The two-storey pinkish building on Denso Road in Lyari’s Chakiwara neighbourhood has served as an area landmark for over 43 years now. Its padlocked rusty gates give it a vacant look; but that is only because of the current lockdown in the city due to the coronavirus pandemic. Otherwise, a lot of work still goes on at the historic Football House.
A long, slightly faded, ‘District Football Association South’ signboard, covering the walls of the first floor balcony, hangs over the main gate. Along with the DFA logo, it has the pictures of 16 young men. “They are the captains of the top 16 teams, which came up to play the final rounds of our last super league,” says Nasir Karim Baloch, former DFA-South chairman and an ex-member of the Pakistan Football Federation’s (PFF) executive body.
The affairs of the Football House, too, are handled by the PFF’s Normalisation Committee, that had to be brought in on the recommendation of FIFA, the world football body, after PFF had splintered into various factions.
Lyari’s Football House precedes even the FIFA House, the national football headquarters in Lahore. It was built bit by bit, with its foundations laid in 1976 during the tenure of Abdul Sattar Gabol, the federation’s president during those days.
“He was not just the PFF president, Gabol was also the federal minister for labour and a PPP leader,” says Nasir Karim. “And, after the structure of the Football House was complete, he preferred to work from here for at least three days a week.
Lyari’s Chakiwara neighbourhood may be well-known for being the epicentre of a celebrated Urdu novel. But it is also famous for a building that symbolises its love of football
“Before this, PFF affairs were handled from out of a briefcase. There was no other PFF office and, whoever headed the national football body, worked from his briefcase,” Nasir Karim points out. Apparently, former Martial Law Administrator Lt Gen Fazle Haq also worked like that from Peshawar when he was the PFF president and so did all those who followed him, until Gabol decided that, having produced so many fine football players, Lyari deserved a Football House. So, Football House served as the PFF headquarters until the construction of the FIFA House in Lahore in 2003.
“It was a great place for holding of gatherings of legendary footballers, and Gabol enjoyed being surrounded by them,” recalls Nasir Karim. “The baithaks [meeting sessions] included football greats such as Yousuf Sr, Abbas Baloch, Muala Bux Momin and Captain Mohammad Umar Baloch.
“I was a young player during those days and it would be a joy to sit there and listen to these legends of football share their experiences and stories. You see, football used to be big here before the fall of Dhaka. All these players and several others were professionals who would be signed on by big international clubs during the 1960s and ’70s. They were truly big names, and listening to them or being around them motivated us too,” he says.
“This part of Karachi, which is Lyari, edges the port area and there used to be much trading here, with ships docking at the port since after the first World War. And from those ships would emerge sailors who would want to spend their free time playing football in the city. They played at the YMCA Ground and the Sindh Madressatul Islam ground. Later, in the 1960s, there was a new ground here which became the football hot spot — the historic KMC Football Ground,” recalls Nasir Karim.
“Seeing so much football activity in Karachi, the former president of the country, Field Marshall Ayub Khan gave the city the KMC Football Ground, which then started holding the big international matches, where you bought tickets to see the matches,” he says.
“Of course, those glorious days and that charm for football are long gone now. But, after 1976, all the paperwork for football players was handled by the Football House. Their registration, letters, making of cards was all carried out here until 2003, when the football headquarters were shifted to Lahore. Then onwards, Football House became the Sindh football headquarters. There are some 153 teams with 20 to 25 players each, and we have them all registered here,” he says with some pride.
The Football House building saw completion during Benazir Bhutto’s second term in 1996, under the supervision of the late ex-MNA Waja Ahmed Karimdad. The building has four dedicated offices, now used for handling the affairs of Sindh football and the district football associations. “It also has 16 rooms for players and coaches to stay because visiting teams from the interior of Sindh and Balochistan cannot afford to stay in hotels,” says Nasir Karim, who served as Secretary for DFA South after winning the regional football elections in 1987 and took over as the chairman after winning in the next elections in 1990. “Besides, it has a conference hall, where the coaches also hold theory workshops for players.”
He also talks about the time when all this football activity at Football House came to a halt in 2009. “It was the time when gang wars in Lyari were at their peak. The situation here was really bad and, one fine day, we were all thrown out of the building by gang members at gunpoint. They captured the building and took over our Football House. And from the football headquarters of Sindh it turned into a Lyari gangs headquarters!”
Nasir Karim says that after the ‘Lyari Operation’ cleansed the area from the gangs, they found the building vacant and in a state of ruin in 2015. “They had pretty much destroyed it and we had to carry out emergency repairs by spending from our own pockets,” says he.
“Still, we found the old records room intact. I had hurriedly locked it before being kicked out and, to my surprise, the gangs had not even tried to break into that room,” he says.
“We are now in the process of computerising all our records from there. We also want to build a football museum and library here. We want our next generation of footballers to know and benefit from the football-rich history of Lyari,” he says.
In 2017-2018 Lyari was abuzz with much football activity for some 100 days in the form of the super league, in which 128 teams took part and played matches at various Lyari grounds. The captains of the top 16 teams then saw their pictures go up on the signboard at the Football House.
After the Normalisation Committee’s coming to oversee football matters, things are looking up for Lyari’s favourite sport again. Soon, new talent will no doubt emerge from this area, as it has done before.
And the historic Football House of Lyari’s Chakiwara will be there to bear witness.
The writer tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 19th, 2020