by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: Footballers such as HBL’s Amjad Yousuf and Sajid Hussain and Pakistan Steel Mills’ Abrar Ahmed were once proud of the magic their legs could conjure up on the field. Now, faceless victims of a power struggle in which they had neither stake nor claim, these men use the same legs for menial labour.
The closing of HBL’s and Pakistan Steel Mills’ football departments this month provides a glimpse into the life of a footballer in the country, where the passion to play football and the financial needs off the field often clash. And with mouths to feed and bills to pay, it is often the latter that comes out on top.
Two months ago, Yousuf was a Pakistan Premier Football League player, and with five international caps to his name, a renowned one as well. But 2016 was not to be a good year for him, and when HBL shut down its department, Yousuf found himself out of a job. For his 14 years of service to the club, he was given Rs400, 000. Driven out of the football field, Yousuf had to take to the road — quite literally. He now drives a rickshaw through the streets of Karachi.
“Sometimes tears roll down my eyes, when I look back at the past. This is not what I thought I would have to do,” Yousuf told The Express Tribune. “I was a footballer. Saying this in the past-tense hurts me every time I do so. For 14 years I served HBL and they just handed me some money and told me it’s all over.”
Yousuf found himself without a job and no real-world skills to speak of. “Football is all I know. I have to support my family, so I bought this rickshaw, which I use to earn my monthly income. It hurts, because two months ago it was a different life altogether. I feel useless now.”
Yousuf was mostly popular among fans for his post-goal antics, where he would incorporate his gymnastics tricks to amuse spectators.
The 35-year-old was also a keen gymnast from an early age, but chose to pursue a career in football.
“I was always athletic so I really didn’t pay much attention to my studies,” he said. “I’ve played in different departments before joining HBL too, but I was young back then. My father was a footballer for KPT, so he supported me, even financially. But now it’s a dead end — I’m a footballer with a rickshaw,” said Yousuf.
All the more galling for the midfielder is that he sees no return to the field for himself. “When my fans — the people who recognise me — tell me to try and come back to football, my heart grows heavy. I tell them, should I play football or feed my family.”
He finds it difficult to juggle training with driving a rickshaw but he knows he needs to remain in peak physical condition in case a football department does come calling.
“I played with the national side in 1999 and in 2003,” he said. “I saw some of the best in football when we used to tour abroad. Now my fate is sealed to the streets of Lyari or wherever my rickshaw passengers want me to go.”
He is understandably desperate to return to the football field, saying he would gladly accept even Rs5,000 per month if a club or department comes calling.
Yousuf’s teammates face similar strife, with fate being even harsher on Sajid Hussain.
The 28-year-old goalkeeper spent his Rs400,000 for the medical treatment of his father and younger sister; both of whom passed away last month.
“For me it’s all a blur and I really feel like I have to start all over again,” said Hussain. “Now my sister and father are not here. All I am left with is football, but even that seems to have forsaken me. I’ve started to train again, because I know nothing else, I’ve got nothing else.”
Sajid, being a man of faith, said he tries to stay hopeful and plans to start looking for a job soon. “I’ve been through a lot; I’m just training for now. I feel it will take me some time to get back on track,” he said.
Things weren’t too rosy even when they did have a contract, getting a mere Rs16,000 per month when they were playing for HBL, but at least it was a steady income and they were doing what they loved. Now, even that has been taken away.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Steel Mills defender Abrar Ahmed fears a similar future for himself and his teammates. Ahmed and 25 other footballers in Steel Mills have been told to perform duties at an empty plant.
Ahmed said that the team was eager to play at the Rangers All-Pakistan Aman Tournament this month before the management took the decision to dissolve the sports department entirely, taking away their one last chance to prove themselves.
“We haven’t touched a football in almost three weeks,” he said. “Now we’ll be working as labourers at the plant, but the plant is shut, and we don’t’ know what to do. At least we have permanent jobs so that helps, but it kills the footballer in us.”
Pakistan Premier Football League — a gimmick
While a domestic football league is expected to improve the sport at the grass-roots level and allow budding footballers to be encouraged to take the sport as a career, the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) has done none of that.
In fact, the only reason why the league or other tournaments take place is so that the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials can please FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, otherwise the PFF would not receive funds that FIFA has allocated for the development and promotion of football.
HBL coach Yousaf Khan, who is awaiting his transfer to another department at the bank, agrees with the aforementioned view and further points out that despite the PPFL having been active since more than a decade, it has failed to establish a professional, self-sustaining set-up for the development of the sport.
“They [PFF] never marketed the league properly. We still see loopholes in the system, like there is no proper club structure or development at the grass-roots level,” he said. “Departments can certainly give jobs, but cannot develop a system to promote football. We need academies and a proper structure to promote the sport and the current PFF management is not doing it.”