by Shazia Hasan
LYARI has always been known as the hub of football in Pakistan, where around the time of the Fifa World Cup people go slightly crazy flying flags of their favourite teams and putting up big screens to watch the matches live in every ground and neighbourhood along with rented generators. But there is also another part of Karachi that is also as madly involved with football as, if not more than, Lyari.
On the eve of the Fifa World Cup in Russia, even though the opening match is between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, little kids are being handed small green Brazil flags from the window of a little shack in Malir’s Siddiq Goth. With those flags, they run around gleefully until Mohammad Sharif, better known as ‘Mama Brazil’, emerges from the shack to sit with them and tell them the story of Brazil and some of its top players.
This man, who sells pakoray or fritters from his little shack and who can’t even afford a cell phone, has managed to save enough to get a Panaflex poster of his favourite Brazilian players — Pelé, Ronaldinho, Neymar Jr, etc — printed and framed. From whatever little money he can spare from his meagre income, he buys football memorabilia or souvenirs. There are flags, jerseys, scarves and socks of football-playing countries and popular clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, etc, that he bought from Lunda Bazaar, Sunday Bazaar, Lighthouse and Shershah.
“The little things such as flags I give away for free to the children coming to my shop to buy pakoray ,” he says, “And the other stuff that I collect, I resell.”
The walls in the Goth have pictures of Neymar Jr, Messi, etc on them. There are also flags drawn on one wall to show which country is playing in which group. Against these walls there are the neighbourhood children playing football, some with a real football and others with a very bouncy volleyball. On noticing Mama Brazil free, they gather around the benches near the Gul Baloch Football Club headquarters to listen to him tell them about another player from his favourite team.
“Today, I’ll tell you a story of a 13-year-old boy who was picked by Gul Balochistan, this very football club you now know by the name of Gul Baloch FC,” he says, looking up at the club building. The children follow his gaze and start cheering and clapping.
“The boy loved football but he was also very poor and his parents looked to him as someone who could supplement the family income rather than play football. So when he was not playing, he was going around with a bucket and a cloth and washing cars,” he says.
“Then when he was slightly older, he learned to drive and got a job as a driver. Doing even better than just driving people’s cars, he started driving trucks. He became a goods truck driver. He drove all day long and at night, too, carrying goods from Quetta to Peshawar in his truck. He did this for 35 years. But then his eyesight was affected, and he couldn’t drive anymore,” he continues.
“Then all he was good for was frying pakoray to make a living. And that is what he has been doing for 20 years now,” he finishes his story. His audience is suddenly very quiet. The children are suddenly thoughtful. They realise who he is talking about.
“What about your football?” a little girl in a white Germany shirt asks.
“It’s still here,” he says, pointing to his chest, “and here,” he says again, gesturing to the pictures and posters around him. “It is also in you,” he says, pointing to the children still holding the little flags and everyone sporting his or her favourite team’s jersey.
“Whatever team you back, it makes me happy to see your enthusiasm. Because it is this appreciation for the game that has kept football alive in our country even though Pakistan’s national football team is ranked 201 in the world,” he says.
“Our junior teams, especially our under-16 team, have done much better though. But then responsibilities mount in the face of poverty and those players burn out before they reach their 20s. You may be a good footballer but if there is no appreciation for your talent you don’t last long. I was not born in Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Belgium or France. I was born in Pakistan, where football greats are born all the time and they die all the time without anyone ever getting to know about them,” finishes Mama Brazil, his eyes brimming.