by Shazia Hasan
When young football coach Zubair Ghulam Rasool received his first salary from Commissioner Karachi Muhammad Iqbal Memon last year, he was so overcome with relief that he broke down in tears.
“We were months behind on our house’s rent payment and were so insecure about the roof over our heads at the time,” coach Zubair tells Eos.
“My father passed away the year before and my brothers are still young. My mother and I didn’t know what we were going to do or where we were going to go if we were evicted from our home for not paying the rent. It was at this time that I got my job letter and subsequent salary for training some 23 boys to make the Karachi Football Club team.”
BIRTH OF A CLUB
When he was younger, Zubair used to play football with the dream of playing for the Pakistan men’s national team someday. “My entire family is into football,” he says. “I played too, but after FIFA suspended Pakistan for third-party interference in 2017, I realised that my dreams were never going to come true. That’s when I started looking for openings for coaching jobs.”
Zubair hails from Lyari, the football hub of Pakistan. There was a time when each and every player of the Pakistan men’s football team was from Lyari. When not playing for their country, the national players used to play for foreign football clubs.
Today, not only are there no players from Lyari in the national team, but it has come to the point where we are importing foreign players of Pakistani descent to join the team. There is hardly any up-and-coming football talent of note being produced in Pakistan.
Speaking to Eos, Memon says that he is a lover of football and is well aware of Lyari’s contribution to Pakistan football.
“In fact, this suburb laid the foundations of football in Pakistan. I couldn’t digest the idea that there were no longer any world-class football players coming out of Lyari,” he explains. “Our Lyari boys have football in their blood. I knew they were being ignored. I had to do something about it.”
Searching for the cream of players from Lyari, Memon organised a series of trials with the help of local coaches, one of whom also happened to be Zubair. Currently, there are 178 registered football clubs in Lyari. Players who turned up for the trials hailed not just from those clubs but also the unregistered ones. Even boys who played football on the streets of Lyari appeared for the trials.
This was how the Karachi Football Club came into existence in 2022 and how the club’s team of 23 boys, all aged 16 or under, came to play together that year. One year on, they are still together, training and working hard to improve their game.
It was evident from the very start the influence Zubair had on the boys as a coach. He was close to their age, they liked him and looked up to him. “I have set aside my own dreams of playing to concentrate solely on football coaching. I will transfer everything I know to my boys,” he says.
THE BOYS FROM SWINDON
Meanwhile, Memon had bigger plans for his team. He wanted them to be on par with international playing standards and, to achieve this, he sought help from abroad. With assistance from some influential friends here, he was able to reach out to the Swindon Town Football Club (STFC) in England. He was looking for some kind of scholarship or exchange programme for his boys.
On February 5, 2022, Swindon Town FC and Karachi Football Club signed a memorandum of understanding for this purpose.
Soon, Coach Alex Pike and STFC’s vice chairman Zavier Austin arrived in Karachi, and they started frequenting the city to meet the boys and check on their progress. Coach Pike also started training Zubair in professional coaching. They became good friends and Zubair often chatted with Coach Pike online to discuss with him any issue that he might be facing while training the boys.
Just last month, STFC’s coach and vice chairman were in Karachi once again. They were here to take Zubair to England with them for a brief training stint. They were also scouting for players to take back with them on a two-year scholarship, which will happen after Zubair returns.
On the suggestion of STFC’s vice chairman, Memon had also had the young boys enrolled at the Pakistan-American Cultural Centre (PACC), to take English language courses to overcome the language barriers they might face when training in England.
“It won’t be easy for these boys to play and study with English boys in their country if they don’t understand their language,” Austin points out. “They need to interact with them to know more about them and tell them more about themselves.”
Karachi Football Club manager Jameel Hoath, himself a fourth generation footballer and the vice chairman of UC-8 in Lyari, also has his own football club that he runs in Lyari. His club was founded by his great grandfather in 1925. It is said to be the oldest registered football club in Lyari, which his ancestor had originally named Jungle Shah Football Club after a saint.
“Later, in 1958, when we were playing a match in Quetta,” he recalls smilingly, “the locals there were extremely impressed by our boys’ speed, which they compared to lightning. Thereafter, our club name was changed to Bijli Sports Football Club by popular demand. It is still called that.”
