KARACHI: "It is a myth. Football is everywhere in Karachi, and not just Lyari. There are footballers everywhere, it is our sport, this tournament has just showed it again," the National Fighters FC captain Zahid Ali Khan said, as he revelled in the glory of the Aik Awam Movement JS Bank Unity Cup win on Sunday night.
Khan's team defeated Gizri Stars FC on penalties amid a full-house at the Gizri Football Playground. The crowd was bigger despite Pakistan cricket team playing their Asia Cup match on the evening.
A night that Zahid believes is hard to forget, not just because of the tournament being a success, but for the fact that his teammates were recognised, and that he got a health insurance as a player for the first time.
It was not just the prize money, (Rs 100,000 for the winners, Rs50,000 for runners-up and Rs 25,000 for each of the third and fourth place teams) but just the feeling of being taken seriously as a sports personalities, who have dedicated their lives to football, as footballers suffer the most without proper facilities for them, even at the Pakistan Premier Football League.
The tournament was featuring 32 teams on knock-out basis, and the aim was certainly, to highlight football as a sport of the people, and that it is a unifying force for the youth coming from all the backgrounds.
"I have never seen a tournament where they treated us like this," Khan, who has been playing football for the last 20 years told The Express Tribune. "The health insurance we got is something unheard of before. I've played for Army's departmental teams at national level from 2004 till 2009, and this was something we really cherish."
Khan said that the competition level at the event was top-notch, but it was the training of his team that set them apart.
"We had started to train for this event early on. In fact the camp was there a month before because we continuously play local football. I feel our defenders did a brilliant job, the strikers were very good throughout the tournament. Our striker Muhammad Sufyan was the top-scorer with five goals, our defenders kept the pressure off of our goal keeper too. It was an over-all great performance for us with a young team. But this was special because finally we got the coverage, we got the attention, and that too for all the teams in the event. After all football is a sport of the working class."
Khan's team has most of their players from Hazara community and the club was established in 1985, earlier named Ali Nawaz Memorial FC and now National Fighters FC for the last 15 years. They train at the Railways Ground near Kala-Pul locality in Karachi.
"It is fascinating, because even our district football association doesn't do much, if we get injured, it is an added expense, because mostly players with serious injuries would never be the same again," said Khan.
He added that football facilities should be upgraded and other tournaments should be highlighted as football events take place throughout the year.
Meanwhile, team’s defender Muhammad Waqas feels that it had been the training, twice a day, which resulted in a good tournament for them.
"We train hard, after we get done with our work, in the evenings football is what we look forward to," said Waqas, who was on his way to give an examination paper after winning the trophy at the tournament.
Young captain of the Gizri Star FC Muhammad Yawar added that the event was tough for his side that barely made it to the finals.
"It was cut-throat. We had a tough road because we won our last three matches on penalties," said the 17-year-old as they lost the final.
Setting an example
The most exhilarating feature as a crowd-member was the fact that many women and children were there to witness the final, something that is not common, especially at the domestic events in Pakistan, due to safety, something that Aik Awam Movement needs to be credited for.
Meanwhile, the organiser and the head of the movement Jibran Nasir said that he wanted to hold the tournament as he had said in his election campaign that he would promote sports.
"It was a part of the election campaign. I said that I'll work on the sports grounds and youth engagement," said Nasir. "Football is a cheap sport and also a common sport in Karachi so we held this tournament hoping that more sponsors take notice of it. I hope the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) was watching it too because the response has been great. All the effort was worth it to see the smiles on the faces of these footballers. They play at clubs and at departments but they deserve better."
As far as the PFF is concerned they only hold national leagues properly, and the players usually do not get much incentives.
On the other hand, Nasir said that they started working on organising the tournament last month only and within 10 days they managed to get the clubs and the sponsors on board.
"It all started when I asked Tanzeem Sports as to what is the cost of holding a football tournament and they told me that it takes Rs30,000, that meant that the entire team would be playing for just Rs11,00 collectively, and that was not fair. I was told that only the winners would get kits and the teams weren't playing for much. It was the first time we ever held a football tournament, it cost us Rs2 million," explained Nasir.
He added that he had kept Gizri Ground as the venue specially to demonstrate that the players had to play on grassless grounds and they still continue with the sport, but with better facilities and maintenance of the existing ones, the sport and the footballers can thrive.
"Football can contribute so much to the economy. We have the infrastructure but the facilities aren't up to mark," said Nasir.
Nasir said that Aik Awam Movement will be holding tournaments for U15 boys and women in the future too and the next one will be in November.
"We'll try to hold tournaments quarterly with different names. This was the Unity Cup because it fell around September 6, "said Nasir.
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