Football is an anomaly in Pakistan’s sports as we are predominately a cricketing-loving country and play the game on every street across the country. So, it is quite a surprise to see there are not only football fans but also players who prefer it over beloved cricket.
Hard to believe?
It is true, Lyari one of the oldest inhabited parts of the city is also the football haven in Pakistan. It is a fascinating and intriguing place and home to a diverse population of talented people including musicians, singers, rappers, dancers, and sports people — footballers.
Lyari is known by many names — some residents call it the “Mother of Karachi”. But during football season it is called “mini-Brazil” in honour of its favourite team. “Mini-Brazil” is an apt nomenclature, considering FIFA is a celebration for Lyari. The fans go all out to enjoy this occasion.
Preparations begin weeks before the event, streets decorated with colours of different teams, especially Brazil the favourite, with fans wearing their team’s shirts and caps. Popular football anthems — like Shakira’s “This time for Africa” and BTS’s “Jungkook’s Dreamers” — blare from large speakers.
Once the world cup begins, you can hear the roar and cheering of Lyari’s football fans across the country. Huge screens are placed all around Lyari where fans congregate to watch the matches together. There is cheering, punctuated by music and drumbeats and dancing.
The enthusiasm is no less this year, despite Lyari’s favourite Brazil being out of the race. They are now rooting for Argentina and are all set to watch the final this Sunday.
Fortunately, Lyari’s love for football does not end with the World Cup and continues throughout most of the year. Most of Lyari’s footballers play in the streets in tournaments organised locally in the area.
One big tournament is the night tournament organised during Ramadan. This is a serious affair and players of all ages participate according to their age pool. The youngest players are as young as 10, and the same is with the audience.
Some teams don’t even have funds to buy proper uniforms or equipment, but this does not dampen the enthusiasm of the players or audience.
The tournament begins right after the evening prayers and goes late into the night under the extra lights put up. Streets are allocated according to the age group, and the matches keep going until the finals are played for each age group and pool.
Ironically, Pakistan is known for its high-quality footballs that are made in Sialkot and supply about 70% of the world’s demand and are “the official ball of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar”. But there is no Pakistani team in FIFA.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if a Pakistani football team played with footballs made in Pakistan in the next World Cup? And someday brings the trophy to Pakistan?
It seems Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also thinks it is a good idea to invest in Lyari’s football talent. Media reported that he discussed Lyari’s football potential with FIFA President Gianni Infantino during his trip to Qatar. This would be a great initiative to project Pakistan’s football talent to the world.
The foreign minister has always been quite supportive of football. He met the Pakistani street child football team after it won the bronze medal in the 2014 Street Child World Cup held in Brazil.
Expanding Pakistan’s sporting ambit and producing players in games that can bring revenue could help revive and support others across the country. This will also help improve the situation in the country, as the youth will have another option as a professional.
This will also help to not only boost the image of Pakistan but also bring in revenue — a win-win situation.
But to take this idea to fruition it is vital that the authorities concerned begin from the grassroots and plan training camps for the next World Cup.
Lyari’s untapped treasure trove of football talent is the place to start this especially since it has a 40,000-seater football stadium — People’s Football Stadium. The stadium has been underused, so it is only logical to use it to recruit and train footballers and then to use it for what it was built for — to play football.
Now is the time to kick off, Pakistan.
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