KARACHI: And then there were eight.
Captains Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs, along with a superstar cast of Robert Pires, Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka, David James, Luis Boa Morte and George Boateng.
These eight players will compete in a seven-a-side exhibition match on July 8 in Karachi and July 9 in Lahore, with three players apiece lining alongside Ronaldinho and Giggs in either team.
“The national champions of the Leisure Leagues will get the unique chance of playing alongside these players,” said World Group Chief Operating Officer Ishaq Shah. “Each team can have a maximum of 10 players, with seven playing and three subs, so as many as 12 local players will rub shoulders with these eight legends of the beautiful game.”
The World Group is the company behind UK-based Leisure Leagues coming to Pakistan in the first place. “Leisure Leagues existed in three countries before; the UK, the US and the Republic of Ireland. We bought ownership for the remaining 203 countries, while also becoming a partner of the venture in the UK — where the league is headquartered. So Pakistan is the fourth country in the world where Leisure Leagues have been introduced. We plan to take it to the Middle East and Europe after this.”
The grand exhibition match will be Leisure Leagues’ magnum opus but Ishaq insisted the initiative has already seen more than expected interest from the country’s youth. “We have brought something truly unique to the football-loving youth of Pakistan and it’s great to see them respond in such enthusiastic fashion,” he said. “We provide them with grounds that are of an international standard, we provide them with footballs of the highest qualities as well as a trained referee, while also having complete first-aid kits at hand in case an injury takes place.”
The facilities provided may well be better than anything previously available to the general public, but it does come at a steep price. “Each 30-minute match costs Rs5,000. Since there are two teams of 10 players apiece, that makes it Rs250 a person.”
Most futsal and football grounds across the country can be booked at half the price for double that time.
Ishaq knows the price may not be everybody’s cup of tea but made no bones about this being a business venture first and foremost. “If you do something as non-profit or start depending on donations, then you can soon lose interest in it,” he said. “We want to make this a commercial success as well in order to ensure that it is a self-sustaining project. That way we can ensure the country and its football fans benefit from this in the long run.”
And football fans do have a lot to look forward to if World Group’s plans for Leisure Leagues do come to fruition. “This [the Ronaldinho and Friends exhibition match] is not a one-time thing,” promised World Group President Shahzeb Trunkwala, also present in the lavish meeting room at the company’s Pakistan headquarters in upscale DHA. “We will organise this every year. And from next year we will try to bring in current players rather than retired ones.”
Ishaq further revealed that talks have already begun to bring ‘the best’ players in the world to Pakistan for next year, but was naturally hesitant to divulge their names since talks are at a very early stage at the moment.
The event may be arguably the biggest footballing event in the country’s history but football players and fans have more to look forward to.
“There is a team that is currently playing in the United Soccer League, which will soon be a part of Major League Soccer — US’s major football league — that will be sending their scouts to Pakistan every year,” claimed Ishaq. “A trial camp will be set up, from which they will be choosing five players every year. These players will go train with them in the US and, if they impress there, can become professional footballers.”
Other initiatives are also on the way. “We have talked to all the provincial governments,” added Shahzeb. “We have asked them to provide us with land and we will build football grounds on them so that the youth of this country can indulge in healthy recreational activities. We have had a promising response from all of them, especially the Punjab government, which is willing to give us as many as 100 grounds if we guarantee to deliver on our promises.”
The two men did admit though that paying Rs250 is not possible for every young football enthusiast in the country. “Yes, we know that many can’t afford it, that is why there are some teams that play for free,” said Shahzeb. “Around 10 per cent of the teams play for free; who these teams will be is decided based purely on the basis of merit and need. And there is also going to be a league in Lyari that will take place completely free of charge since we know how much the people of that area love football.”
With more than 100 teams already registered, the Leisure League format has teams playing across the year in several leagues.
“Since we know this isn’t a professional league, we realise that people have other commitments as well,” said Ishaq. “We know that these commitments are important to them and that they play football on the side. We therefore give them the opportunity to play whenever it is convenient for them. Want to play on Sundays only? You can do that. Have other commitments on Sunday and would rather play on Wednesday night? That is also possible. There is a lot of flexibility.”
The players though play in their separate cities and there are multiple leagues within major cities, which means crowning a national champion can be tricky business.
“The winners of all the different leagues play against each other in knockout games generated via a computer,” explained Ishaq. “The winner of that will be crowned the champions of that city or region. The champions of all regions then face off against each other in a similar format to crown the national champion.”
Other than getting a memorable chance of playing alongside the likes of Ronaldinho and Pires, the national champions will also be competing in the ‘Mini Football World Cup’, where they will be representing Pakistan.
“Leisure Leagues’ Pakistan national champion will play in the seven-a-side Mini Football World Cup in Dubai,” said Ishaq. “We will also be looking out for the future of these players and they will get either a scholarship or a job offer.”
Not an easy journey
Pakistan’s poor security situation means international sport in the country has come to a virtual standstill, so it comes as no surprise that the World Group had its work cut out in their bid to bring these players to Pakistan.
“Yes we did face a few problems convincing these players to come to Pakistan,” admitted Ishaq. “The unfortunate blast in Lahore took place just two days before we signed Ronaldinho, so it wasn’t easy to bring the players here. The army helped us a lot by offering to provide the players security for these matches.”
Concerns over security were not the only hurdle though. “Pakistan lacks even the most basic footballing infrastructure,” added Shahzeb. “The players wanted to send their agents so that they could look at the football grounds where they will be playing, but we didn’t have even a single ground in Karachi that we could show them. That is why we have had to have the Karachi game at a hockey ground.”
It has been hard work but the duo believe it is not them who are to be credited for pulling this off, but the man behind the vision. “None of this would have been possible without World Group Chairman Mehmood Trunkwala,” said Ishaq. “This is his vision and he is the one backing it.”
Many will write them off even before they have truly begun but Leisure Leagues is about to take one huge stride in their ambitious vision of turning cricket-mad Pakistan into football country. Ronaldinho and friends are coming to town.