A group of boys in blue uniforms struggle to keep up with their opponents in white as a mostly one-sided football match takes place in the PAD ground in Karachi. The boys in blue, known as the Street Strikers, are still jubilant after the match wraps up 6-2, they shake hands with the Karachi United boys, all smiles.
The unit hasn’t earned the name Street Strikers because of their street football skills – these players once lived on the unforgiving streets of Karachi. These lucky few have been rehabilitated thanks to the Azad Foundation, and on this December morning, are like any other boys their age - enthusiastic, boisterous and rowdy playing for a football team with bigger sporting ambitions.
The Azad Foundation is a non-profit organization working for street children in Pakistan. The only organization of its kind, it has initiated several similar projects and also imparts non-formal education, life-skills based education and psycho-social counseling along with medical services.
Operating since 2001, the foundation has plans in the pipeline to send a football team to the Street Child World Cup taking place in Brazil in 2014.
After a 4-0 drubbing against one of the city’s top club, Karachi United, just two days ago, the Street Strikers played their second match with renewed confidence and zeal and, based on the response, the foundation plans on continuing the matches, not just in Karachi but eventually all over Pakistan.
Salman Nasir, the goalkeeper of the Street Strikers, says he has loved and played football since childhood. “I have been playing with this team for eight months and it has been quite a different experience,” he said.
Nasir, who was a runaway, was reunited with his family after going through a rehabilitation process facilitated by Azad Foundation and that is when he joined the football team. The foundation keeps regular checks on the children after they have been reunited and the families are also counseled.
The current team has children between the ages of eight and 18 and was selected after Karachi-wide trials.
The audience for these games also included children from schools adopted by the Sindh Education Foundation, another partner of Azad Foundation.
After years of lobbying for street children, people are finally beginning to show some support, a member of the board of directors told Dawn.com.
“It is definitely a feather in our caps and such a good thing for these children that they will have the opportunity to play with other children from all over the world in Brazil.”
Azad Foundation believes that participation in the Street Child World Cup (SCWC) will increase awareness about the plight of street children and encourage people to take action to help them.
“Being a part of Street Child World Cup will not only provide an opportunity for the nation to recognize the existing situation but it will also give the people a chance to explore their culture and dynamics,” programme manager Ali Bilgrami was quoted as saying on the official website of the Street Child World Cup.
“Azad Foundation and its partners are most excited about participating in SCWC because it will bring about our long awaited goal to establish a nationwide platform for advocacy and policy development for children on the streets,” he said.
The Street Strikers have regular matches and in collaboration with the Karachi United Football Foundation (KUFF), the Azad Foundation ensures they receive proper training.
Sports for Life Pakistan, Sindh Sports Department, Pakistan Sports Board, Karachi Local Government Sports Department and UNICEF are also helping the Street Strikers prepare for the SCWC.
The Street Strikers’ coach says that preparing for the SCWC is a long and difficult process which is going to take time. He adds that the lack of proper grounds is also a problem but he is hopeful of an improvement as the players have talent which needs to be nurtured properly.
Owais Rehmat who plays as a defender for the Street Strikers said he was looking forward to playing in Brazil.
“I am working hard and hope to play in Brazil.”