Can Soccer Bring Equality to Pakistan?
By Bina Shah
Every Pakistani boy, it seems, has dreamed of becoming a star in one of the country’s national sports: cricket, field hockey or squash. But access to sports, like so many other things here, has historically rested on class, gender and privilege; the poorest are denied the same opportunities as the rich, and girls have been left out all but completely.
The Karachi United Football Foundation, however, believes that football — the kind Americans call soccer — can bring ethnic, sectarian and gender diversity to Pakistani sports. By promoting the game at the grassroots, the foundation is investing in football not just as a sport, but as a democratizer.
Sports have always mirrored politics in South Asia. The British introduced football in the 19th century; it thrived in the Bengal region, where enthusiastic local players competed barefoot against British military teams. Elsewhere on the Subcontinent, however, cricket eclipsed football; Indian cricketers, whose political ambitions revolved around independence, were more eager to beat the British at their own game.
Pakistan’s interest in football began at the time of the country’s formation: The Pakistan Football Federation was created in 1947, and Pakistan joined the Fédération Internationale de Football Association in 1948. The game became extremely popular in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the western part of Pakistan, but drew most of its players from the former Bengali state, from which East Pakistan had been created.
In the 1960s, a golden age for sports in Pakistan, cricket, squash and field hockey were taught at elite schools like Aitchison College in Lahore, where the scions of reputable families could become sporting icons, backed by financial support and social connections. With foreign tours came international acclaim, and cricket’s popularity skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, football was finding popularity in the less affluent streets of Quetta, Karachi and Dhaka. Karachi’s slums, with their large populations of Sheedis and Makranis — many of them descendants of slaves from Africa who had settled in Sindh and Balochistan — held passionate matches in which players were barefoot, cementing the game’s reputation as a “poor man’s sport,” according to the journalist Ali Ahsan in the newspaper Dawn.
Soon Pakistan’s national team was playing Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Pakistan even faced Israel in the 1960 Asian Cup qualifiers, but the severing of diplomatic relations in 1967 prevented any repeat match.
Then, in 1971, came East Pakistan’s independence as Bangladesh, costing Pakistan the most valuable players for its national and international teams. With the nation as well as the teams struggling to recover, only large corporations and institutions like the army, railroads or the Water and Power Development Authority could afford to hire footballers to form company teams.
After a brief revival in the 1980s, Pakistani football foundered again in the 1990s and 2000s, trapped in financial doldrums and political infighting in the Pakistan Football Foundation. Today, football clubs exist in every city, but with a sliver of the sponsorship and attention that cricket gets.
Enter the Karachi United Football Club, a weekend organization started in 1996 by a number of local football enthusiasts. They saw an opportunity to focus on grass-roots development of football talent by forming the Karachi United Youth Academy; this group gets children — girls as well as boys — onto the pitch, teaches them the game, and develops a culture of teamwork.
The original plan — to develop young players who might one day join the club’s senior players — evolved into a long-term investment in football that is now starting to pay off. Karachi United has a men’s division, a women’s division and a vibrant youth program. Tournaments and training camps are held regularly; its youth academy players visited Manchester United’s training camp in 2004, and two youth academy players participated in the summer training session of another British club, Charlton Athletic Football Club, in 2006.
The football club’s organizers had a vision of using the game to foster community development — at first through the club and later by forming the foundation, which gathered talented players from Karachi’s least developed communities to play together in a safe environment. The foundation now runs 13 “centers of excellence” attended by more than 800 children. Talented players get a chance to make it to the Karachi United Football Club’s senior league.
In running the foundation, the organizers found an unexpected benefit: the beauty of diversity. Pakistan is made up of myriad ethnic groups and religious sects in tension with one another. But on the football pitch, the differences seem to disappear. Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and Makrani players all leave thinking only about football. “Encouraging diversity wasn’t one of our starting goals,” said Imran Ali, the foundation’s chief executive and the club’s youth director. “But we took on more and more communities and realized Karachi was a melting pot.”
Mr Ali is especially proud of the young team’s ethnic diversity. “They’re not concerned about what the other person looks like,” he said. “All they worry about is, can he pass the ball, kick it, have a good time playing with the others?”
Mr Ali is also enthused about a training program for 100 girls from Lyari, an area of Karachi rife with drug- and gang-related violence. “If we can continue this for five or 10 years,” he said, “we’ll change behavior, mindsets and personalities. They’ll become coaches and mothers and fathers.”
Football in Pakistan has many challenges to overcome, including scant media attention, and a dearth of money and corporate sponsorship. Pakistan also lacks a strong regular organization to supervise football properly on a national level.
Yet with Sacramento Republic Football Club’s signing of Kaleemullah Khan, who captains the men’s national team, to be the first Pakistani football player for an American club, and the Pakistani women’s team captain, Hajra Khan, trying out for three Bundesliga clubs in Germany this summer, it’s obvious that football talent exists in Pakistan. And that there is reason to believe the Beautiful Game can do something beautiful for Pakistan.
(Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs". - The New York Times)