A NEW GENERATION
Hoath took Eos around for a glimpse into the lives of the young footballers enrolled at Karachi Football Club. Some of them, who had even dropped out of school, have now returned to education because both their coach and team manager has made it clear to them that they all need to go to school in order to play for the Karachi Football Club.
I catch up with young Abdul Rahman and Hasnain Sajid at the neat little school set up in Lyari by the Kiran Foundation. Both the boys are students of class eight here.
Abdul is the grandson of Qadir Bux, alias ‘Putla’, who played for Pakistan from 1965 to 1975. The skilled midfielder represented various football academies in Pakistan and Bangladesh (former East Pakistan), including Dacca PIDC, Dacca Mohammadans, Dilkusha, Victoria, etc.
Donning the Pakistan colours, he led Pakistan in the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) Cup tournament in Tehran in 1970. He also featured in other big tournaments and friendly matches against the then USSR, Turkey, China, South Korea and Japan. Alongside this, he also coached the President’s XI football team, which lifted the gold cup in 1986.
I remember ‘Putla’ well. Back in 2008, when I had just started reporting in Dawn about Lyari football, I was one day called by the then Sindh Sports Minister, the late Dr Mohammad Ali Shah, to the Sindh Secretariat for a brief programme. I met an old and ailing ‘Putla’ there who was desperately in need of monetary support to seek medical assistance, since he was partially paralysed.
He could not move his right leg and arm and he had tears running down his cheeks as he lifted his left hand to gesture a thank you to the minister for the Rs300,000 that he was being presented with. ‘Putla’ never recovered. He passed away soon after. Not telling the child the condition I had met his late grandfather in all those years ago, I silently wish him a great future.
As for Hasnain, the other youngster, he dropped out of school after his mother died and was wandering on the streets of Lyari for five years until he was brought back to education by the Kiran Foundation. They enrolled him in one of their fast-track courses, to bring him up to the education standards of his age level. Now he is both studying hard as well as playing great football.
Hoath also runs a school, the Al-Shahbaz Children’s Academy in Lyari’s Daryabad. Here there are a couple more young footballers, Hasaan Dawood and Mohammed Jamshaid, continuing with their education under his watchful eye.
The lanky Hasaan is the grandson of the great Turab Ali, who earned nicknames such as the “Pillar of Hercules” and “Wall of China” from his fans in the 1960s, when he represented Karachi as well as Dhaka in various national championships.
Turab Ali made his international debut against Burma (now Myanmar) in 1961. He was named the captain of the Pakistan men’s football team in 1967. Turab, too, died after a severe stroke in 2009. Hasaan, a quiet and thoughtful boy, is his spitting image.
Meanwhile, Jamshaid says he loved playing football but used to feel quite drained after playing for a bit. “Coach Zubair taught me how to build my strength by taking care of my diet and following a proper exercise regimen. He also taught me respect — to give respect and get respect,” the young player shares.
All the boys I meet with are hopeful and upbeat about their football future. They shared stories about their favourite clubs and national teams, with FC Barcelona and England, Brazil and Argentina being the most popular.
MISTAKES OF THE PAST
Hoath listens silently as the boys talk about their favourite teams. “The clubs here and the Pakistan national team could have also shone, but the Fall of Dhaka eclipsed football in Pakistan,” he says.
“People say that Lyari’s footballers are ignored by the Punjab and that there is too much favouritism there which goes against our boys. That happens. I won’t deny it. I experienced it myself when I was selected in the Pakistan youth team in 1976. At the time, there were only two groups, one representing Lahore and one Islamabad, and they were only looking to see who between them gets the reins of football in the country, rather than trying to generate talent. It is still like that here.”
But, according to Hoath, the real damage to football came in 1971. “The actual rot set in after East Pakistan parted ways with West Pakistan,” he points out. “Before that, our boys used to spend most of the football season in Dhaka, playing the professional game. That’s where they would be noticed and also picked up by foreign clubs, and they were making very good money. After 1971, they all moved back this side.
