A lack of funding and official support, infiltration of extremism and lagging economic conditions dented the football scene in Waziristan quite badly. -File photo

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.

Back in the day, when football flourished in Ladha.

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.”

Islamabad, a stark contrast. Unlike Waziristan, pitches here are lush and the kids privileged enough to train in Premier League gear. -Photo by AFP

“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.

Fata's 'Football for Peace' initiative. -Photo by AP

“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

Updated Mar 01, 2012 11:07am

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Comments (12) (Closed)


FootballPakistan.Com
Mar 01, 2012 07:24pm
Good to see the likes of Fahad Ullah Khan of PTV being mentioned. Football really needs public and corporate support to flourish in Pakistan with a dedicated professional system that can facilitate its growth and progress.
Ehtisham, Wah
Mar 01, 2012 11:02pm
No doubt talent is in abundance but it needs proper grooming, infrastructure development and training. We can only wish that it could happen and Pakistan reaches the podium.
Wers
Mar 02, 2012 01:26am
Excellent read! more like these will highlight the real issues that need to be addressed
Adeel
Mar 02, 2012 01:15pm
An excellent read indeed and hats off to the author for showing such rare ray of hope from the most troubled part of the country. Sports is always a good way of directing energies of youth towards positivity, keeping young beautiful minds away from violence and helping them to drain out their frustrations. With so many spare land, it won't take much in erecting a football pitch in the small towns of FATA/ Waziristan and help the young people of the region in becoming respectable soccer players on the national and international levels. I reckon the private sector should step up with the local governments to utilize this opportunity of bringing peace and harmony to these people which they truly deserve.
Sami
Mar 02, 2012 03:06pm
The need it to harness the talent and energy of the tribal Pukhtoons for peace and development. I remember boys playing football in Miran Shah and Datt Khel in N.Waziristan when I visited the area back in 1998-99. It was high time for our government after the Cold War to develop the region's infrastructure and invest in its future...Sadly, Islamabad ignored this region and its sacrifices for Pakistan as it was busy in planning Kargil type things back then, I guess....
waziri
Mar 03, 2012 02:07pm
it was a time when teams used to come from the whole Pakistan to Wana south waziristan played football and the local population equally and enthiastically participated welcoming the guest team for arrival to waziristan. After 9/11, things changed dramatically even the local will need to ask permission from Taliban.... to play football and others sports.
raika45
Mar 03, 2012 05:42pm
Looking at the top picture reminds me of my young days.In the neighborhood we, a rag tag team used to play football.There were no referees or linesmen.It was a goulash of a game and it was fun.How many of you oldies like me remember those good days? How many of our children living in the cities can now do that.
liaquat Maqbool
Mar 04, 2012 10:26am
Kudos for highlighting this. People in Waziristan love their children too and the children love sports. Hopefully, someone like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy may be interested in making a documentary on this poignant issue
Retford
Mar 04, 2012 07:29pm
Great to see another side of the story....wish more of these everyday stories to come out of the Pakistan Afghanistan....and even Iraq...so people can think twice about lobbying for wars
Mehdi
Mar 06, 2012 08:48pm
You can also see them playing cricket. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UhPqnsm4eC4
Mohi ud din
Mar 10, 2012 01:53pm
It prove that we(waziristani) are not terrorist.
Baiamonlang
Mar 15, 2012 11:24am
AnonIf you truly believe the Pakistani Air Force could riaelbly shoot down Predator drones, you really should look into that AF's technical, basing, and logistical capabilities.How do you shoot down drones in areas of Waziristan that aren't even covered in the Pakistani radar net?Moroever, how does their failure to shoot down the drones make the act on our part any less illegal?