Few people in football could light up a room as much as Harpreet Singh, the larger-than-life President of the Panjab Football Association. A man who is immensely proud of his roots, and who has time for simply anyone, also has a burning desire to put the Panjab on the footballing map.
As his team prepares for the upcoming CONIFA World Football Cup, I went to Slough Town’s Arbour Park Stadium on Sunday evening to watch them take on Dhaka Akadash in their final warm-up game.
I sat down at half-time with the man himself, to get his take on what promises to be a spectacular competition in the capital.
SM: How excited are you about London 2018?
HS: “I’m very excited and I’m proud to be representing 125 million Punjabi’s around the world. I see this as the next step in our progression as an organisation and I’m also delighted that the tournament is being held in London, where we have a huge community that has yet to be penetrated.
“I’m also excited for the players as they are a talented bunch and I’m sure on the back of this tournament, some of them will have the chance to take their careers to the next level.”
What are your long-term targets for Panjab?
“Obviously to win a major honour and this could happen in the Paddy Power CONIFA Football World Cup. I also want to try to build the same structure in countries such as the US, India and Pakistan and want to see more Punjabi people taking part in football and engaging in the stadiums.
“People seem to have forgotten that although they are divided by their faith and religion, football has no faith, no religion, no borders, no territories and no national flag – in football we all speak the same language”.
Will being runners-up in the 2016 tournament and being seeded number one in this year’s competition put added pressure on your players?
“Being seeded number one means nothing and our coach, Reuben Hazell, will tell you the same. The players are not under pressure, because they just want to play football and I’ve told them that they have to enjoy occasions like this.”
With the majority of the current squad having played in the 2016 tournament, this will surely be a help in London.
“For sure it could help but the desire has to be there too. We’ve told the players that if there’s no desire, then things will have to be changed. When opportunity knocks, you have to try to take it.”
Slough Town are hosting three matches involving @PanjabFA at Arbour Park.
Here's some of the best action from the Abkhazia 2016 tournament, including a dramatic final! pic.twitter.com/cZ9i5gRFwS
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Panjab are in Group D, which Hazell told me was the “Group of Death”. What do you know of the opposition?
“Kabylia is the first game on May 31st I know very little about them except that both Karim Benzema and Zinedine Zidane are from that region. Actually, whisper this quietly but Zizou would have been eligible to play in this tournament!
“Western Armenia will be tough as we played them back in 2016 and then there’s The United Koreans of Japan, who have a 37-year-old with them who has played in to FIFA World Cups. They are very technical and very strong.”
If the team progresses to the knock-out stages, are there any other teams you particularly fear?
“We fear no-one. If you live life with fear, then you are dead. I consider a person who has fear in life as being finished. Life is for living and this tournament is all about ambition. If I was playing I’d want to play against the best and beat the best.”
Reuben Hazell has been at the head of team affairs since the organisation was formed back in 2014. What impresses you most about the former Oldham Athletic and Chesterfield defender?
“Obviously, back in 2014 we had no background, nothing to put on the table. I spoke to some Punjabi people, my own people and they only wanted to take the job with certain conditions. Reuben Hazell wanted to do it unconditionally and that was massive in my opinion. We now have a UEFA A licensed coach, who is respected in the game – what more could we ask for?”
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31.5.18 – VS KABYLIA
2.6.18 – VS WESTERN ARMENIA
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Could the local Punjabi population play a vital role?
“I really hope so, although I’ve been disappointed with the reaction from some members of the Punjabi community. For instance, the local MP in Slough is Punjabi and he hasn’t mentioned anything. He’s been invited to the warm-up games and where is he?
Look, everything is a work in progress and we have some very knowledgeable Punjabi people here […] but the majority don’t seem to want to talk about it.”
What would victory at CONIFA 2018 mean for you, the players and the organisation as a whole?
“As I’ve already said, the players have a chance to earn something off the back of this and as an organisation, we have the opportunity to attract bigger sponsors and get a chance to play bigger opposition having already played against England C and Liverpool Under-23.
“For me, if I was to die after this and we had won the competition, then I’d die a happy man. I’d rather live for two years and fulfil my own destiny than live to 50 and do nothing. I want to enhance peoples’ lives – not just Punjabi’s, everyone’s.”
Panjab FA kick-off their CONIFA World Football Cup 2018 campaign against Kabylia at Arbour Park on Thursday, kick-off 3pm. For more information and tickets to all matches, click here.
Photo Credit: Beslan Lagulaa