by Khalid Hussain
Imagine a 14-year-old kid hailing from Karachi’s old and troubled locality from Lyari. He is poor and doesn’t even have proper football shoes. But what he has is natural talent and a drive to succeed.
Now fast forward to 2025. The kid is now 17 and is playing professional football in England for one of the country’s leading clubs. It sounds too far fetched, doesn’t it?
But that’s the dream Zavier Austin is selling. Vice Chairman of Swindon Town Football Club, a professional football club based in Swindon, Wiltshire (England), Austin is currently in Pakistan on a mission to select two talented kids for a two-year scholarship at Swindon FC.
“It might sound like a dream but I believe that it will one day become a reality,” Austin told ‘The News on Sunday’ in an interview. “We will see Pakistani players featuring in top professional football leagues.”
I met Austin and Swindon FC coach Alex Pike, who is here to shortlist talented under-15 players for the training programme, last Friday.
Swindon FC is one of the smaller professional football clubs in England. It doesn’t have the deep pockets of some of the leading clubs like Manchester United or Liverpool.
So why would a club like Swindon FC come to Pakistan to hand out all-expenses-paid scholarships to local kids. In addition, the club is also set to train local football coaches, once again at its own expense.
“To be honest I had no idea about the talent you have in Pakistan. I was convinced by a close Pakistani friend to come here and see for myself and to help talented young footballers realise their dream of becoming world class players,” says Austin.
He convinced Swindon FC’s board to take on the project which began early this year when an MoU was signed between Swindon and Karachi Football Club. The project had the complete backing of Mohammad Iqbal Memon, Commissioner Karachi.
Last Sunday, the club sent Pike, a young coach born and bred in Swindon, to Karachi to help identify the best coaches and players for the training programme.
Pike, a UEFA B license coach who is currently studying for an advanced Youth Award in the UK, carried out a series of trials at Karachi’s KMC Stadium during last week.
“Over 300 youngsters turned up for the trials,” Pike tells TNS. “After a series of trials, we have selected the best 26 players who will now get training here. Later, we will select two best kids who will train for two years at Swindon FC,” he adds.
For several days during the trials, Pike was like Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, for the hundreds of kids competing in the trials.
“Like Willy Wonka who had those golden tickets to offer, he (Alex) had to offer these young kids some thing that they’ve always dreamed of,” says Austin.
In ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, the lucky golden ticket-holders were invited to walk into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to peek behind the scenes of the candy-making magic.
But luck is just one of the few factors required by the aspiring kids to win a ticket to Swindon. They will need to be simply the best to be able to win a chance of a lifetime.
“We are looking for kids who are not just highly talented but also highly motivated to succeed. They should exhibit the drive and should be able to handle things like match pressure,” says Austin.
“It won’t be easy for any kid with little or no education to succeed or even survive in an alien environment. That’s why he will have to be tough and be ready to meet all challenges,” he adds.
It should sound like a very tough challenge but the prize according to Austin, is worth it.
“The selected players will get best possible coaching at our academy in Swindon. If in two years, they show improvement they will be able to get professional contracts and then go on to play at the club level.”
Both Austin and Alex believe that Pakistan has plenty of potential.
“From what I have seen so far I must say that there is a lot of talent,” says Alex. “But its really raw talent. With proper and structured training, like what we have back in England, these kids can become professional players,” he stresses.
Alex hails the role of Iqbal Memon, Commissioner Karachi, for making the training programme possible. “The Commissioner has really been very supportive. He is always there to back this project and has been taking a personal interest in making it a success.”
Austin, meanwhile, is already dreaming of a future where Pakistani footballers would be a part of the English Premier League and other major professional leagues of the football world.
“Why not,” he asks. “Ten years back, nobody thought the world’s best footballers would come from countries like Egypt and Morocco. Maybe ten years from now they will be coming from Pakistan. Who knows. We have to dream and we have to work for it.”
Khalid Hussain is Editor Sports of The News