Doha, Qatar – Karachi United’s footballer Sanjar Qadir gets a pass from his captain and races towards the goal with the ball.
It is the dying moments of the match. The score is tied 0-0. If Qadir scores, it would not only win his team the match but also round off a memorable trip to Qatar.
Qadir slides the ball into the back of the net and scores. He celebrates, and with that, his teammates run across the pitch, mobbing him before diving in unison in an outpouring of joy and to make the most of their last few minutes on the pristine green pitches of Aspire Academy in the capital, Doha.
Qadir was part of the Karachi United (KU) squad that travelled from Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi – its largest metropolis – for a friendly tournament against Aspire Academy.
“These pitches are so smooth and well looked after. When we pass the ball, it actually glides across,” a beaming 11-year-old Qadir told Al Jazeera after the hard-fought win.
KU’s visiting squad comprised of under-11 and under-12 teams that played three matches each, trained at the Academy’s facilities, watched a match in the local football league, and returned home with their hearts filled with hope for a future in the sport.
Qadir grew up playing football on the streets and a dusty field in Karachi’s Malir district.
“When I played in my neighbourhood, I missed out on so many goals because the ball would bump over holes and rocks littered across the ground,” he explained.
He grew up following Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandoski, and Karim Benzema, and said his dreams of turning into a professional footballer seemed close to reality when he was selected in KU’s youth programme this January.
Barely three months in, he is already reaping the rewards of being associated with one of the leading professional football clubs in Pakistan’s most populous city.
“Before I joined KU, nobody respected my dreams of becoming a footballer. Now, my parents encourage me and my football is respected,” he said.
From weekend club to football academy
KU was established as a club in 1996 by a group of three “weekend footballers”. Now, it has grown into a hub of football development in Karachi.
“We have a very strong community programme that is backed by 11 community centres across the city,” Taha Alizai, the club’s director, explained to Al Jazeera.
The club works with local coaches to find young footballers, train them, and draft them into the youth teams.
“While football is the primary criteria for selection, we also try to see which players would benefit from our development system and contribute to society if given a chance,” Alizai said.
The players are provided free coaching, kits and transport when they travel from far-off areas three times a week for training.
Football in the shadow of gang wars, drug abuse
Most of KU’s community centres operate out of low-income areas of Karachi.
Two of these – Lyari and Malir – have a long history of producing footballers over decades despite being beset with violence and crime.
Up until 10 years ago, Lyari was synonymous with gang wars and rampant drug abuse as criminal gangs, dacoits and drug lords held locals hostage with frequent shootouts and shutdown calls.
The famous Kakri Ground, where barefoot boys seeking respite from the violence would turn up to play football, had turned into a hideout for criminals and a dumping ground for bodies.
“At times, the drivers we had hired to bring the boys for training would refuse to go to Lyari because they would be sent back from the outskirts, or would risk ending up in the midst of a gun battle,” said Alizai, referring to the worst years of violence in Lyari.
“Our entire system runs on community centres in these inner city areas, and when gang wars disrupted regular coaching and training schedules, it took away an opportunity for these kids to play football and be removed from the violence, have some mental peace and physical safety.”
In April 2012, a monthlong police operation helped restore a semblance of peace in the area.
Since then, the club’s access to Lyari and other violence-hit areas has become easier but there are times when it has to protect its players from the lure of drug dealers and political rivalries.
According to Shaikh Hamdan, KU’s head coach, there have been several instances where the club has had to go above and beyond to save a player’s life.
“One of our academy players from Lyari shared an apartment with a drug dealer, whom we suspected would lure the boy into his business with the bait of easy money,” said Hamdan.
The 11-year-old lived with his single mother who struggled to make ends meet, making him an easy target for drug dealers who recruit unsuspecting young boys.
“We stepped in and moved both of them into a safer place before the boy could fall into a trap and become a drug supplier, and possibly an addict himself,” Hamdan recalled.
Twenty-two of the 26 boys who were part of the squads that toured Qatar were from Lyari and Malir.
The trip gave them an opportunity to train at fully equipped facilities and play on world-class pitches. Taking on teams from an international sport academy was a far-fetched dream for some of the players who struggle to eat three nutritious meals a day.
For some, including 11-year-old Shams-ul-Omar, travelling on a plane for the first time was the highlight of the trip. Omar lives in Malir, a district in Karachi’s west, and plays as a fullback in the under-12 team.
With his timely tackles and sprints back to cover the goal despite his diminutive frame, the feisty defender was critical to his team’s win in the last match.
Omar’s unemployed father is supportive of his son’s ambitions despite the family’s financial struggles.
“My father took me to Malir Centre [local football club] so I could play without any disruptions,” he said.
A Kylian Mbappe fan, Omar said he cried himself to sleep after France lost the World Cup 2022 final last year to Argentina.
Despite the heartbreak, he wants to “work hard like Mbappe” and become a professional footballer.
“Football is all I know, so I don’t know what I will do if I can’t make it [as a footballer].”
‘Football is about inclusivity’
According to Alizai, the club tries to ensure that all members of the youth teams are enrolled in school and eat three nutritious meals a day.
In a cricket-mad country like Pakistan, football and all other sports take a back seat in terms of popularity and prospects for the future.
Anas Ahmed, a forward for the under-11 team, has been playing football since he was four.
“Most of the boys in my neighbourhood played cricket, but football was in my heart,” he said. “I have only been at KU for two months but I am so good that I was selected for this tour, and now I have scored a goal for my team.”
Out of the 50 boys registered at the club’s academy, 45 belong to low-income families based in areas consumed by violence and struggle for access to basic amenities.
The other five come from privileged families and live in posher areas of the city.
Despite the stark difference in their lifestyles, the players blend in seamlessly and form a close bond.
“Football has always been about inclusivity and bringing people together,” Alizai, who has been running the club for 27 years, said.
Hours before their last match on the tour, the boys from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and different parts of the city relaxed in the luxurious dormitories at Aspire Academy. After a round of snooker, jokes and high-fives, they came together for an impromptu football-inspired rap song from Lyari:
“There’s a match in Lyari – come, come
Brazil is playing – come, come
Neymar has scored a goal, goal
Lyari is beating dhol, dhol (drums)
The stage will be set in Qatar,
Let us see, who will be first
(We) have to go far from the keeper’s (reach)
And play just like (Lionel) Messi does”.