Karachi United: Giving hope to footballers in impoverished areas | football news
Doha, Qatar – Karachi United footballer Sanjar Qadir receives a pass from his captain and dashes the ball towards goal.
It’s the final moments of the game. 0:0 it is a draw. If Qadir scores, it would not only win the game for his team but cap off a memorable trip to Qatar.
Qadir puts the ball into the net and scores. As he celebrates, his teammates run across the pitch, bullying him before they dive for joy together and make the most of their final minutes on the pristine green pitches of the Aspire Academy in the capital, Doha.
Qadir was part of Karachi United (KU) squad who traveled from Karachi, the largest metropolitan area of Pakistan in southern Pakistan, for a friendly tournament against Aspire Academy.
“These pitches are so smooth and well maintained. When we pass the ball it actually slides over,” a beaming 11-year-old Qadir told Al Jazeera after the hard-fought win.
KU’s away side consisted of under-11 and under-12 teams, each playing three games, training at the academy’s facilities, watching a local football league game and returning home with hopes of a future in the sport.
Qadir grew up playing football on the streets and in a dusty field in Karachi’s Malir district.
“When I was playing in my neighborhood I missed so many goals because the ball bounced over holes and rocks scattered across the ground,” he explained.
Growing up with Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandoski and Karim Benzema, he says his dreams of becoming a professional footballer seemed close to reality when he was selected for KU’s youth program this January.
In less than three months he is already reaping the benefits of his affiliation with one of the leading professional football clubs in Pakistan’s most populous city.
“Before I came to KU, nobody respected my dream of becoming a footballer. Now my parents encourage me and my football is respected,” he said.
From the weekend club to the football academy
KU was founded as a club in 1996 by a group of three “weekend footballers”. Now it has turned into a center of football development in Karachi.
“We have a very strong community program supported by 11 community centers across the city,” Taha Alizai, the club’s director, told Al Jazeera.
The club works with local coaches to find young footballers, coach them and call them up to youth teams.
“While football is the main selection criterion, we’re also trying to see which players would benefit from our development system and contribute to society if given the chance,” Alizai said.
Players receive free coaching, equipment and transport when they travel three times a week to train from far-flung areas.
Football in the shadow of gang wars, drug abuse
Most of KU’s community centers operate in low-income areas of Karachi.
Two of them – Lyari and Malir – have produced footballers for decades despite being plagued by violence and crime.
Up until 10 years ago, Lyari was synonymous with gang warfare and rampant drug abuse, as criminal gangs, dacoits, and drug lords held locals hostage with frequent shootings and takedowns.
The famous Kakri Ground, where barefoot boys would turn up to play soccer in recovery from the violence, had turned into a hideout for criminals and a dumping ground for corpses.
“Sometimes the drivers we hired to take the boys to training refused to go to Lyari because they would be turned back from the outskirts or risked ending up in the middle of a firefight,” Alizai said of the worst years of violence in Lyari.
“Our entire system runs through community centers in these inner cities, and when gang wars disrupted regular training and exercise schedules, it took away from these kids the opportunity to play football and be away from the violence, some peace of mind and physical security.”
In April 2012, a month-long police operation helped restore a semblance of peace to the area.
Since then, the club’s access to Lyari and other areas affected by violence has become easier, but there are times when it needs to protect its players from the lure of drug dealers and political rivalries.
According to KU head coach Shaikh Hamdan, there have been several instances where the club have had to do everything they can to save a player’s life.
“One of our academy players from Lyari shared an apartment with a drug dealer who we suspected was luring the boy into his business with the bait of easy money,” Hamdan said.
The 11-year-old lived with his single mother, who was struggling to make ends meet, making him an easy target for drug dealers recruiting unsuspecting boys.
“We stepped in and got them both somewhere safer before the boy could fall into a trap and become a drug dealer and possibly an addict himself,” Hamdan recalled.
Twenty-two of the 26 boys who were part of the teams that toured Qatar were from Lyari and Malir.
The trip gave them the opportunity to train in fully equipped facilities and play on world-class pitches. Competing against teams from an international sports academy was a far-fetched dream for some of the players who struggle to eat three nutritious meals a day.
For some, including 11-year-old Shams-ul-Omar, the first trip on an airplane was the highlight of the trip. Omar lives in Malir, a district in western Karachi and plays as a full-back for the U12 team.
With his timely tackles and sprints to cover the goal despite his small stature, the resolute defender was instrumental in his team’s victory in the last game.
Omar’s unemployed father supports his son’s ambitions despite the family’s financial problems.
“My father took me to the Malir Center [local football club] so I could play undisturbed,” he said.
Omar, a Kylian Mbappe fan, said he cried himself to sleep after France lost the 2022 World Cup final to Argentina last year.
Despite heartbreak, he wants to “work hard like Mbappe” and become a professional footballer.
“Football is all I can do so I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t do it [as a footballer].”
“Football is inclusion”
According to Alizai, the club is trying to ensure that all youth team members go to school and eat three nutritious meals a day.
In a cricket-mad country like Pakistan, football and all other sports take a backseat in terms of popularity and future prospects.
Anas Ahmed, a U11 forward, has been playing football since he was four.
“Most of the boys in my neighborhood played cricket, but football was my heart,” he said. “I’ve only been at KU for two months but I’m so good that I was selected for this tour and now I’ve scored a goal for my team.”
Of the 50 boys registered in the club’s academy, 45 belong to low-income families living in violence-stricken areas and struggling to access basic amenities.
The other five come from privileged families and live in more posh areas of the city.
Despite the vast differences in their lifestyles, the players blend in seamlessly and form a close bond.
“Football has always been about inclusion and bringing people together,” said Alizai, who has led the club for 27 years.
Hours before their final game on the tour, the boys from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and different parts of the city were relaxing in the luxurious dormitories at Aspire Academy. After a round of snooker, jokes, and high-fives, they got together to sing an impromptu, soccer-inspired rap song by Lyari:
“In Lyari there is a match – come, come
Brazil is playing – come on, come on
Neymar scored a goal, goal
Lyari beats dhol, dhol (drums)
The stage is set up in Qatar,
Let’s see who will be first
(We) must move far from the (reach) of the Guardian
And play just like (Lionel) Messi.”