SPORTS: THE LIGHT OF LYARI’S FUTSAL

Published April 7, 2024
A Ramazan futsal match under way in Lyari | Photo by the writer
A Ramazan futsal match under way in Lyari | Photo by the writer

It is 11:36pm on a Friday night in Ramazan. The locality of Lyari in Karachi is drowning in darkness because of power outages. Despite the ‘loadshedding’, a narrow street is lit, thanks to a generator, with dozens of people gathered there.

From a distance, you cannot see what is happening, but as you get closer, you see the crowd watching kids dressed in football kits and cleats competing in a futsal game. Futsal is a football-based game played on hardcourt surfaces that emphasises ball control and passing in small spaces.

“We have been organising this tournament, the Ustad Jabal Ramazan Tournament, in the name of my father, himself a footballer, for the past 12 years,” says Abdul Ghaffar. Ghaffar is a former national team midfielder who represented Pakistan in two World Cup Qualifiers and now runs a small football academy in Lyari called Baghdadi Green.

“We have been holding the tournament on our own, without any sponsors,” he emphasises.

The tournament features 32 to 34 teams of boys, with a height limit of 4 feet 7 inches. “It is actually for boys under 10 years of age, but if there are boys aged over 10 and they fit our height regulations, we allow them to play.”

Ramazan in Karachi’s Lyari, the football hub of Pakistan, is about whiling away the night ahead of sehri while playing futsal. But this year, power outages have dampened some of the festivities in the neighbourhood

Ghaffar, who has played in the past for major departmental sides, including the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and the Pakistan International Airlines, maintains that he organises this event to keep these kids closer to football and education and away from unhealthy activities.

The tournament, which asks teams to bring their own footballs and kits, kicked off from the fourth of Ramazan and concluded on the 23rd of Ramazan. There was no prize money, but the winners and runners-up were awarded trophies.

Ustad Jabal Ramazan Tournament is one of the scores of futsal tournaments that take place every year during Ramazan in Lyari. You see kids playing with mini-goalposts placed on every other road and street in the locality.

During the tournament, the organisers close one track of the road for traffic, allowing the boys to dribble and tackle without worrying about oncoming traffic. The residents do not complain about the road closure, while the local authorities are informed beforehand.

Night cricket and Ramazan are considered synonymous in Karachi, but the craze for futsal in Lyari during the holy month remains unmatched. However, the activity has suffered due to scheduled and unscheduled power outages.

“This year, it is not even 15 to 20 percent of how much futsal we used to play during Ramazan,” says Abdul Basit, another Pakistan international, as we watch a 3-on-3 futsal match by the roadside. He blames the ‘loadshedding’, which takes place daily from 11pm to 1:30am, for the decline.

“Otherwise, you would be hard-pressed to find a road or lane where football wasn’t played in some form or the other,” adds Basit.

Lyari is a whole different vibe in Ramazan. As the boys compete on makeshift turfs, entire families — including women — gather at the sidelines to cheer them on. Some tournaments take place under streetlights, while temporary lights are installed for others. The bigger tournaments have seating arrangements, with announcements and music.

The football goes on throughout the night, with Basit saying most people only go to sleep after having sehri and saying their morning prayers. “One thing is for sure, no one in Lyari gets sufficient sleep during this month,” chuckles Basit.

“Mind you, these kids do not miss school in the morning. The men also go to work on time. It has always been like this in Lyari,” he points out.

“I remember, we used to play all night, taking a break to have sehri and then playing again after fajr prayers, till it was time to go to school,” he continues.

There are many different futsal tournaments in Lyari in terms of rules, age and scale. The common aspect among all these tournaments, however, is their low entry fee, the simple prizes and the spirit of the players.

“There are 7-on-7 tournaments on larger fields, 5-on-5 and 3-on-3 on the roads for kids in various age groups, ranging from Under-10, Under-14 and Under-18, as well as for grown-ups,” says Basit, who is Lyari-born and bred and had played countless such tournaments in his early days before donning the Pakistan colours.

These tournaments vary in intensity, with those organised by groups of friends or neighbours often featuring office-going men and university students chasing their passion. On the other hand, academies and clubs host more structured tournaments.

The rules and requirements of the bigger tournaments are usually issued around 15 days before they start, explaining everything related to the event. Invitations are sent out to clubs and academies from all over the city, such as from Malir, Gulshan, DHA and others. They are even allowed to bring guest players.

These bigger tournaments are highly competitive. A big-scale tournament can have a winning prize as high as Rs100,000. However, the majority of tournaments are played at a much smaller scale and without sponsors, where the winning prize is usually nothing but pride. The entry fee for teams is also often meagre, around Rs500, which is spent on organising the event.

Sometimes, those invited as chief guests to such tournaments announce different rewards for goal-scorers or a winning prize — anything between Rs5,000 to Rs20,000 — which they pay out of their own pockets.

“These tournaments are merely organised to give aspiring footballers something to compete for and to offer the people of the neighbourhood some entertainment,” says Basit.

However, due to the law-and-order situation, inflation and power cuts, the state of futsal in Ramazan is not the same anymore in the oldest locality of the metropolis.

“Earlier, there used to be so many tournaments that we used to play at least four games a day,” recalls Basit. “Now, there are regular power outages, and we cannot afford generators and other facilities due to the inflation,” he says, adding that such outages were unheard of when he was a child.

During the ‘loadshedding’, football grounds that used to be the centre of major tournaments and attracted large crowds, are dark and deserted.

“You witnessed five to six matches in one night,” Basit points out, “but, if there was electricity, you could have enjoyed 20 to 25 games.”

Still, despite the hardships and challenges, it seems that nothing can separate the people of Lyari from their passion and love for football.

The writer is a freelance sports journalist.
X: @Arslanshkh

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2024

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