KARACHI: Football mad Abdul Basit, 15, dreamt of becoming Pakistan’s Lionel Messi but his ambitions died in a bomb attack that killed him and up to seven others at a four-a-side match in Karachi.
It was the latest assault on sport in a country that has hosted no top-level international matches since militants attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in the eastern city of Lahore in March 2009.
Thousands of fans gathered to watch the final of one of many tournaments held during the fasting month of Ramadan in Lyari, the most dangerous neighbourhood of Pakistan’s biggest city.
Lyari has overcome a notorious reputation for gang violence that has killed hundreds of people over the past 15 years and miserable facilities to produce the country’s best football players.
The half-turf, half-road play area doesn’t bother burgeoning talent in the area who play for pride and a few trophies: there is no prize money in this desperately poor slum.
Their life-long dream is matching the likes of Maradona, Messi, Pele and Ronaldo — household names in an area historically ruled by the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto dynasty.
The neck and neck match between Baba Ladla 99 and Baba Ladla 92 — both named after a local gangster — finished 7-7 at around 2 am on Wednesday, when many people are still awake in Ramadan.
A penalty shoot out handed BL 99 the game but minutes after the crowd erupted in joy, a deafening bomb exploded near the car of the chief guest, provincial minister Javed Nagori.
Nagori survived, but Basit and five other young football fans were among the eight whom match organisers said were killed.
Life had never been easy for Basit. He was forced to leave school early and worked in a car mechanics, some 500 metres from the site of the attack that killed him.
“It’s sad to lose a die-hard fan like Basit,” said former Pakistan international, Aurangzeb Shahmir, who played in the 2003 Asia Cup and who attended the match with his young son.
“He lived in my area and was mad about Messi. He wanted to meet the Argentinian players once in his life — but that can never happen now,” Shahmir told AFP.
Fans Mohammad Khalil, 15, Jamshed Ahmed, 15, Mohammad Ibrahim, 22 and Shah Waliullah, 22 were also among the dead — most of them wearing the yellow and blue kit of Brazil, the most popular team in Lyari.
Shahmir feared the blast will badly affect the game and its fans, already reeling from daily violence in Karachi.
“These blasts will hurt football and fans in Lyari for months to come,” he said.
Once a hub for producing football and boxing talent, Lyari has suffered badly from gang warfare between drug mafia.
Despite several police and military operations, criminals thrive in Lyari, where the mainstream political parties deny accusations that they have de facto armed wings fuelling the violence.
The majority of the population come from Balochistan, the oil and gas-rich southwestern province that is one of the most deprived parts of Pakistan, suffering from sectarian and separatist unrest.
Football has long given solace to Lyari inhabitants, but former FIFA referee Ahmed Jan says violence is hurting the game.
“Football is dying,” said Jan.
“It died, maybe, for the last time on Tuesday. If the government fails to maintain law and order soon then I’m afraid this most sports loving part of the city will not be there on the sporting map.”
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) condemned the attack.
“Its tragic to note that eight football fans were killed in Lyari. Who knows whether there were potential players among them,” said Naveed Haider, marketing director at PFF.
He expressed hope that the qualifiers for the Under-16 Asian Football Confederation, scheduled in Karachi in October, will not be affected. Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates will compete in the event.
Naveed added eight of a 16-man squad touring China for next week’s South Asian Youth Games are from Lyari.