Jaffar’s side got an offer from a few members of the Indian contingent who were also posted there. “They were all pilots with the helicopter unit. Since there were only five of them, we decided to fill in for them to make two teams. It was draw of names, and I was drafted into the Indian side. If I recall correctly, we (India) won,” says the 30-year-old.

It was a small sporting step but a huge one in relation to relations between the two countries. The South Asian neighbours do not compete against each other in bilateral sporting events, do not give each others citizens visas and play out a dangerous game of brinkmanship on most issues.

Domestic giant
That international side, so to speak, was the only one Jaffar has played for until now. “I had an offer from a second division club in the UK and also a first division side in Korea in 2001, but during that time, I was not given permission from my superiors in the Army,” says Jaffar who was inducted to the Army through a sports quota.

Remaining in Pakistan, Jaffar, as a member of the Pakistan Army side, became a giant of the country’s domestic circuit, making up for his relatively short height for a goalkeeper — he stands 5’10’’ — with lightning-fast reflexes and close range anticipation. He holds a club record for going through 16 matches without conceding a single goal and has been a member of their Asian Games squad three times. Whilst he was away on military duty, Pakistan succumbed to one of their worst defeats — a 7-0 loss to Iraq.

At this months 2011 SAFF Championship he has only conceded a single goal in the three matches played so far. While Jaffar has done his job, his strikers haven’t. Failing to register a single win in the SAFF cup, Pakistan haven’t qualified for the semi- final round. That, in particular, is most disappointing for Jaffar who said he was looking forward to playing against India. Indeed the highlight of Jaffar’s career came against India in the final of the 2004 SAFF games in Islamabad.

Jaffar made a string of saves that gave Pakistan a memorable 1-0 win. “An India-Pakistan game is always a big draw in a tournament. Additionally, being in the army meant there were a lot of expectations from me. After the win, I was felicitated and was also promoted from havaldar to captain,” he says.

Considering the freeze in sporting ties between the two countries, it is unlikely Jaffar will get to play many matches against India any time soon. Jaffar, though, says: “The more we play, the better we get along. When I played alongside those Indian soldiers, I don’t remember thinking that I was playing for an Indian side. We were just fellow soldiers who were bored and wanted to play football,” he says.