In restive Lyari, soccer offers hope

During last soccer World Cup, violence dropped sharply in Lyari.

Reuters January 24, 2012


In the heart of one of Pakistan's most violence-hit neighbourhoods in the teeming city of Karachi, soccer pitches are keeping vulnerable teenagers from joining abundant gangs, kidnappers and extortion rackets. 

Dozens of hard-scrabble soccer clubs give youngsters with few chances for education or work the opportunity to get off the streets and even dream of getting a nod to join a national team or a semi-professional club.

“There is so much talent in Lyari. It can be a great way of keeping these kids away from drugs and street crime especially if they are well paid and rewarded," said Yacoob Baloch, a soccer coach at one of the clubs.

Pakistan, a strategic US ally, spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on education which translates into a lack of skills needed to find work for much of the young population of the country of nearly 180 million.

Pakistan's police and security forces also lack funds, making it easy for criminals to thrive in Lyari, a densely populated area in Karachi with dilapidated buildings, potholed streets and raw sewage.

But soccer has proven to be a way out of the chaos for some.

“Because of my focus on football, my mind has never wandered off to other things like drugs or violence,” said Muneer Aftab, 15, who led Pakistan to victory in the under-16 South Asian Football Federation Championships in 2011, defeating arch-rival India.

“Playing football runs in my blood. I just want to play forever.”

But for people like Aftab, there is only limited time to practice and usually only after being worn down by the daily grind in the sprawling city of 18 million on the Arabian Sea.

He wakes up at the crack of dawn to play soccer, goes to school during the day and helps his father who drives a rickshaw along Karachi's chaotic streets, and goes back to the soccer pitch at night.

“I know I am chasing my dream. But it's not easy,” said Aftab, well-built, dark-skinned and shy.

Lyari is a little Brazil

Soccer has become a big hit in Lyari, no small feat because cricket is by far the most popular sport in Pakistan. There are 98 registered soccer clubs, 11 football grounds and two stadiums in Lyari, home to over 600,000 people.

If a player gets recognised in Lyari, not only the national team comes into sight, but also the chance to play for teams sponsored by corporations and banks that pay players a monthly salary.

The National Bank of Pakistan, for instance, gives Aftab 10,000 rupees a month to play in the semi-professional league.

During the last soccer World Cup, violence dropped sharply in Lyari. Residents gathered in the evening to watch matches on projector screens, a welcome change in a place where nighttime usually means gang warfare and abductions.

Ahmed Jan, a local coach and stadium manager, said Karachi's exposure to the sport began in the late 1950s.

Ships from Europe docked at the port. Sailors interacted with boys who worked as labourers and introduced them to soccer and kicked a few balls around.

The youngsters were so passionate about the game, they played barefoot and the cheap form of play spread, transcending ethnic, political and sectarian lines that brutally divide Karachi.

Still, Jan worries that without government support, the chance to get more youngsters off paths to violence remains slim.

“Most of the children's dreams get crushed. And they look towards other means of survival which a lot of the time includes picking up a gun,” said Jan.

Abdul Aziz, 24, also used soccer to improve his plight. He made it to Pakistan's national team but is pessimistic about the chances of others.

“In Pakistan there is no platform, there is no money for a secure future. And no support from the government for football,” he said.

Still, despite a lack of brand name shoes and flash jerseys, soccer still serves a higher purpose in Pakistan, creating equality that comes as a welcome respite from fear of being targeted.

“The kids who come and play at this ground don't care which sect you belong to, what your background is,” said Jan.

“They all bond for the love of football.”


Riasat Ali | 9 years ago | Reply

whilst we watch the progress of Cricket and hockey in our country as compared to football everyone feel sad. FPDC members' comment is true. I played at Pak Mughal Football Ground, PIB Colony and still remembers the combination of foreign players, PIA players and decent environment. Karachi has also been captured by the commercialized maafia not to blame Lyari people only. Lots of ground converted into commercial/residential buildings, jumma/sunday bazars, wedding lawns and slowly slowly almost all the grounds are vanished. Poplulation has increased rapidly and town planners are almost died of this city. I suggest if each area community themselves decide and manage even small grounds to atleast let their children come out from their homes. Strange thing I shall share with "many Karachi residents' children do not know how to play football and what is this game's grace." They watch Manchester United and several English club matches on their tvs. A sad aspect of this city.

FootballPakistan.Com | 9 years ago | Reply

Sadly, football in Karachi remains stuck in its amateur past of the 1950s-70s.

It has yet to evolve into a proper professional well-organised machine due to so much political nonsense, govt department football sides, lack of professionalism, and no genuine club structure that ensures player growth, development, and improvement from an early age. The players are not guided into proper fitness, education, mentoring etc and the kids from Lyari esp. indulge in paan, gutka, cannabis, and cigarettes among other things. We need to keep that in mind.

Karachi has not one, but FIVE District Football Associations (Central, South, East, West, Malir) and almost all of them are in a mess. It has shown progress at least, with Karachi United FC organising the Karachi United Football League, Karachi United Youth Football League, and the Karachi United Schools Championship for last 7-9 years but it needs a lot more support to grow forward.

Regards, the staff members of FootballPakistan.Com (FPDC)

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