Football, a new player in the field [Express Tribune]

Football, a new player in the field [Express Tribune]

By Aamna Saiyid/Mariam Gabaji – Express Tribune

Home-grown sports in Pakistan such as cricket, hockey and squash may appear to be the only games keeping our hopes alive in the domestic as well as the international arena, but football is showing promising signs of being the next big thing in the country. 

The game has been sidelined as the secondary go-to activity compared to the ones mentioned above but the country’s position nevertheless has seen a steady rise in world rankings over the past couple of years. Even though it has yet to attain international standards, increasing opportunities for local aspirants in the country have increased its visibility.

Although the current ranking of 158 may jingle a poor status for many, it is still a considerable achievement for Pakistan as they reached here by climbing 31 spots since 2012 (189th to 158th).

This leaves us wondering about the identity of the forces responsible for such a turnaround.

Of course the main game-changers – the national squad, other club players and officials behind the scenes – deserve majority of the credit, but efforts being made in the lesser-known quarters of the country also need to be taken into account.

An initiative undertaken by Aman Sports, a branch of the Aman Foundation, is one such example. The charitable concern has partnered with the Real Madrid Foundation (FRM) to set up a Social Sports School to impact as many as 400 boys and girls, aged six to 17.

The first of these schools was inaugurated at Ibrahim Hyderi on March 13 with an aim to foster sports, sports education and professional training while removing social barriers and driving social integration.

“It took us a year to convince the FRM to establish these schools in slum areas,” said Director at Aman Sports Faisal Mirza.

“They wanted venues in secure and upscale locations but our aim had always been to give underprivileged children the opportunity that they normally wouldn’t be able to get on their own.

“We sent two of our coaches to Madrid for a short training course in order to understand how football can be an instrument of change for all.”

One can see the amount of interest the children of Ibrahim Hyderi have in the sport, judging by the European club flags adorning houses and shops in the area. The observation cannot be any less profound; even the lack of proper clothing, schooling and feeding do not deter the youngsters’ passion for sports. They only need a helping hand.

On the other hand, there are those individuals who help promote the sport itself by providing formal training.

One such pioneer in this regard, who has been a tangible and driving force behind realising the aspirations of children, is Nigeria’s Emeka Aliewa of the Mescon Islamabad Football Academy. He has been running the institute for the past three years and has become nearly a household name for those interested in looking for a proper platform to follow their passion.

Aliewa has taken up the mantle of training local children from a very young age till the time they turn 18. And according to him, serious efforts are being made to rope in foreign assistance to introduce new techniques to give football in Pakistan a change in perspective.

“We are trying to get more qualified coaches from Nigeria as well as England to help boost the image of football in the country,” said Aliewa.

“We want to promote it at the academy as well as in schools. It doesn’t matter if they have no prior experience. We begin from point zero and divide players in different categories according to the level they are at.

“Even though I am trying to implement the European way of playing the sport, we don’t use their selection criteria to get players into the academy. All are welcome.”

The Nigerian stated that local coaches produced at the club later went to villages and charitable organisations to impart their knowledge and generate further interest in the sport throughout the country.

He further added: “My other aim is to send at least one player in the next five years to a European club so that the deserved exposure is given to him.”

While  the spirit seems to be there, so does the will.

However, there still exists a lack of awareness even among officials in charge — a key issue in  promoting Pakistan football.

To give context, let’s see what football legend Diego Maradona had to say about Pakistan.

On Thursday, Maradona slammed the Argentine Football Association by accusing those in charge of “understanding as much about football as Pakistan does”.

While foreign criticism, harsh as it may be, is understandable, lack of awareness among officials in the country is appalling. If Pakistan football needs to improve, officials at the helm need to be completely aware on what to improve and how.

Maybe this is why, despite his harsh remarks, Maradona was invited to Pakistan to ‘inform’ the country on how to improve the state of football — something that is severely lacking in the first place.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2014.