Doha, Qatar – Karachi United footballer Sanjar Qadir receives a pass from his captain and runs towards the goal with the ball.
They are the last moments of the game. The score is tied 0-0. If Qadir scores, he would not only win the match for his team, but also complete a memorable trip to Qatar.
Qadir slides the ball into the back of the net and scores. He celebrates, and with that, his teammates run across the field, harassing him before diving in unison into a torrent of joy and making the most of their last few minutes on the pristine green pitches of Aspire Academy in the capital, Doha.
Qadir was part of the Karachi United (KU) squad that traveled from the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, its largest metropolis, for a friendly tournament against Aspire Academy.
“These courts are very smooth and well maintained. When we pass the ball, it actually slides,” a beaming 11-year-old Qadir told Al Jazeera after the hard-fought win.
KU’s visiting team was made up of under-11 and under-12 teams that played three games each, trained at the Academy facility, watched a game in the local soccer league, and returned home with hearts full of hope. for a future in sport.
Qadir grew up playing soccer on the streets and on a dusty field in the Malir district of Karachi.
“When I played in my neighborhood, I missed so many goals because the ball would jump over the holes and rocks scattered on the ground,” he explained.
He grew up following Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandoski and Karim Benzema, and said his dreams of becoming a professional footballer seemed close to coming true when he was selected into KU’s youth program in January.
Just three months later, he is already reaping the rewards of being associated with one of the top professional football clubs in Pakistan’s most populous city.
“Before I joined KU, no one respected my dreams of becoming a footballer. Now my parents encourage me and my football is respected, ”he said.
From weekend club to soccer academy
KU was founded as a club in 1996 by a group of three “weekend footballers”. Now, it has become a football development center in Karachi.
“We have a very strong community program that is supported by 11 community centers across the city,” Taha Alizai, the club’s director, told Al Jazeera.
The club works with local coaches to find young footballers, train them and recruit them for youth teams.
“While football is the main criteria for selection, we also try to see which players would benefit from our development system and contribute to society if given the chance,” Alizai said.
Players receive free training, kits and transportation when they travel from remote areas three times a week to train.
Soccer in the shadow of gang wars, drug abuse
Most of KU’s community centers operate in low-income areas of Karachi.
Two of them, Lyari and Malir, have a long history of producing footballers for decades despite being beset by violence and crime.
Until 10 years ago, Lyari was synonymous with gang wars and rampant drug abuse, as criminal gangs, robbers, and drug lords took locals hostage with frequent gunfights and shutdown calls.
The notorious Kakri Ground, where barefoot boys seeking respite from violence flocked to play football, had become a hideout for criminals and a dumping ground for corpses.
“Sometimes the drivers we had hired to take the children to the training would refuse to go to Lyari because they would be sent back from the outskirts or risk ending up in the middle of a gunfight,” Alizai said, referring to the drivers. worst years of violence in Lyari.
“Our entire system is run out of community centers in these inner-city areas, and when gang wars disrupted regular training and training programs, it took away the opportunity for these kids to play soccer and get knocked out from violence, to have some peace of mind and physical security.”
In April 2012, a month-long police operation helped restore a semblance of peace In the area.
Since then, the club’s access to Lyari and other violence-stricken areas has become easier, but there are times when it has to protect its players from the temptation of drug dealers and political rivalries.
According to Shaikh Hamdan, KU’s head coach, there have been several instances where the club has had to go above and beyond to save a player’s life.
“One of our Lyari academy players shared an apartment with a drug dealer, who we suspect would lure the boy into his business with the hook of easy money,” Hamdan said.
The 11-year-old lived with his single mother who was struggling to make ends meet, making him an easy target for drug dealers who recruit unsuspecting youths.
“We intervened and moved them both to a safer location before the boy could fall into a trap and become a drug dealer, and possibly an addict,” Hamdan recalled.
Twenty-two of the 26 boys who were part of the squads that toured Qatar were from Lyari and Malir.
The trip provided them with the opportunity to train in fully equipped facilities and play on world-class courts. Facing teams from an international sports academy was a far-fetched dream for some of the players who struggle to eat three nutritious meals a day.
For some, including 11-year-old Shams-ul-Omar, traveling by plane for the first time was the highlight of the trip. Omar lives in Malir, a district west of Karachi, and plays fullback for the under-12 team.
With his well-timed tackling and runs back to cover the goal despite his diminutive figure, the energetic defender was instrumental in his team’s victory in the final game.
Omar’s unemployed father supports his son’s ambitions despite the family’s financial difficulties.
“My father took me to the Malir Center (local soccer club) so I could play without interruptions,” he said.
A fan of Kylian Mbappé, Omar said he cried himself to sleep after France lost the 2022 World Cup final to Argentina last year.
Despite the anguish, he wants to “work hard like Mbappé” and become a professional footballer.
“Football is all I know, so I don’t know what I’ll do if I can’t make it (as a footballer).”
‘Football is about inclusion’
According to Alizai, the club tries to ensure that all members of the youth teams are enrolled in school and eat three nutritious meals a day.
In a cricket-crazy country like Pakistan, football and all other sports take a backseat in terms of popularity and future prospects.
Anas Ahmed, a striker for the under-11 team, has been playing soccer since he was four years old.
“Most of the kids in my neighborhood played cricket, but soccer was in my heart,” he said. “I’ve only been at KU for two months, but I’m so good that they selected me for this tour and now I’ve scored a goal for my team.”
Of the 50 boys enrolled in the club’s youth system, 45 belong to low-income families living in areas consumed by violence and fighting for access to basic services.
The other five come from privileged families and live in more elegant parts of the city.
Despite the stark difference in their lifestyles, the players blend seamlessly and form a close bond.
“Football has always been about inclusion and bringing people together,” said Alizai, who has led the club for 27 years.
Hours before their final game of the tour, boys from various socioeconomic backgrounds and from different parts of town relaxed in the luxurious dormitories of Aspire Academy. After a round of pool, banter, and high-fives, they came together for an impromptu football-inspired rap song by Lyari:
“There is a party in Lyari – come, come
Brazil is playing – come, come
Neymar has scored a goal, goal
Lyari is beating dhol, dhol (drums)
The stage will be set in Qatar,
Let’s see, who will be the first.
(We have) to go away from the (reach) of the goalkeeper
And play like (Lionel) Messi does.”