Tufail Shinwari returns home after his outstanding performance in the Street Child Football World Cup | Photos courtesy Muslim Hands
Tufail Shinwari returns home after his outstanding performance in the Street Child Football World Cup | Photos courtesy Muslim Hands

“I was six years old when I saw Lionel Messi in a dream. We were teammates. Strikers. We collaborated to score goal after goal,” says 16-year-old Mohammed Tufail Khan Shinwari. Since he had the dream, Tufail has eaten, drank and slept football. He has lived football.

“I played football in the streets and on the roads, I played football on empty plots, on rugged and rocky grounds, in village fields, before school, after school,” recalls the lad whose hat-tricks in last month’s Street Child Football World Cup in Doha, Qatar, has awakened a new spirit of the sport in the schools of not just Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) but the entire tribal belt. All have formed their own football teams now.

Although Tufail was playing a lot of football, he only got to the next level after getting noticed by a group of experts from a charity organisation called ‘Muslim Hands’, who spotted him during open trials in Nowshera. That’s when he, along with nine other boys — namely, Abdullah, Abid, Imran, Junaid, Abdul Wahab, Asad, Suhail Khan, Adeel and Mohammed Ali — were selected out of over 500 young players from across the country for an Under-16 camp in Mirpur, Azad Kashmir, where the talented players underwent high quality training.

It was no regular camp. It went on for more than a year. “It was during that training that I found expression to my talent alongside my other fellow athletes,” says Tufail, who wants to make a career of football now.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is gearing up to do something at the grassroots level for sports after gaining inspiration from one young footballer

“I want to set an example for other street children all over our country. They should know that deprived children like them, roaming the streets and being exposed to so many threats, can also have talent and that they can also get opportunities on the basis of that talent to help them reach where they want to in life,” he says.

Tufail Shinwari warms up before a match | Photos courtesy Muslim Hands
Tufail Shinwari warms up before a match | Photos courtesy Muslim Hands

“I had a dream to become a world class player but I had never thought it would happen so soon for me, at such a young age,” smiles Tufail, who is now also concentrating on his education. He likes computer science and recently completed grade 12 on a scholarship from a private institution in Peshawar.

Tufail, who was playing as a striker for Pakistan in the Street Child Football World Cup, dazzled with a total of 13 goals in the tournament, with back-to-back hat-tricks against Bosnia and Qatar. Pakistan remained unbeaten in the 11-day event featuring 28 teams, until the final match with Egypt, which had to be decided on a penalty shootout. Egypt won 4-3.

Back at home, the local schools with football teams are bracing for a mega football tournament, to feature around 40 to 50 teams in Landi Kotal in the first week of February.

The merged tribal districts of KP are teeming with great sporting talent but, unfortunately, it is being wasted due to a lack of sports facilities and official patronage. Sports experts and local residents believe that, if proper facilities along with official patronage are provided, athletes from the erstwhile tribal districts can bring more laurels to the nation as well as save the tribal youth from getting involved in anti-social activities.

“It took us 40 years to form 40 football teams in a region where the environment for sports still remains unsuitable,” says Mirajuddin Khan Shinwari, president of the Khyber Sports Club, while commenting on Tufail’s stunning performance in the Street Child Football World Cup. “Still, our young players have at last found a platform to exhibit their sporting talents.”

Force 10 from Pakistan huddles during practice
Force 10 from Pakistan huddles during practice

He adds that he, along with a group of local athletes, founded the Khyber Sports Club (KSC) in Landi Kotal in 1982 and they used to arrange talent hunt campaigns for sports from a few state-run schools in tribal territory in an environment which was hostile to any kind of sports activity at the time.

“Hundreds of players were trained and groomed under our private patronage, but only a few were able to make their way to either national or international sports forums in almost all sports, and not just football. But local players take interest in football more than any other game despite the non availability of a level playground in the entire Khyber district,” he states.

Akhtar Rasool, a local football buff, says that players such as Atiq Shinwari, Yasir Afridi, Salman Afridi, Atif Khan and Najeeb Afridi are just some footballers who have played on the rugged and uneven grounds here and still shone at the national level. “Most have come forth without any proper grooming. The rhetoric of tall promises to found a sports complex in the area has never been put to practical shape,” says Rasool. “Or things would have looked up much before.”

When the team of young street footballers from Pakistan registered their first win in the recent fourth edition of the Street Child Football World Cup by scoring three goals — all by Tufail — KP in particular celebrated his outstanding performance. The boys, and particularly Tufail, were accorded an unprecedented welcome on their return to Landi Kotal, which also happens to be Tufail’s hometown.

Shahid Khan, former president of the erstwhile FATA Olympic Association, says that the Khyber district is home to many world-class cricketers, martial artists and footballers but confirms the pioneering role of the KSC. “The KP government occasionally calls players for provincial or national sports galas. It also supports them for representation in national teams abroad. But it is the Khyber Sports Club that maintains a record of producing promising players, while keeping a vigilant eye on their healthcare as well as their movements, so that they don’t get involved in things such as drug addiction or any other anti-social activity,” he says.

“I am hopeful that the KP government will soon fulfill its promise of building a state-of-the-art sports complex to support players at the grassroots level in the merged tribal districts,” says Shahid. “It would help local athletes hone their skills and find firm ground to take up sports as a career.”

The writer is a freelance contributor.

He tweets @sheralamshin

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 13th, 2022

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