Few people in football light up a room like Harpreet Singh, the larger than life President of the Panjab Football Association. Immensely proud of his roots, he’s on a mission to put Panjab on the footballing map.
And he has big hopes for this team in this year's CONIFA Football World Cup 2018, sponsored by Paddy Power.
Panjab kicked off their campaign this week with a 8-0 hammering of Kabylia and Singh believes the competition could also be the springboard sees his players ascend the footballing ladder - and we caught up with him last week to discuss all things Panjab and CONIFA.
How excited are you by London 2018?
“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 I 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”.
Does 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.”
The majority of the current squad played in the 2016 tournament, which must be a big help this year?
“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.”
Panjab are in Group D, which coach Hazell called, the “Group of Death”. Do you feel the same?
“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 at FIFA World Cups. They are very technical and very strong.”
Are there any teams you would feat in the knockout stages?
“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.”
Former Oldham Athletic and Chesterfield man Hazell has been coach since Punjab’s formation in 2014, what impresses you most about him?
“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.”
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 50 and do nothing. I want to enhance peoples’ lives, not just Punjabi’s, everyone’s.”