The foreign crew on the ships – more commonly known as the gora masters – would ask local labourers and carriage drivers at the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) to play football with them. In return, the blue-collared workers would receive a small remuneration.
Every Lyariite has a family football story. At least one member of each household has been a football player at the district, provincial or national level. Young adults grow up listening to stories about their forefathers being the first people to understand the game in the subcontinent.
“Football is a part of our heritage,” Pakistan Football Federation official Yaqoob Baloch, who is also a resident of Lyari, told The Express Tribune.
“While growing up, my grandmother would tell me that my grandfather, Muhammad Yaqoob, was also a footballer, and a well-respected one.
“In our community, parents encourage their children to play football instead of studying.”
Football to Lyari is what cricket is to the rest of the country — enthusiasts just need a spare patch of land to start kicking a ball and defending makeshift goalposts.
“The most essential form of football is the one played on the street,” said Yaqoob, who also looks after the youth teams for the Sindh Football Association.
“The children are still carrying the legacy of their ancestors. Every child here begins playing football at a very young age right in front of their house.”
Emphasising the simplicity of the game, Yaqoob said that even a century-and-a-half ago, the local fisherman community of Lyari would initially play barefoot against their masters. However, things began to change with the passage of time.
“The local players improved and often defeated the foreigners. The Britons loved the competition they were getting from the Lyariites, so they would hold more matches.
“At this point, our folk felt they needed proper shoes. One of the more skilled cobblers was then tasked with making leather shoes especially for these players.”
Yaqoob added that Lyari football boasts legends who belong to the same families.
“We have some big football-playing families here. For example, the family of Ali Nawaz Baloch [former national captain] has produced some of the best footballers for Pakistan. His uncle, Dad Muhammad, is still considered the best striker in the history of our country.”
He added that it was KPT that pioneered a separate department for footballers, and the players later secured permanent jobs.
“Football was the only way out of poverty in Lyari. Our people aren’t inclined to excel academically and getting good government jobs was a far-fetched dream. So every parent would want their child to play football and get paid for it.”
Lyari football experienced a slump after 1973. Where there were 20 departments who would hire footballers to compete in the local tournaments, today there are only six.
“It’s in fact because of Lyari’s football that all departments started the trend of making teams for other sports as well.”
Currently, there are only one or two players from the region in the national team. The official remembered that there was a time, when Lyari XI used to take down teams from Turkey, Iran or the Middle East single-handedly.
Regarding the 2014 World Cup, Yaqoob said that it was a ritual in Lyari to celebrate each and every edition of the glamorous event.
“It’s like all residents here live vicariously through these footballers; from the oldest person in the locality to the youngest.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 1st, 2014.