KARACHI: Fifteen-year-old Munir Aftab, captain of the triumphant Pakistan under-16 football team that recently returned home after lifting the inaugural South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) U-16 Football Championship title in Nepal, is a living example of motivating the youth to stay away from drugs and gang warfare through healthy activity.
The young defender has been playing football in the narrow winding streets of Karachi’s Lyari since the age of five. Lyari that is known as the hub of football in Pakistan has also been the source of major city unrests and disturbances due to the involvement of its youth in drugs and firearms.
But Munir’s story is different from many of his peers. “I loved watching my father and brothers play football and started playing myself when I was just a child,” he says.
It was around the time Munir was just learning to enjoy the game loved so much by his family that the bright playing career of his eldest brother, some 10 years older than him, ended even before it could properly begin.
In 2000, both of his mother’s kidneys stopped functioning and Allah Bux, the eldest son, gave her his kidney in order to save her life. Today he is a manual worker in a Balochi block print atelier.
Munir’s other brother, who also played football at the club level, works as a labourer at the cranes at the shipyard while their father is a rickshaw driver. Poverty has been one of the main causes behind Lyari’s immense footballing talent getting lost on its way to acclaim.
Munir’s father and brothers aren’t the first ones here to have given up their dreams. But they have vowed not to let anything come in the way of Munir’s playing career.
“My father has always told me to play and not to worry about anything else. He has faith in my game. I am so happy to be able to make a name for myself in football and make my family proud of me,” he says.
That’s how he got to attend regular school and is now just waiting for his result of matriculation exam. “In school, too, our sports teacher encouraged all us kids to excel in football, our heritage. He even coached us outside school during our Saturday matches at Lyari’s uneven grounds,” he says.
Studying and playing took all of Munir’s time as he went from strength to strength on the field. Not one to give up easily, the boy appeared for the Sindh U-13 open trials after failing to get selected for the Karachi team on first try. Making it to the Sindh U-13 team, he got noticed at the national level when the team featured in the national U-13 tournament in Lahore in 2009.
That same year he was made captain of the Pakistan U-13 team that ended up fourth in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-13 Festival of Football in Iran.
And as captain of the Pakistan U-14 football team he helped his side bag the silver medal at AFC U-14 Festival of Football in Iran in 2010. Now he has led the Pakistan U-16 side to win the SAFF U-16 Football Championship by beating none other than archrivals India in the final.
Munir, who also plays for the Karachi Port Trust youth team, gets a Rs 6,000 monthly scholarship from his department.
“My friends often worry about getting a job but I was lucky to get picked by the KPT some eight months ago. The monthly stipend I receive from them is very helpful in my remaining on a regular diet at home even though it is simple daal roti and vegetables. I also intend to pursue my studies,” says the youth who is fast becoming a role model for the other disillusioned boys of his community being urged to learn some crafts that can help them earn a livelihood instead of chasing after their dreams.