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FOOTBALL: FLYING WITH FORCE 7

July 16, 2017
He might not understand Urdu or even English, but the applause generated in Pakistan for Ronaldinho was a pleasant surprise for the icon himself | M. Arif/White Star
He might not understand Urdu or even English, but the applause generated in Pakistan for Ronaldinho was a pleasant surprise for the icon himself | M. Arif/White Star

Anticlimax: when having gone sleepless for 26 hours, the moment to meet Ronaldinho is ruined right before your eyes.

Here’s the story: a group of journalists was invited by Leisure Leagues Pakistan, the hosts of Ronaldinho and friends to fly to Dubai, wait for each superstar to arrive, and enjoy some exclusive coverage time with them before security concerns took over back home. For a girl who grew up idolising Ronaldinho, it was no less a dream than a privilege. Game on.

The arrangements were hurried. Initial media enquiries had been rebuffed by the organisers. These too were later rationalised as neccessitated by security. When the call came, we were to drop everything and rush to the airport for a 7.30pm flight to Dubai.

In the line of duty, fan-girling with Ronaldinho and friends

Once there, the wait for Ronaldinho began in earnest. We were served dinner — a lavish one at that at the Grand Hyatt of all places — around 9pm. All journalists seemed to have a story to tell about the legends.

Tick tock, went the clock. There was no sign of the legends till midnight. But nobody dared to sleep. Nobody could risk the biggest football memory of their careers.

Then came Louis Boa Morte.

Then Ryan Giggs.

Then Robert Pires.

Then some little boys, who had been swarming the legends for autographs and selfies, with the announcement we had all been waiting for: Ronaldinho had touched down.

A skipped heartbeat, yes.

Goosebumps, also yes.

I wanted to frame the memory forever. My camera was at the ready. My line of vision clear at all times.

Then came the anticlimax: just as we were about to catch our first glimpse of Ronaldinho, he was taken into custody by the airport police for coming into the United Arab Emirates without a visa.

He was detained in a nice big room with glass doors. Airport officials stood guard outside until things could be straightened out.

Here’s what I discovered about him: his flair is matched by his pragmatism. Having travelled nonstop from Cairo, Egypt, he was so tired that he fell asleep. He was probably sure they’d sort out the issue; nobody refuses a global icon.

Ronaldinho doesn’t speak English. He only speaks Portuguese. Flashing that famous toothy smile, later, he explains through his manager and translator that his trip to Pakistan was laden with lots of prior travel.

“Before taking the flight to Dubai, I also travelled for three hours by car,” says Ronaldinho. “I was exhausted.”

And yet, he says he was really looking forward to be in Pakistan.

“I hear you have a mini-Brazil there, what do you call it?” he asks as he flashes another beaming smile.

“Lyari.”

“I want to inspire kids there through football.”

Welcome to Pakistan, Robert Pires| Photo by the writer
Welcome to Pakistan, Robert Pires| Photo by the writer

Of course coordinating the arrival of these global icons must have been a herculean task. None of them were flying together, they were all coming from different locations, and they were to meet up in Dubai. All credit to Leisure Leagues Pakistan, here.

The first player to arrive, that too from Georgia, was former Fulham winger Luis Boa Morte. He was wearing a short-sleeved white T-shirt that accentuated his biceps and tattoos.

“It will be my first time in Pakistan, and hopefully not my last,” jokes Boa Morte. “I always keep an open mind wherever I go, and going to Pakistan felt like something different. If football can become the number one sport in your country instead of cricket, consider it my contribution to the sport.”

So you feel it can eclipse cricket?

“I just can’t understand cricket,” he responds. “I mean, what are those 22 guys doing there on that big ground? Where’s the action? It is boring. As boring as baseball and golf.”

Boa Morte now scouts talent in Portugal for Arsenal. He feels that Pakistan has a chance in international football but the key is to focus on the grassroots.

“It takes time to build up from the bottom,” he says. “You have to come up with a proper structure. When you work with kids you have to be patient because, obviously, there will always be some better than others.”

Boa Morte started playing football when he was just eight years of age. “I used to play five-a-side football or futsal with my friends in school. The game has its roots in Portugal from where I hail. I also loved watching athletics and I think football is a combination of futsal and athletics on a bigger level. Popularising football is the key. That way you will get more kids interested.”

Given the sheer number of Manchester United fans, it would have been incomprehensible that their club would go unrepresented. Legendary winger Ryan Giggs was the next to land.

“Life after Manchester United is good. I am enjoying it as I get a chance to travel and promote football all over the world,” he says, adding that he was happy to be travelling to Pakistan. “I am looking to help bridge the gap between football and cricket in your country. I hear there is a lot of football talent in Pakistan. This young talent will serve as a passage towards football becoming the main sport in Pakistan.”

Arsenal legend Robert Pires says he is aware that there were plenty of Arsenal fans in Pakistan.

“When you play football you travel a lot, too. And this is how you discover new countries and people,” he says. “I know that there are lots of young players in Pakistan wanting to play football. I am here to give them advice.”

Ryan Giggs walks out to the cheers of many Manchester United fans at Lahore’s Fortress Stadium | M. Arif / White Star
Ryan Giggs walks out to the cheers of many Manchester United fans at Lahore’s Fortress Stadium | M. Arif / White Star

But as a disciple of Arsene Wenger, Pires preaches starting constructing academies. “You can never make a competitive enough team without academies because good players are difficult to produce,” says the Gunners legend.

Former England goalkeeper David James is an imposing figure at six feet and five inches tall. But he says stature is defined by passion. “I was in India earlier and I realised how popular cricket is in this region when I was standing with Sachin Tendulkar,” he recalls, “and the crowds there made a beeline for him. They went past me without even recognising me.”

As an Englishman, he understands what cricket means to Pakistan. “I know Pakistan recently won the Champions League in cricket.”

But in that lies a potential solution too. “You are as good in cricket as you are not good in football,” he says. “What I can suggest is recruiting [Pakistan-origin] players from around the world to improve your FIFA rankings first and then take it from there.”

Perhaps the oldest in the group of legends is former Dutch-Ghanian midfielder, George Boateng. “I hear the weather in Pakistan is very hot, good, good!” he says, only to receive raised eyebrows. “I can play very well in the heat. My body works better on solar energy!”

About football in Pakistan, he reiterates that the sport has to start at the grassroots. “Academies are good for doing that but goodwill also plays a role in all this,” he says. “There are so many African football-playing countries which have no academies.”

Former French footballer and Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka, meanwhile, says that all one needed to be successful at football was passion and well, a football. “It is as simple as that. Not complicated at all.”

Meanwhile, time had flown by in a flash. And before we knew it, we were being ushered towards a quiet VIP area of the Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 1 where a private jet stood fueled and ready for Islamabad. I looked down at my writing pad, filled with copious notes on what all I still wanted to ask Ronaldinho: his beginnings, what he had been doing ever since retirement, Barcelona and taking Lionel Messi under his wing, missed opportunities, fitness concerns ... the list seemed to be endless. But as we walked through the departure gate, the realisation set in that we were going home along with Ronaldinho and his friends. We were witness to history before it was made.

The writer is a member of staff. She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 16th, 2017