By Umaid Wasim [Dawn]
Holger Obermann could never have imagined what ramifications his actions would’ve had.
Nine years ago, the German who is FIFA’s Overseas Development Coach came to Pakistan, launching an initiative “Don’t sew, Play”.
It was aimed at eradicating child labour from Pakistan’s football-making industries in Sialkot. And it did. But what it also did was hit the ball-making industry in Sialkot hard.
Obermann’s initiative saw them offer under-privileged children money to support their household and in return a promise that they wouldn’t work at the factories and instead attend schools and play football. It was hugely successful but the child labour allegations on the industry meant Sialkot failed to supply the official match ball for the FIFA World Cups in 2006 and 2010.
Obermann’s concern was that the money that was being paid to the children through his initiative — funded by the ILO (International Labour Organisation) — did not stop. “One can only fervently hope for the children in Sialkot that the money doesn’t dry up otherwise they will soon have to be back where the hell meets the earth,” he wrote in a column for German football magazine 11Freude in 2009.
“…And with their small fingers sew those balls that are then played with at the World Cup in South Africa by a [Lionel] Messi or a [Didier] Drogba.”
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But four years later, Pakistan supplied the official match ball for the World Cup in Brazil — the Brazuca.
This time, no children were involved in the making of the ball.
The ball — and its makers, Sialkot-based company Forward Sports — got global attention. They had managed to supply the balls, millions of them, despite having just two months to deliver.
The 78-year-old Obermann, a recipient of the German Football Ambassador award in 2013, had succeeded in his first mission.
During that visit, his mission took another turn. An earthquake in Kashmir on October 8, 2005 meant Obermann was now looking at football to help relieve the kids in the affected areas of the trauma.
“Football had to rise to the challenge,” Obermann recalls in his manuscript titled “Mein Fussball hatte Flügel” (My football had wings), excerpts of which were published in the FIFA Weekly — the online magazine of world football’s governing body — on Friday.
“FIFA and numerous national associations reacted by sending sports equipment and, even more importantly, coaching staff. People can help people.
“The focus was not on scoring or saving goals, not on technique and tactics, victories or defeats. Many kids were and remain traumatised. Sport can offer a little comfort, and restore the joy of living to young people — one small step at a time.”
But it was a step Obermann kept retracing. He returned to Pakistan in 2006, this time to see how the project he’d set up in the quake-affected region had progressed. “The reason I kept coming back was the kids,” he noted.
“It was the early days of winter. Balls and football boots were less in demand on this occasion but still the kids joined in, playing to forget on rock-hard ground.”
“Feeling the freedom, they ran, fought, won, lost and won again. When a goal was scored their sorrows disappeared for a very short moment. This was the game at its most beautiful.”
Obermann came at a time when Pakistan had just won football gold at the South Asian Games in Colombo.
He was making football a way of life for the people in the country — the only way Pakistan can progress as a footballing nation.
Pakistan are currently 165th in the FIFA rankings. It’s the same as it was in 2008 — when Obermann last visited the country.
Then he visited Karachi to take a look at the construction of the PFF Academy for which FIFA paid the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) an amount of $400,000.
That facility is expected to be opened later this year. It is one of eight FIFA goal projects secured by PFF president Faisal Saleh Hayat for the country.
In a highly politicised FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Pakistan probably needs a man like Hayat. A politician himself, he enjoys close links with FIFA president Sepp Blatter and AFC chief Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim A l Khalifa and knows the intricacies of what go behind the closed doors of world football’s governing body.
Members of the AFC ask him for advice and commit football friendlies on his face value. “It is very important to have good contacts because most decisions are taken on PR,” Hayat told Dawn on the sidelines of the FIFA Congress in Sao Paulo in June. “A good rapport always helps in securing what’s best for the country’s football.”
And there is no lack of talent or interest as well.
Such was the impact of this year’s World Cup that the politically-charged Lyari area of Karachi came to a standstill to witness the event in Brazil.
Football is coming close to challenging cricket in terms of popularity. “I’ve never been to Pakistan but I know for a fact and have heard that there is great following for the game back there,” legendary English commentator Martin Tyler told Dawn in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup.
“There are many Pakistani-origin British footballers who I’ve seen and they are very good like Zesh Rehman and [West Bromwich Albion’s] Adil Nabi.
“So once the culture of football develops, I think Pakistan can hope to raise a very competitive team in the future.”
But what Pakistan needs is a fast-track programme which accelerates the growth of its players, technical knowledge of its coaches and the level of competitiveness of the game in the country. Along with that, there has to be a short-term programme aimed at improving results of the national team at international level.
With Hayat’s connections bringing in the funds, PFF could do with a technical director — probably of Obermann’s calibre — to oversee those plans. On his last trip, he said the country’s youngsters had “the potential to become world-class footballers” and “needed proper guidance and attention”.
Currently, Pakistan’s Bahraini head-coach Mohammad Al Shamlan is serving as the PFF’s Technical Director in a dual role that has been of very little benefit to football in the country.
Obermann’s intervention, in a way, saw Pakistan return to the World Cup this year in shape of the official match ball. Another move by him might see the national team qualify for the World Cup.