Romelu Lukaku runs off in celebration after sending one through the goal post. His team erupts in joy. He keeps running until one of his teammates catches up with him. He turns around and joins the rest in celebration. He is hugged by Paul Pogba who tells him how he could have had a more clinical finish to his goal. They are playing at the Theatre of Dreams. Just not the same Theatre of Dreams millions of football fans are familiar with.
The Rising Stars Football Academy is a small football academy in Lyari, UC 8, where children of ages six to 15 get free training. When playing there they don’t address each other or themselves by their real names. Instead they use the names of the footballers they are fans of. The Kulri Zigri School’s small compound is nothing less than a sacred piece of land for these children. They don’t even mind running and diving on a ground where there is no grass — as long as they are allowed to train there.
Their coach, Murad, a former professional football player himself, has been jobless for a long time. Despite being unable to make ends meet, he has taken up the responsibility of supporting the dreams of many kids of the area. “We will celebrate the first anniversary of Rising Stars Football Academy in about three or four months,” says Murad. “We started this academy to save our children from the menace of drug addiction and to engage them in healthy activities,” he adds.
In a small corner of Karachi’s oldest neighbourhood, a struggling former professional footballer is on a mission to produce the next crop of great footballers. And to keep them away from drugs
“I was a footballer myself. I have played for Hyderi Baloch and the National Bank of Pakistan along with being a part of the national camp for the Pakistan football team. I used to look at these children playing football in the street and I thought to myself, ‘Why not bring them here and train them?’ Someone may end up making a name for himself, who knows?” says Murad.
“The ground was full of puddles after the rain, making it hard for the children to train,” he points out. “I asked them to bring brooms and wipers from their homes so that we could drain the water as much as possible.” When asked to explain the absence of female players at the academy, he says that he gave them an off day so he could prepare the ground to minimise the risks of injuries to them.
The coach seems content, however, with how the academy deals with injuries. “For first aid, we usually go to Sohrab Bhai, the Karachi United goalkeeper, who lives in our mohalla. For serious injuries, we usually go to the Lyari General Hospital. Our eight-year-old goalkeeper recently injured his elbow while diving on the ground. We took him to the hospital, donated a small amount for his treatment and paid for the rickshaw fare from our pocket,” he explains.
Six-year-old Ali Haider is the youngest player at the academy. When asked about his favourite footballer, his prompt reply is Cristiano Ronaldo. Not very surprisingly, Ronaldo is one of the most adored footballers of many children in Lyari. A bit shy, Ali Haider takes off soon after answering the query. He is a first grade student at a local madrassah.
Ten-year-old Sajjad has his curly spiky hair dyed brown. He is also a big fan of Ronaldo. “I used to love Real Madrid but now I support Juventus because of him,” he says with a gleam in his eyes. When asked whether he has had to face any difficulty at home in getting permission to play, he denies it vehemently. Coach Murad backs him up. Murad also corroborates that all the children’s parents are very supportive because they want to save them from falling prey to the ills of society.
Sitting on the sidelines are two more boys, Mubeen and Sahil, aged 11 and 12 respectively. They have been silently watching the proceedings for the last couple of hours. When I approach them, they shy away from speaking at first. But when encouraged to talk, they say that they are not allowed to train. When asked why, they tell me it’s because they didn’t have kits. “We love football and want to play, too, but we can’t since we do not have kits,” Sahil tells me.
When this piece of information is brought to the coach’s notice, he simply shrugs and says that the rules are there for everyone to follow. “Unfortunately, we can’t do much other than feeling sorry for them. What you see here is the collective effort of our mohalla. The people donated us the money to go and get some kits, shoes and footballs for training. We can only do this much in our limited resources. We have a nine-year-old boy who wears two different shoes to practice and play,” Murad explains.
Fourteen-year-old Tauheed and 13-year-old Mansoor are also seen strolling in the ground with a cricket bat in their hands. When asked why they aren’t playing football, they say that they don’t play it anymore since they can’t afford to. “Cricket is cheaper so we stopped playing football,” says one of them before the other pulls him away.
I ask Coach Murad if they have ever been approached by any local body or private company to offer sponsorship. He says they haven’t and appeals to the federal and provincial government to at least level the ground, which would help the kids avoid high risk injuries. He also appeals to those in power to help them with training kits, shoes and footballs so that more children in the area don’t have to give up on their dream of playing football. Murad knows a thing or two about unfulfilled dreams.
The writer is a member of staff
He tweets @HumayounAK
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019