Ball’s in your court: Commissioner hopes to score with Lyari football matches [Tribune]

Ball’s in your court: Commissioner hopes to score with Lyari football matches [Tribune]

Mahim Maher – Express Tribune

KARACHI: Commissioner Shoaib Siddiqui deftly dribbles questions from reporters sceptical that the government can arrange an inter-muhalla football tournament in Lyari starting today. Violence was reported from Wednesday night.

“Will the Rangers still be there,” asks a cheeky reporter at the press conference on Thursday.

Woh khel me sath hain,” replies the commissioner with a grin.

Commissioner 1, media 0.

It is not as if the commissioner and his team aren’t aware of the delicacies of the situation. He tells the story of when he was the deputy commissioner of Central in 1997 and met sports expert Majid Khan at a gathering. “Janab, when they play football in the UK,” Commissioner Siddiqui quotes him as telling him, “people rush off the streets [and go home to watch]; crime goes down.”

No one is under the illusion that one tournament will solve Lyari’s problems. The hope is that not only will people come out to cheer the young men on, but that the tournament will play a part in putting a dent in the Kutchi and Baloch street rivalry.

It certainly helps that Kutchi and Baloch men will be on the same teams, as they have been formed by drawing club players from each neighbourhood. Ten teams of 16 players each will come from neighbourhoods, such as Agra Taj, Chakiwara, Kalri, Kalakot, to face off from Friday at 4pm at the Peoples Football Stadium. They will play each other each day till November 3. The prize money is Rs35,000 for the winner, runner-up Rs25,000 and best player Rs10,000. National Bank of Pakistan is sponsoring the entire event.

“Nation-building isn’t just about building roads and flyovers,” remarks the commissioner. And beyond this tournament, the government hopes to also get a donkey cart race, snooker, badminton happening as well. For women there will be table tennis, football, hockey.

NBP junior team coach Ghulam Shabbir, who looks like a slimmer version of Mike Tyson, is one of the sceptics but understands that something is better than nothing. On the sidelines of the commissioner’s press conference he admits that while he is an MA-degree holder, sports is what had given him this job. “Our NICs don’t work beyond Lea Market,” he says, referring to the rejections many Lyari residents face when employers in the rest of the city find out where they live.

It is hard to believe that by 3:30pm crowds will make it to the stadium, if not from the whole of Karachi but at least Lyari. A few women are standing and sitting outside the gates — but not for tickets (the event is free). They are there to find out about the men from their family who are believed to be interrogated inside. The Rangers have taken over the stadium. At about 6pm, the black gate opens briefly, but only to let the commander exit. It shuts promptly.

Entrance is subject to questioning and production of ID. The football association coaches have provided lists of their players but everyone is still stopped and questioned. This is not a place where you can just walk in and kick a ball around. No wonder the boys prefer the smaller Maulvi Usman ground.

Rangers officer Shahbaz allows me to enter the hall leading to the grounds once I explain thatThe Express Tribune is writing about the football tournament scheduled for the next day. But he is unhappy when I curiously walk towards the two trestle tables set up like a buffet for a banned outfit. It is the day’s haul from the sweep in Lyari. Someone was running around with a ‘Termanten’ German steel meat cleaver. The lipstick-shaped bullets are arranged in pretty circles.

“You said you were just here to cover the football,” Shahbaz says, not a little irritated.

The paradox is that the football can’t be talked about without the violence and the violence without the football. “Lyari is a mini Brazil,” says a square-jawed Tariq Taj, who is coaching the Chakiwara team for the tournament. He too links the number of players as inversely proportionate to the crime. But if they don’t get the kind of support they need, it will just limp along. “They talk about Messi and Ronaldo,” Taj says. “But you know how much is spent on making Ronaldo Ronaldo?” The Rangers have made it harder for them to play; the paramilitary force’s job to clean up Lyari is working against it. The boys want their kit rooms back.

“Cricket is a paise wallah game,” says Taj. “If you spent on football just 25% of what you spent on cricket, we’d be doing well.” If the authorities really want to help Lyari’s footballers, they need to increase access to grounds, open gyms, put some financial muscle behind it. “Otherwise this is all chamkana,” says Taj. It’s all for show.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2013.