By Faizan Afzal
Watching a football match at Winder football ground with a roaring sea of youngsters and teenage schoolers can be exhilarating. It can also be educative. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you can see signs of a new nation peeking out of its old shell; hear the rasping of tidal social change. First, it is hard to believe that a place like Lasbela, which is always known for its political unrest and terrible lawlessness, has silently spawned a generation of very young and intense football lovers. It is difficult to digest the fact that in a cricket-obsessed nation, there is a place where people value football more than cricket, keeping in view that football has literally no commercial attraction in this country.
For years, I have had to feign excitement, and pick a team or risk ridicule. You cannot say you don’t like or do not follow cricket in Pakistan, as often this would lead to a long dialogue in which someone would begin telling you why you should support their team. Growing up in Islamabad, I quickly learned everyone around me like cricket, and so I blindly did the same, for fear of having the same conversation more than fifty times. Same is the case with football. I have friends who were crazy about football and talk about it all the time, but I have never showed interest in a game in which a ball is continually kicked by 22 men in 90 minutes.
Often, I feel annoyed when everyone around me is brimming with excitement over two groups of people kicking a ball in a field. When I was younger and football was inescapable in physical education lessons or the playground, I used to pick the same position to play in a football match: ‘goal keeper’. I feel similarly about it now. While, I may not ultimately desire to play the sports or take part in supporting the teams, I will nevertheless defend people’s obsession with the sport. But this recent encounter with the sport has led me change my view about the game.
Recently, I got an opportunity to see some football matches in Lasbela, Baluchistan. The matches were part of a peace tournament organized by an NGO called BRAC Pakistan. It was quiet encouraging to see that organizers came up with an idea to have a football tournament, not cricket. Watching these young enthusiastic players and zealous crowd made me believe that football has potential to surpass cricket in popularity in Pakistan. One sees a massive rise in interest in the game among students, possibly because of dazzling marketing of the English Premier League and La Liga.
The heartwarming experience of this tournament was less about emerging football, and more about healthy activities in Lasbela. While having a conversation with BRAC Pakistan’s staff and local players, I came to know that before this tournament, there was no concept of community engagement in sporting events, coaching courses, referees classes and ground management in Winder. The basics of football were introduced to the youth of even remote areas of Winder. Coaches, Referees and Administrators were given opportunity to showcase their talent. I was curious to know that why an NGO is working on football development in this remote area. I was surprised when Changiz Khan, Program manager of BRAC Pakistan, told me that this tournament is part of a poverty reduction program. This opened a new door of development approach to me – development through sports. “Communities in remote areas have limited access to positive entertainment and youngsters in these areas have no platform to showcase their talent. This tournament was an attempt to bring up and nurture their talent”, Changiz Khan said.
I don’t know how much Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is functional, but at the grass root level, these NGOs are doing a commendable job. May be PFF is having dearth of funds and lacks administrative setup, but partnering with development sector to promote football is always a readily available option on the table. To progress and channelize energies and talent of these young footballers, PFF need to have a sincere intention more than funds and foreign coaches.