From the sides: Hopeful sportsmen all, these young men are always on the ball [Express Tribune]

From the sides: Hopeful sportsmen all, these young men are always on the ball [Express Tribune]

Natasha Raheel – Express Tribune

ISLAMABAD: An international football competition is not easy to host, and a lot of careful behind-the-scenes planning goes into it as many small and vital cogs are required. One of the most important of these cogs is also one of the most invisible ones; the ball boys.

These ball boys are often aspiring footballers themselves and are therefore enthusiastic about the sport; watching it keenly from the touchlines. It comes as no surprise then that Haseebur Rehman Kiyani summed up the recently concluded South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Women’s Championship by saying, “It was good because the matches were entertaining”.

For his services from the sidelines, throwing the ball to the players when the one on the field goes out of play, he gets one of the best seats in the house and Rs500 every day.

But it is not the money that motivates these boys; it is the love of the game. “It’s a matter of the heart really,” said Haseeb, who plays for Huma FC in Islamabad. “I’m not doing this for money; it’s more to do with my love for the game.”

The 16-year-old, who is pursuing his intermediate degree from a local college, believes that as a child he wanted to be a footballer and went against his father’s wishes, who wanted him to pursue hockey instead.

“Football is a part of me,” said Haseeb. “But I also know that there is no chance of me ever making it to the national side. So being a ball boy here is the closest I’ll ever come to being a part of an international event.”

The Huma FC striker said that despite his love for the game, he has finally decided to listen to his father and pursue hockey as he believes it holds brighter prospects for his future. “I’m now taking hockey more seriously,” he said. “Hockey gives me an opportunity to go further. I’m hopeful, but football has its own way. I plan to pursue a degree in science but till then I’m going to play hockey.”

However, Haseeb is not leaving football behind due to a lack of confidence in his own abilities. Instead, he is doing so because he does not feel that players are selected on the basis of merit. “I know this because selection, in any sport, is usually not based on merit in Pakistan,” he said. “Even in the women’s camp, where they used to train with us, many talented players were forced to sit on the bench, while less talented ones were on the pitch. I’m sure it is the same in the men’s team.”

From his prime location behind the advertising boards, Haseeb was not all too impressed by the national women’s side. “Our women are still not up to the mark. They don’t understand passing and defending too well,” he said. “They need time. I’m a striker too, so I can tell that they aren’t playing like India or Nepal, or even Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. For me, India’s and Nepal’s matches were exciting, Afghanistan weren’t up to the mark either, but overall the tournament was entertaining.”

Meanwhile, another ball boy and Haseeb’s Huma FC teammate, Sheeraz Samiel, is still hopeful of a future in the sport. “I’m getting Rs500 — I think, I’m not sure — but I’m here because I want to be a part of any football activity that takes place in my city,” said the 17-year-old. “We play local tournaments regularly, and I want to play football all the time. I’m not studying, so football is all I’ve got. Being a ball boy in this event doesn’t hurt me in anyway. In fact, I’m earning extra money and I’m getting to see how international tournaments are organised, it’s all about learning for me.”

Islamabad Football Association official Zakir Naqvi said that these ball boys are usually local players coming from humble backgrounds.

In the Saff Championship, there were 14 ball boys and eight others carried stretchers and helped the medical staff. With their pockets Rs4,000 heavier after the eight days and having witnessed an international event up close, these prospective future footballers have surely gone home richer and wiser for it.