Islamabad – Ammar Zaheer puts on his football shoes in a hurry. He’s needed on the field. It’s a scorching, 43-degrees afternoon in Islamabad. The heat feels omnipresent at this point; it’s like an invisible torrent crashing down upon the small football ground in sector F-6.
Zaheer is the captain of the Red Devils F.C. – a team he formed with his cousins and friends back in 2007 and whose name reflects its founders’ loyalty toward the English club Manchester United. He rushes on to the pitch now to replace one of his teammates who’s struggling under the sun.
A few minutes later, Zaheer leaves his defensive position to move forward into the opposing box when his team wins a corner. As the ball flies over the crowd of players in front of goal, he ducks slightly to time his jump, then rises in the air from the left and heads the ball across the goal. From six yards in, the keeper barely has time to react as the ball zooms past him. There’s a brief celebration, and Zaheer runs back, shouting orders to his players to reorganize quickly.
“The underlying philosophy of our team was, and still is, that we play for fun,” he says after the game. On the field, the fun seemed to stem from an unmistakable passion for football.
Zaheer and his teammates are prime examples of a subculture of amateur football players, which has developed in some of the big cities of Pakistan over the last few years. Most of these hobbyist footballers are either students at private educational institutions or well-educated young professionals belonging to the upper middle class. Some of them have day jobs, some of them attend school, but they take out the time to play regularly in an organized manner.
The rise in amateur football has increased the total football activity in Pakistan and created a mini-industry in urban areas with grounds charging booking fees, shops selling football gear and restaurants putting up screens to show football games.
The translation of amateur football players to the professional level, however, remains slow and encumbered by social, economic, and political problems.
Nevertheless, from Karachi to Faisalabad and Rawalpindi, football seems to have picked up pace and the youth is leading the charge.
“The major chunk of amateur football players is from O’ and A’ levels, colleges, and universities,” Zaheer says.
Seventeen-year-old Daniyal Naeem from Karachi agrees.
“The student community without a doubt dominates the football scene in Pakistan, especially in Karachi,” Naeem says.
Naeem, who’s now a second-year A’ levels student at the City School PAF chapter, was in 8th grade when he started a football team with the help of his school fellows. They named it CF Blitz.
Naeem and his friends, like most amateur footballers in Pakistan, are self-trained.
They weren’t very good at the beginning, he says, but they’ve practiced rigorously since forming the club and their football skills have improved over time: Five of the Blitz players, including Naeem, led their school’s team to the final of the 7th annual Karachi United Schools Championship in January.
Ans Khan, 19, was also in school when he developed a longing for football. Back in 4th grade, his school’s team would compete in an annual football tournament held at the Hamdard Public School in Karachi. The desire to go and play at the tournament made Khan pursue football and he’s kept on going since.
After finishing school, he formed a team called F.C. Strikers with kids from his neighborhood in the Karimabad Federal B. area.
Khan says the football trend has really picked up in recent years and he thinks it’s mostly because people are watching the sport.
“People watch football on television, and they get a craze to play it,” he says.
Access to watching football games has indeed played a major role in the rise of amateur football in Pakistan.
By 1999, the satellite Dish service had provided the first taste of international T.V. channels to local audiences. But foreign channels only became ubiquitous at the turn of the millennium when cable arrived in Pakistan and quickly proliferated Pakistani cities and towns.
Before that, the state television channel was the only source for most Pakistanis to watch international football competitions. Cable brought with it specialized sports channels, which showed European domestic leagues, especially the English Premier League on the weekends and the Spanish La Liga late at night.
“The defining moment for me to choose football over cricket was due to watching football,” Zaheer says with an innocent smile.
He fondly remembers the time when he broke his parents’ curfew of not watching television after hours and secretly tuned in to see Ole Gunnar Solksjaer net the winner for Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League final. He was 14 then, and in the moment’s excitement, he let out a loud cheer. What followed was a harsh scolding from his parents, and a lifelong love for football and Manchester United.
The story seems to be the same everywhere.
In Karachi, Naeem became a fan of the game after watching the 2006 football World Cup, whereas the Barcelona style of play got Rawalpindi’s Umair Tariq, 22, started on his football journey.
Tariq, a student of Mass Communication at the National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST) and member of the NUST football team, says he sees a lot of potential around him, but not enough opportunities.
“Pindi has a lot of football players, but we don’t have proper facilities,” he says. “It’s rare to find a football ground there.”
There are three grounds in Rawalpindi that are mostly used for football, but locals often travel to Islamabad to play 7-a-side matches at the small but popular F-6 football ground.
Teams pay Rs1,500 for 90 minutes and Rs2,500 if they play under lights at this facility run by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), says former groundskeeper Hussain Ali. Ali used to manage the ground as a private contractor until the CDA took over a year ago. He still hangs around the place organizing matches and training sessions on the weekends.
These days the ground hosts around 20 matches on average per week, and generates a monthly revenue of around Rs100,000, Ali says.
The average ground in Karachi also costs around Rs1,000 per game. The price goes up for grounds with better facilities.
Students are not the only ones playing, though. Zaheer himself is a senior executive at Fauji Fertilizer Bin Qasim Limited and represents a small section of white collar professionals who used to play football during their student days and have continued after graduating.
The Bhindiz football club from Islamabad is another example. Led by Zohaib Yasin, assistant manager sourcing at Telenor, the team is composed mostly of working professionals who meet three days a week to play football after work.
