Faizan Lakhani – The News on Sunday
With the world cheering for FIFA World Cup and Pakistan’s national football team going down 4-0 against Indonesia, recalling Pakistan’s incredible performance in the Street Child World Cup earlier this year gives something to feel good about.
Pakistan won the bronze medal in Street Child World Cup, also played in Brazil earlier this year.
Pakistan’s journey started with an outstanding performance against defending champions India. The boys in green defeated the Indian team 13-0.
They continued their streak and defeated Kenya and Mauritius in the following games and drew 1-1 with the United States of America. In the quarter final, Pakistan team outclassed Philippines but went down 4-3 against Burundi in the hard-fought semi-final.
Pakistan won the bronze medal after beating the United States of America on penalties in the 3rd position’s match.
Some individual performances were noted by both experts and fans. Abdul Razzaq was the top scorer of the tournament with 17 goals, including two hat-tricks. Aurangzaib came second with as many as 8 goals. In fact, Pakistan’s goalkeeper, Sameer, was also outstanding since he didn’t let many balls go past him.
The performance was a blessing in disguise for Pakistani media. They gave maximum coverage to Pakistan’s Street Child World Cup team and that resulted in a heroic welcome for the boys at the Karachi Airport.
Team Pakistan’s journey to Rio de Janeiro and the incredible performance was not just a stroke of luck. In fact, it was a long process to pick children from the streets of Karachi, who — along with being homeless — were also exposed to criminal street culture. It was a collective hard work that paid off, thanks to Azad Foundation that played an important role in identifying the talent and initiate their rehabilitation process by getting them involved in football.
The nine-member team was prepared after a long process that involved trials, rehabilitation, and training of the boys. Abdul Razzaq, Sameer Ahmad, Aurangzaib, Owais, Salman, Faizan Fayyaz, Mehr Ali, Rajab Ali, and Shoaib went to Brazil and made Pakistanis proud. And, that too without any proper infrastructure or support from the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).
These children from the streets of Karachi proved themselves not just talented footballers, but brave people who overcame their bitter past to welcome and cheer the successful future.
“Before the World Cup, these children were not welcome in society due to the stigma attached to them, but now they’re treated as heroes wherever they go,” says Itifan Maqbool, an official of Azad Foundation.
The players also feel the change in their life. “I feel good when TV cameras follow me wherever I go, I feel elated. I want to do something for my country,” says Rajab Ali, a player from Pakistan’s Street Child World Cup team.
Now, what’s the future of these children? What should be done? And what are their aims?
Rajab Ali says he wants to win international matches for Pakistan and wants to be known like his favourite player, Neymar junior. “I want to be known as Neymar. I want to perform for Pakistan the way Neymar performs for Brazil. He is my ideal,” he says talking to TNS.
How would Rajab Ali and players like him would achieve their dream of playing for Pakistan? “The government and PFF should now play their role,” says team’s captain, Sameer.
“There is no dearth of talent in Pakistan, but due to non-availability of proper opportunities, the talent cannot get proper exposure,” Sameer complains.
“The street child team proved that if proper opportunity is provided on merit, Pakistan can do wonders at the international football arena as well,” he adds.
Sameer’s demands are justified and understandable.
What is the Pakistan Football Federation doing for nourishing this natural talent? “We are more than willing to train these young players, we are ready to support them and there is no doubt that there are players who’re capable of doing good for the country,” says Ahmad Yar Lodhi, secretary Pakistan Football Federation.
“We invited them for a ten-days training programme in May, but they had some prior commitments, we want to sign an MoU with Azad Foundation for training players from the Street Child World Cup squad,” Lodhi adds.
Pakistan Football Federation did not play any role in their selection but they acknowledge the performance, announcing cash reward for them.
That’s not enough. Football authorities in Pakistan should give maximum support to these children so that the talent is not wasted.
“We will not allow any talent to fade away, but they need to be streamlined properly. I am aware that Street Child World Cup team has got some players who can be selected for Pakistan,” says PFF’s secretary, adding, “But they need to come under PFF’s umbrella. There will be trials for U14 and U16 teams and I will encourage them to participate in it.”
It remains to be seen if PFF can do something for these children but Azad Foundation — guardian of street children football team — is trying to get more opportunities for Street Child World Cup team of Pakistan.
It has been learnt through reliable sources that the team will be sent to participate in an international tournament in a European country. Details of the tour will be announced soon. A UK-based charity organisation — Muslim Hands — is also working with Azad Foundation to ensure proper training for Pakistan’s street footballers for training in UK.
“I believe there are players who have the potential to represent Pakistan at the international level and we’ll do our best to get them what they deserve,” says Itifan Maqbool.