by Tusdiq Din
In bright winter sunshine, young trainees are focused on football drills.
From the sidelines, Spanish coaches encourage them. Shouts of “bueno” (good) and “mas” (more) can be heard.
But this football academy – established as part of a landmark agreement with Atletico Madrid – is more than 4,000 miles away from Spain, in Lahore, Pakistan.
Hammad Zia, a 12-year-old forward with raw talent and an eye for goal, is among those taking part. Two years ago he was the first child enrolled at the academy.
Among the other young trainees are Subhan, a 16-year-old left-winger, 15-year-old forward Waris, and 10-year-old midfielder Fizza, who is one of the best girl trainees at the academy.
So why have the 10-time Spanish champions become the first La Liga club to open an academy in Pakistan?
The story of Hammad – and his friends – offers some answers.
Hammad, who admires Lionel Messi and Paul Pogba, is so impressed with his training that when he returns home he shares his new skills with his four-year-old brother Luqman.
“It’s going very well. I play as a forward and my training is going very well. We’re learning basic skills – they’re teaching it all,” he says.
Looking on with pride is his father Zia Ur-Rehman. A Lahore policeman, he recognised his son’s talent early on.
“When I was a child, I wanted to be a footballer, but there was no support from my parents,” he says.
“That passion I had remained inside me; it didn’t die. When my son was born, that footballing desire returned for him.
“I initially took him for swimming lessons, thinking he might turn out to be the next Michael Phelps, but after a couple of visits, I saw that he didn’t enjoy it.
“He had already been playing at a club, and a coach saw him and asked ‘Why don’t you enrol him at a coaching school? We won’t make him a footballer – he is one already!'”
Thus Hammad became the first pupil enrolled at Lahore’s Summatus Sports Academy, which will be officially rebranded as the Atletico De Madrid Academia in January.
“From birth, I have one kidney,” says his father. “I can be up and down because of this, but Hammad’s football gives me great joy.
“Our wish is that Hammad gets selected to play in Spain and also represents Pakistan.”
Atletico aim to have players in Pakistan’s national youth teams in three to five years, and also hope to have Pakistani players playing for them one day.
The initiative was dreamt up by Lahore businessmen Muhammad Atta Tanseer and his cousin Omer Sheikh, both passionate football fans who wanted to raise the level of footballing talent in Pakistan and the profile of the game in the country.
They made initial overtures to Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid, but the plan never got off the ground, and they say they were even “laughed out of meetings” – although they were shown around the club to meet then head coach Zinedine Zidane and his players.
At Atletico they also faced initial scepticism, but over several visits to the country Atletico were impressed with what they saw.
Atta Tanseer and Sheikh’s Summatus Sports firm, which already has over 100 children in its training system, would be the parent company, with everything else branded in the Atletico name. Academies in Islamabad and Karachi are expected to follow.
“My greater goal is to restructure football in Pakistan from grassroots level,” said Atta Tanseer.
“The road ahead is neither easy nor short, but it is one I am wildly optimistic about. We are merely starting to scratch the surface of infinite talent that remains to be discovered.”
In addition to their brand, the Spanish club provide coaches – Daniel Limones and Javier Visea have been living in Lahore since September.
Their days consist of training newly recruited Pakistani coaches and attending local schools for talent spotting sessions, then coaching the children in the afternoons.
“We had a different view when we were in Spain to that we now have living here. Everything is different – the pace of life, the religion, the things they are focused on are different,” said Limones.
“But it’s a country with a lot of opportunities, and the people here are really kind, really helpful. They really want to grow, they want to learn, so our experience here has been really nice.”
One of the first Pakistani coaches selected by Limones and Visea was 25-year-old sports instructor Wasim Sajjad.
He comes from Gojjal, in Hunza Valley, Gilgit Baltistan, near Pakistan’s Chinese border. Although he studied civil engineering, football is his passion. When he heard of the Atletico project, he set off on a 500-mile journey to Lahore for trials.
“I feel happy when I am involved in football. I strongly believe this opportunity will help me stabilise my career in football and also help me and my family financially,” he said.
But beyond access to an untapped supply of young footballers, what’s in it for Atletico?
In a market where Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate viewing figures, getting their club seen in south Asia is a big incentive.
Facebook recently bought the rights to show all 380 La Liga matches free to air to users in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – a potential audience of 348 million users.
“Asia is crazy about football and the markets are becoming increasingly attractive for our clubs – the interest for La Liga is increasing a lot,” said Jose Antonio Cachaza, La Liga’s manager in India.
“Hopefully in the near future we’ll have an Indian or Pakistani player starting for one of our clubs.”
In the meantime, the cultural exchange is already under way.
“We are trying to learn Urdu and the kids are trying to learn Spanish,” said Limones.
“We have some kids in the school programme who are very interested in learning Spanish – they are learning some words slowly. I can say ‘Kya Haal Hai?’ (How are you?) It’s Urdu for dummies, but we are trying.”