IN a nation dominated by cricket it does sometimes take you by surprise when you meet an abundance of young minds passionate about football that is beyond Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. These young-passionate-footballers of Pakistan are waiting for their big break that can help them showcase their talent as well as give them the opportunity to put Pakistan on the global football map by representing the nation at international football events/tournaments. Having said that, it came as a no big surprise when footballers from all corners of the country made their presence felt at the third edition of Neymar Jr’s Five in Pakistan; the biggest five-a-side football tournament to take place in the country that brings players from all corners of Pakistan together to celebrate their shared passion: football.
From the first week of January 2018 when the tournament’s qualifiers stage kicked-off I interacted with players from Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Multan and Faisalabad; this opportunity helped me better understand what was lacking in pushing promising football talent on local, national and internal levels.
For some footballers their passion for the sport is never-ending but with the future of football looking bleak due to lack of support from those concern many are demotivated to pursue a career in football. “I developed a passion for football at a young age and have been playing ever since” says Zia Afridi, an avid follower of the sport from Islamabad. “I have never aimed to become a national player because I don’t see a future for football in Pakistan” said the Afridi.
But despite the shortcomings Pakistan has been able to produce quality players that in my view can easily represent our country at global tournaments; some have represented and some are still in the waiting but what is holding the football community back from actively sharing the talent with rest of the world? “The barrier to entry is the media and there’s is a certain lobby in Pakistan that does not want football to grow” said the Manager of ICAW FC, a popular football club based in Lahore.
Then there are footballers like Anas Irfan, member of the team ‘Raw Talent’ from Multan who were recently crowned Neymar Jr’s Five Pakistan Champions 2018, who are optimistic about the future prospects of football in Pakistan. “I can’t believe it that we (Raw Talent) are going to Brazil to represent Pakistan!” said Anas “I can’t explain in words how lucky I am. I am grateful to Almighty Allah for this opportunity. I can’t believe this is happening!” said the young player as the team prepares to leave for Brazil in July this year to represent Pakistan at the Neymar Jr’s Five World Finals 2018.
As my interaction with young football talent came to an end with the tournament’s National Final match in Islamabad on February 11th that was won by Raw Talent from Multan, I couldn’t help but reflect on the great talent I interacted with over the course of two months, and how they (players) were determined to put Pakistan on the map of world football and help the sport reach a status equal to that enjoyed by cricket.
More tournaments like Neymar Jr’s Five should take place in the country to unravel football talent from all corners of the country, most importantly to give confidence and push them (footballers) to both believe and live their football dream.
Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2018