“Then Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was the president of Pakistan at the time, brought about an ordinance making it mandatory for all government departments to have sports wings and provide permanent jobs to sports persons. Footballers also got hired by departments such as PIA [Pakistan International Airlines], Wapda [Water and Power Development Authority], KPT [Karachi Port Trust], the armed forces, etc., which assured a regular salary. They no longer needed to strive to up their game.
“They became complacent. When they became old, there weren’t others here good enough to replace them. And anyways, the aim of all the players here became to only bag a job with one of the government departments and relax. Soon the playing standards of our boys dropped.”
Hoath argues that these jobs started going to other players as competition for department jobs increased and better players began to emerge from Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. This, in turn, led to footballers from Lyari and Karachi becoming increasingly angry and frustrated, which affected their game even further. As a result, some of them turned to alcohol, drugs and criminal gangs.
“The words of the poet Munir Niazi, ‘Kuj sheher de loag vi zaalim sunn/ Kuj saanu maran da shauq vi si [The city’s people were also cruel, but I also had a desire to die]” encapsulate what happened to football in Lyari,“ Hoath says.
THE SOCIAL DESCENT OF LYARI
This low-income, densely-populated suburb of Karachi, which grew out of a fishing village, is now synonymous with criminal gangs, drugs and weapons. In the past, there used to be a huge influence of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) here, but that seems to be lessening now.
Local Makranis, those who initially settled along the Makran coast, are still associated with fishing. In Lyari, they also work around the port area, especially Keamari, as labourers or at container terminals.
As the city of Karachi grew into a metropolis after Partition, many Pakhtuns and Sindhis from the interior of the province came to Karachi in search of work. Since Lyari was a poor neighbourhood, they found low-cost housing here fairly easily. Later, Bengalis, Burmese and Afghans also arrived in this area.
The US-sponsored Afghan War against the Soviet Union also brought with it weapons and drugs such as heroin. Meanwhile, the poor of the area, who did not have adequately paying jobs, were lured towards crime. Small pickpockets joined various political parties as strongmen for extortion, land grabbing, etc. With money now in their pockets, they also indulged in drugs and alcohol. Attracted to their comfortable lifestyles, more poor and frustrated youngsters also were also lured and became entrapped in this vicious cycle of crime perpetuating crime.
The gangs in Lyari grew stronger and more infamous, with some examples being the Kala Naag gang, the Sheru gang, the Iqbal Babu, Haji Lalu, Arshad Papu and Rehman Dakait gangs, etc who struck terror in the hearts of Karachiites. The stories of their iron control over Lyari and often their brutality multiplied. The prominence of these criminal elements besmirched the good name Lyari had earned as a hub of footballers and boxers and vibrant political activism.
Unfortunately, as legitimate economic opportunities dwindled further, some footballers and boxers themselves joined these gangs. The area turned into an enormous, unsafe mess until the Sindh Rangers stepped in to clean up the criminal elements with which Lyari was riddled. In the past few years, some semblance of normality has been restored to Karachi’s inner city, though opinion is divided about how sustainable it is.
MISGOVERNING A SPORT
While ventures like the Karachi Football Club and international partnerships with clubs such as Swindon FC are much needed, both for Lyari and Karachi as a whole, one hopes that these initiatives don’t fall prey to the complacency that plagues so much of Pakistan’s dilapidated sporting infrastructure.
One need only look at the pitiful track record in Pakistan of the globally lauded FIFA [Fédération Internationale De Football Association] Goal Project to understand how institutionalised deficiencies, malpractices, stagnation and lack of state-backed initiatives are hurting footballers in Lyari and depriving them of potential opportunities.
It was back in 2008 that I first heard about the FIFA Goal Project that the international football federation had awarded to Karachi. The Goal Project is a gift from FIFA to third world countries. The aim is to popularise football in these countries by constructing an office building to handle football activities in the city it is located in.
FIFA itself handles all the costs of construction of the project. There are over a 100 FIFA Goal Projects operating in other countries such as Sri Lanka, Bhutan, the Maldives, India, Guam, Morocco, Senegal, Uganda, Sierra Leone, etc. Karachi was first awarded the FIFA Goal Project in 1999, when FIFA approved it for the city at its Congress meeting in Los Angeles.
