By Shahrukh Sohail – Published by the Express Tribune
As Owais Ali lined up to face India in Pakistan’s opening match of the Street Child World Cup, 2014, his life must have flashed before him. Here he was standing up for the national anthem in Rio de Janeiro in a prestigious football competition but just some time ago, things had been different.
Like so many others on the cruel streets of Karachi, hustling, doing drugs or simply trying to survive on a daily basis, Owais too thought he would waste away his life and succumb to the fact that he ran away from home at the age of seven after a few tough beatings from his father. However, his life had taken a completely different turn when he sought out the Azad Foundation shelter and was taken in.
After a tearful reunion with his mother, the now 15-year-old boy trained alongside other street children with similar stories as the Azad Foundation prepped a team to take part in the Street Child World Cup 2014.
Working with the British Council’s Dosti (Friendship) Programme, Azad Foundation’s main aim was to help these children develop a sense of purpose in their lives and get them back on the right track. Football was just the medium – a common passion which united everyone for the cause and allowed for those adrenaline-filled moments without any side-effects.
But they had little support. As the team departed for Rio de Janeiro in late March this year after some intense months of training, there was no one there to see them off.
There were no politicians promising rewards, no crowd cheering their players on; just close friends and families wishing the boys well for the journey ahead. Besides the odd report on television, no one in Pakistan would have even known that Pakistan was participating in the Street Child World Cup.
But it was different in Brazil. Owais Ali and his teammates were greeted with a festive atmosphere in Rio and in the opening ceremony; they shared colourful songs and stories with children from all over the globe.
The boys, looking spectacular in their sherwanis, were welcomed into the tournament with open arms; something which street children, particularly in Pakistan, are hardly used to.
Buoyed by their newfound respect and seeing the bitterness of the nation after their loss to West Indies in the T20 World Cup, the squad decided to do something to lift everyone’s spirits.
In a mini Maracana, built to replicate the famous ground, Owais along with the rest of the team, lined up against the reigning champions, India, and held their breath as the match kicked off.
It was spectacular, surreal and the boys felt sheer ecstasy at seeing the ball land in the back of the net every time they tried. And when the referee blew the final whistle, it was 13-0 in Pakistan’s favour but the boys labelled the score a ‘friendship game’ in the true spirit of the Street Child World Cup and pointed out that both India and Pakistan were similar nations with a few differences and could learn to co-exist in harmony.
Kenya came next but Owais Ali, Aurangzeb Baba and Raziq Mushtaq proved to be too strong even in the face of their African supremacy in the sport.
Even Mauritius and USA gave in, ultimately resulting in a crucial quarter-final match with the Philippines. However, the start was far from perfect. The Filipinos scored early and Pakistan was left with a possibility of exiting but a late surge resulted in an equaliser and the game went to extra time after both teams failed to determine a winner.
It was tense. It was slow. But the Philippines team missed their shot at glory and with a final kick, Pakistan was in the semi-finals of the Street Child World Cup 2014.
And the nation rejoiced.
Fuelled by their disappointment in the T20 World Cup, everyone turned their attention towards the football match against hot favourites Burundi who, with their dominating physique, were particularly gifted footballers.
The nation prayed. Channels looking to cash in on the newfound fame covered the game in exclusive sports segments, invited football analysts to discuss the game, only a few days after snubbing the side when they were departing for Brazil. The boys put in every ounce of energy and talent they had in their attempt not to disappoint their country. Cruising 3-1 at half-time, the final and all the glory that would come with it, beckoned. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Burundi registered a sensational comeback and eventually triumphed 4-3 in the game.
But Owais, Rajab, Aurangzeb and Raziq had already realised this was not just football. This was more than that. And encompassing the true passion and spirit of the beautiful game, they celebrated with their Burundian opponents and earned massive respect for their true sportsman-like behaviour.
As the squad boarded the plane back to Pakistan, fresh from their victory over the US in the third placed match, they could have hardly anticipated what was in store for them.
Politicians, political parties, media personnel and the general public thronged to the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi to catch a glimpse of their heroes. Contrary to their departure from the country, now everybody was cashing in on them. The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), having taken no real steps to develop grassroots football in the country, let alone work on street children, quickly announced Rs500,000 as reward for the team.
Promoting these youngsters and having a football infrastructure in place would have been the best award the PFF could have given to the youngsters but instead they are left with a mediocre league that will do little to help them improve their game.
All the credit has to be given to the Azad Foundation and all their partners for making this happen. Sending the boys to Rio was no easy feat and our government was far from cooperative with Azad officials chasing passport officials all over the country in the last few days just to complete the documentation for the trip to Brazil.
But as soon as the opportunity to make headlines arose, no one could resist.
The Sindh Assembly promised to pay Rs200,000 to each team member. Even Bilawal Bhutto announced that he will bring Argentinian legend Diego Maradona to train the children in the very near future and promised the members Rs100,000 each, perhaps in an attempt to recover his image – this time as a footballing messiah, it seems.
But it was too little, too late.
After years of being frowned upon and with no one to care for them on the streets, the boys had also learned that fame was a fickle friend. As everyone waited for them to smile for the cameras, wearing their bronze medals with pride, Owais and his friends boarded a bus from the airport and left for a peaceful welcome at home.