Yasin says recent corporate backing has helped football gain more exposure in the country.
“Corporate sponsorship for football has increased, so nowadays there’s more incentive for students who are playing the sport,” he says.
The 2o12 Zong United Kickoff Tournament, in which 32 kids won a chance to go to the Manchester United soccer school in Abu Dhabi for a five-day training program, and the Pepsi football tournament simultaneously launched in three cities in June are examples that support Yasin’s claim.
One indicator of the rise in amateur football is the frequency of privately organized tournaments.
“Back when we started in 2007, there would be one tournament every three or four months,” Zaheer says. “Nowadays there are so many tournaments that we have to choose which ones to play and which ones to leave.”
Zaheer’s Red Devils played 16 tournaments in Rawalpindi and Islamabad in 2011, of which they won seven. The prize money of a big tournament – usually between Rs18,000 to Rs25,000 – is a great incentive for amateur teams, who usually have to pay Rs2,000-4,000 as entry fees.
While the elites have always favored professional games like cricket and field hockey in Pakistan, football has traditionally been the poor man’s sport in the country, says Ali Ahsan, chief editor of FootballPakistan.com – a website that is easily the most comprehensive resource for football news in the country.
“Most of the people who play full time in this country are essentially people from lower background, who actually want a permanent job with the departments,” Ahsan says.
Departments, such as Wapda, Army, KRL and Karachi Port Trust, dominate professional football in Pakistan. Eleven of the 16 teams that participated in the 2011 Pakistan Premier League – Pakistan’s topmost football division – were department teams.
Departments have sports budgets and offer permanent jobs to football players along with match fees during tournaments. They usually pick players from professional clubs, and where they provide stable income and job security for some working class footballers, not every club player makes it to departmental football.
Those who fail to make the cut are often left to find other sources of income.
Back in the ’90s, Sabir Hussain almost got commission in the Army on the football quota. The deal went kaput in the final stages and Hussain now runs a garments shop in Rawalpindi’s Saddar market. It is one of the places football enthusiasts frequent to buy football shirts.
Hussain’s eyes light up at the mention of football. He speaks with a kind, nostalgic smile as if he’s not sitting behind the cash register anymore, but standing on a football field instead. He says he started selling football shirts in 2007, five years after he opened the shop, mainly because of his own passion for the game. Since then, he has been selling 400 to 500 shirts every year.
Hussain says his clientele includes “everyone from kids to teenagers and adults,” who usually pay between Rs700 to Rs1,200 to buy shirts of their favorite clubs and international teams.
Karachi has long been the center of football in Pakistan. Nowhere in the country would you find a road named after a football player except Karachi, such is the craze for football in this city. It’s no wonder then that 73 percent of all registered football clubs in Sindh belong to Karachi and the amateur football scene is thriving there.
Riaz Ahmed, an administrator at Karachi United Football Foundation, has seen the rise in amateur football in Karachi and he isn’t too impressed by it.
“These kids are playing for their own entertainment,” he says. “The football activities have increased, but this has done nothing to benefit football in Pakistan.”
Ahmed thinks these amateur footballers would never focus on making football their future. He’s right in a sense. The amateur players are passionate about the game, and a lot of them want to represent Pakistan in football, but they are deterred by factors such as parental pressure, economic uncertainty, and politics and favoritism in the existing system.
“Parents are OK if their kids play sports for fun, but if the kids get more interested in football, parents step in saying it will interfere with studies,” says Muhammad Zaman, president of the Mehran football club – a registered professional club that plays in the official Islamabad district football league.
But the biggest problem might be that it’s difficult to make a living off football in Pakistan. Yasin, of Bhindiz F.C., puts it bluntly.
“People who are playing at the professional club level don’t get paid much,” he says. “Rs1,000 per match is not something to live on.”
Ahmed says he thinks the football enthusiasts in the upper sections of society are bound to choose other prospects over a Rs20,000 salary at the department level.
Mehran club recently signed two upcoming football players from the Beaconhouse school system in Islamabad, but Zaman is also skeptical about the commitment of most amateur players.
“The rich kids usually play part time,” Zaman says. “After that, some will go abroad and some will get good jobs. They have their own system.”
The divide between amateur and professional football in Pakistan seems to be drawn along class lines, then. The rich are playing the game for leisure, and the poor are struggling to get a decent future through football.
Perhaps the way forward is following the Karachi United Football Foundation model. The foundation, which works as a nonprofit entity, runs six centers in Karachi that provide football training to under-14 players.
“The idea is that if kids from underdeveloped areas get a chance to focus on football as a profession and undergo training, they can improve their future,” Ahmed says.
Moreover, the training centers provide education support, vocational training and health awareness for these kids.
“If there are 100 children at the training center, not all of them will become footballers,” Ahmed says. “We have started education and health programs for them, so these kids can support themselves in the future, even if they can’t make it in football.”
The foundation’s attempts are certainly noble, but they might not able to tap into the talent in the amateur football circuit. FootballPakistan.com’s Ahsan says he thinks reforms at the professional level might change that situation.
“Football needs to move away from departments to city-based teams,” he says. “We need to have public-corporate partnerships and media involvement in the domestic game to bring money, transparency, and coverage to football.”
Only then people from the well-off backgrounds will start taking football seriously, he says.