KE footballers left to make hard choices [Express Tribune]

KE footballers left to make hard choices [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: “They didn’t even leave us with enough to buy a rickshaw to earn livelihood and it shows how football and footballers are looked at. I have represented Pakistan internationally and I have played football for K-Electric (KE) for more than two decades. I gave them the best days of my life,” says Akbar Ali, who has been the defender for the KE departmental team and is now protesting for just enough dignity as the corporation disbanded the team last year.

Ali represented Pakistan at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U20 Football Championship 2002 qualifiers, 2003 Olympiad Games Athens and 2007 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, apart from captaining KE for 10 years.

The Pakistan Premier Football League playing outfit was disbanded, shutdown and 25 players were asked to either enter the on-field work force or take three-month’s salary and leave.

The 25-member squad, according to one source, was not costing KE more than Rs1.5 million per month and they were still a top team in Pakistan.

It would be easier to say that if a footballer has the game at his feet, he may find another place to play at, but in this scenario, asking the footballers to work at jobs that they have never worked before is unfair and humiliating.

When asked what the alternative was for the players who had chosen to stay at KE and go for third-party contractual jobs, the answer was, “There are three to four players who are not protesting anymore, they are working as peons in the offices,” Ali told The Express Tribune. “Where do I go, where do these players go now. I have spent 24 years serving the sport, serving this department, and all I understand now is this, loyalty has cost me so much.”

Ali is joined by his fellows in staging demonstrations for their right to be paid better than just three-month salary in a time of a global pandemic, or to get a job that is with the KE, instead of a third-party contract, is not a big ask. Especially, after KE is still using the pictures of footballers on its website if one clicks on the sport section.

Ali said that he had big dreams, while growing up in Lyari’s Phool Patti lane and playing for local club Phool Patti Star FC. He also played for government’s departmental team of water board early on in his career, played under England’s John Layton when he was the coach for Pakistan and went on to play for KE, because he believed that lives can change through sports.

There have been voices that say that since the players have not gotten the education, they must cave in to the reality of going to work on menial jobs and work as labourers, but the truth remains that blaming the vulnerable for being vulnerable is rather distorting the reality. The talented footballers, who have dedicated their lives to the country and the sport are taken advantage of, exploited and mistreated, even in asking for a fair deal.

On one hand, some young players have found their way to other clubs and departments, including well-known names like Pakistan captain Essa Khan and Chitral’s Muhammad Rasool, and they may not bear the brunt of the department’s disbandment as badly as others, however, the ones who worked hard with humility remain at loss.

Lyari youth had been looking to sports as a way to do away with drugs, crime and eventually paving a better life through their talent on the field.

As Ali puts it, “I believe in my game and sport. They now tell us that it is our fault for not getting the education. It is like telling us that struggling throughout our lives and rising against the odds though sports was not enough.”

“This is about my survival, the survival of our children, and the survival of football for us. The loyalty should have helped, but with that three-month salary they are offering us, it is not enough. Not even enough to buy a rickshaw to start working as a rickshaw driver. Where do we go? I am not even asking for them to honour us, I just want them to be fair.

“I feel this more than ever now. When I was at the top of my game I should have switched the department too, but we stayed because we thought of loyalty to the people that we played for and that helped us. But it feels like a dream turning into a nightmare, and I know some would still blame us for it, telling us to take those jobs instead, like surviving is just what we should only ask for. We were promised early on, when we started to play for KE that we will get permanent jobs too, but that never happened,” said Ali, who added that he would have loved to do coaching courses too had he been guided.

The departmental system in Pakistan does not spell progress and since the country has no successful clubs and a professional football structure presently, nothing can provide solace to the footballers who live, breathe and dream football. The football ecosystem is suffocating for the ones who only want to play the sport and earn an honest livelihood through it.

Like Ali, Aftab Qadir, who has been a KE player and worked as an assistant coach after getting his coaching licence added that he also did not take the three-month salary and the demands are simple and not too much to ask for as a sports-person and as a national footballer who has served the department for 19 years.

“They should just compensate us better. They should give us jobs that are not of third-party contract, which is our right to ask for. All we want is answers and some respect, some fraction of hope. Right now most of us, at least the 12 players that are protesting, we don’t have a lot of money, we are struggling and we are looking for jobs that are related to football, like that of coaching in schools or colleges, because clearly, KE do not respect us, they don’t care, and it is heart-breaking. Where do we go? It is almost a threat, an ultimatum. Were we given any choice? Because whatever options they gave us, only favoured the higher-ups,” said Qadir who had previously played in the Pakistan Public Relations Work Department before joining KE in 2002.

KE became the Pakistan Premier Football League champions in 2014-15 season after consecutively finishing the league as runners-up the previous two editions, whereas they went on to represent the country at the Asian Football Confederation tournament as their prize for finishing the league at the top in 2016 and also were the runners-up for the PFF Challenge Cup, which is a knock-out tournament for top teams in the country.

The Express Tribune attempted to contact KE for their comments on the disbandment of their football team, but were unable to reach the relevant officials at the time of filing the story.

KE had released a press statement in October 2020, where they were assuring that they want a bright future for the athletes, but in 2021, the footballers are more in pain than before.

One of the former officials, who requested anonymity believes that KE may not restart the team in the future, despite the management’s comments, but he feels that the footballers in the country are at a loss for not having a strong national federation.

“It breaks my heart of course. KE is a wealthy corporation, but they don’t have enough to support the football team that won them accolades? The decision of closing this department down is beyond comprehension, but the truth is, these departments will disband the teams because the PFF is not doing their job,” said the official.

However, he is hoping that more club football should take place and the footballers and coaches who are demonstrating against KE may find jobs in schools, colleges or local clubs with better salaries.

“We need a club system, we need better opportunities and we need a lot of things. But no one will listen to the footballers anyways, not even the people in PFF. The departments will disband the teams eventually, and it is the footballers who suffer, not the officials in any management,” concluded the ex-official.

Published in The Express Tribune, 1 March 2021