The buzz in the air of Waziristan is not always that of a US drone flying overhead.
Cheering crowds still throng the makeshift stadiums that dot parts of this region. Yes, in Waziristan, they play football too.
Contrary to the mostly damning media reports, this place is actually connected to the outside world.
Much like the rest of Pakistan, Brazil and Argentina are the two most popular international football teams here, their glory surprisingly well documented in this part of the world. And, although there are pockets where militant ideology enjoys uninterrupted breeding, “there are normal people here too” – as Ameer Hussain Mehsud puts it.
It is not exactly the cave that many perceive it to be.
“People here have dreams and aspirations too. They love their sports and besides cricket, football is something that comes naturally to them,” Mehsud, the General Secretary of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) Football Association, tells Dawn.com.
Waziristan’s football-related activities were governed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Football Association until a few years ago, when Mehsud took it upon himself to form the Fata Association, citing under-representation as one of the major factors.
Fata lies between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. Waziristan is one of the several tribal agencies that fall under the administrative system of Fata.
According to Mehsud, there are currently 12 registered clubs and 20 unregistered ones in North Waziristan. South Waziristan, on the other hand, has more than a dozen registered clubs while the number of unregistered ones exceeds 40.
“There used to be a time when teams from North Waziristan used to tour Afghanistan. In fact Ladha (a key subdivision of South Waziristan), which has now become known more for being a Taliban stronghold (until the army took it back in 2009), hosted teams from across Pakistan for a good part of the year,” recalls Mehsud.
However, a lack of funding and official support, infiltration of extremism and lagging economic conditions dented the scene quite badly. While enthusiasm for the game helped it survive, football - in Waziristan - has been running on reserves for quite a while now.
“For us, the great advantage is that the people here are gifted with ideal physiques and natural talent. And it is not restricted to football. There have been a few boys who have made it the to the domestic rugby teams just after a few of tryouts.”
When Mehsud speaks, with great pride, about the sports-persons of his area, he is not just talking about the men.
“Who can forget squash player Maria Toor of South Waziristan. She battled the odds, had to relocate to Peshawar and Islamabad a couple of times but now ranks among one of the top female squash players of Pakistan,” Mehsud proudly says.
The loose control of the government on the affairs of the area has resulted in meagre development work and most households, according to the Fata Secretariat, are “engaged in subsistence agriculture or livestock rearing and small-scale local businesses.”
In such a scenario, every man counts. Youngsters, mostly after their primary education, are channelled towards the livelihood of their families. Sport as such has no restriction placed upon it here, but is not exactly a career choice endorsed by the parents.
A lack of proper playing facilities at home does not help the cause of young aspirants either.
“The football clubs and players here survive on a self-help basis. So it is not something the parents push their children towards. Donations help provide for the balls and kits and playing surfaces range from concrete to mud.”
A group of under-14 footballers from Fata, who recently toured Islamabad under the coaching of Mehsud were astonished by what they saw. “They stayed back at the Jinnah Complex for hours after their games, fascinated by the stadium and its pitch.”
“Forget the kids, when I first saw an academy in Lahore’s Model Town a few years ago, even I couldn’t believe that this was Pakistan. I had only seen such a facility on television before,” Mehsud says.
Although FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation has several development programmes in place for Pakistan, they seem to be mostly serving the ‘big cities’, if at all.
“The funding provided by Fifa and the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) rarely gets funnelled down this way. We have two representatives for the region but have only been able to secure ten thousand rupees in funding in the last six to seven years. As a result, Waziristan is always underrepresented in the Fata trials.”
Currently, the only decent football complex is in Wana, the largest city of South Waziristan. Another was proposed by the South Waziristan Rehabilitation Programme to be built in Kotkai and while work has been underway for over a year, two goalposts are the only sign of development so far.
The tribal elders are fast realising the need for sports and other social development activities as a means to counter the onset of extremism and keeping the youth constructively involved and positive.
“At a recent jirga, we requested for a football facility. Thankfully, one of the brigadiers present at the jirga took it up and the army has begun work on a small facility.”
At present, it takes an aspiring footballer from Wana, for example, around 10-12 hours to reach Peshawar, where trials for youth and provincial teams take place. It is a hard grind, especially for school boys, but inspiration is right around the corner, in Miranshah, North Waziristan.
It comes in the form of a 20-year-old-striker Fahad Ullah Khan.
When Khan first started playing, he couldn’t have imagined the game would take him from his native Miramshah to Islamabad and one day even to the suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand, where he toured with the Pakistan U-21 side in 2011.
He was only 13 when he was picked for the AFC U-16 Championship and was also signed by Pakistan Football Federation League (Division II) winners, PTV, soon after. His AFC performance saw him fast-tracked to the national setup.
Khan’s quick rise is testimony of the faith that the Fata FA has in the local talent which only needs proper infrastructure to excel.
Security, surprisingly, does not seem to be a major concern, at least as far as Mehsud and the FA are concerned.
The All-Waziristan Football tournament, held in April, 2010, after a gap of 15 years backed that confidence up to some extent, while also showcasing the skill of the players in the area.
“We have had locals, lashkars and the army provide for security. There was a time when the Taliban provided cover as well.”
Mehsud jokingly adds that one of the alleged Amirs of the Taliban is better known as the guy who smashed a number of sixes in a local tape-ball tournament than for anything else.
It is also rumoured among the locals that while reports of a particular Taliban leader being killed in a drone strike were flashing on TV screens, he was actually showcasing his ‘skills’ on a dusty football pitch in Waziristan.
The author is a Sports Editor at Dawn.com