Sadly, back in 1999, when Sindh failed to provide land for the Goal Project to FIFA, the project, which was originally for Karachi, was moved to Lahore in 2003. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Football House in Lahore, the main headquarters of football in Pakistan, is a result of that very project. Before that, the PFF had no proper offices of its own. The affairs of football in the country were handled out of a briefcase.
After the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, FIFA awarded a second Goal Project to Pakistan, this time in Muzaffarabad. But since the people of Muzaffarabad also failed to provide land for the project, it too had to be shifted from there to Peshawar, after the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) Football Association President Syed Zahir Ali Shah offered two acres of land for the project at Shahi Bagh.
Knowing the importance of Karachi, especially Lyari and its talented footballers, FIFA awarded yet another Goal Project to the city in 2006. This time, the Sindh Football Association (SFA) was determined to not waste the opportunity.
FIFA Goal Projects don’t include a ground, but the PFF said that they were going to add to the office block that FIFA would build in Karachi by also giving it a football field, along with other facilities such as a gymnasium, swimming pool, a football academy and a hostel for the academy boys to stay at while training. But all this depended on getting land big enough to accommodate all this.
SFA officials, composed mostly of Lyari footballers, found a piece of land for this Goal Project at the Trans Lyari Park, also known as Gutter Bagheecha. But this was not to be, as the City District Government Karachi at the time was quite lax about handing over the land papers to the SFA. Later, it was revealed that the district authorities didn’t want to do so because they had planned a housing scheme for their officers on the amenity plot reserved for a playground.
There was another two-year delay and, just before the third Goal Project was going to be shifted to Quetta, there was hope in the form of a 10 acre piece of land in Scheme 42 of the Hawke’s Bay development. A plus point of this area was that it fell inside the Lyari Development Authority (LDA) and hence was an ideal place for Lyari footballers.
There were, however, still some roadblocks. LDA allocated the land to the SFA, but when the SFA got all the paperwork in order, they realised that FIFA didn’t recognise the SFA — FIFA only recognised the PFF.
It was only in January 2009 that the then Federal Minister for Sports, Pir Aftab, stepped in to request the Sindh chief minister to kindly cancel the earlier land allotment in the name of the SFA and reissue it in the PFF’s name. That’s how FIFA came back into the Goal Project.
While driving to Hawke’s Bay and Sandspit today, one comes across a roundabout with a large football at its centre. This leads to the FIFA Goal Project. But turning towards that road, one doesn’t find any football academy with young footballers kicking a ball around.
Today, there are as many as eight FIFA Goal Projects in Pakistan. The Peshawar Goal Project was abandoned while, aside from the PFF House which exists in Lahore, the rest are also not doing the job that they were meant to do. As for the one in Karachi, it was only last January that the place was even visited by the chairman of the PFF Normalisation Committee Haroon Malik, along with other members.
Just like the PFF top brass back in 1999 and in 2008 used to talk about how great it would be for the young footballers of Lyari to come and play football here, the PFF Normalisation Committee too emphasises the importance of this project. Meanwhile, an entire generation of young footballers in Lyari has started looking elsewhere to realise their dreams.
A NEW HOPE
Hoath and I are at the Karachi Port Trust Football Ground, where the Karachi Football Club boys come to practise regularly.
Following a practice game, Coach Zubair and Coach Pike have been making the boys practise penalty kicks. The boys playfully tease and challenge each other as each one of them comes for his turn to send the ball into the goal. They are happy kids.
They don’t need to play on the streets, they don’t need to worry about sports equipment or playing kits. The footballs they are using for practice have also been donated by the Embassy of Qatar in Pakistan and were actually used at the recently-concluded Qatar World Cup. The youngsters are also glad to be receiving a stipend of Rs10,000 a month. But this time, they are determined to avoid the trap of complacency.
“When they used to come for trials, we noticed that some didn’t even have proper shoes,” says Hoath. “They had tied strings around their cleats to keep them from falling apart. So, besides getting them playing kits, we also arranged for new shoes for them. Well, they are on their way in those shoes now. They don’t need to look back, for now.”
The writer is a member of Dawn staff. She tweets @HasanShazia