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From gang wars and drug lords to soccer fields

Doha, Qatar – Karachi United footballer Sanjar Kadir receives a pass from the captain and races towards goal with the ball.

It’s the dying moment of the match. The score is now 0-0. If Qadir scores, not only will his team win the game, but it will cap off a memorable trip to Qatar.

Qadir slides the ball into the back of the net to score. He was brimming with joy as his teammates swooped across the pitch before cheering in unison to make the most of the last few minutes on the pristine green pitch of his academy in the capital, Doha. , hit him.

Qadir was part of the Karachi United (KU) squad from Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, for a friendly against Aspire Academy.

“These pitches are very smooth and well-maintained. When you pass the ball, it actually slides sideways,” 11-year-old Qadir told Al Jazeera after a hard-fought victory.

KU’s visiting team, consisting of U-11 and U-12 teams, will play three games each, train at the academy’s facilities, watch matches in local soccer leagues, and share hopes for the sport’s future. I returned home with a full heart.

Karachi United’s Sanjar Qadir had a big smile on his face after scoring the winning goal for his side [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Qadir grew up playing football on the streets and dusty fields of Karachi’s Marir district.

“When I was playing in my neighborhood, I missed a lot of goals because the ball hit a hole or hit rocks scattered on the ground,” he explained.

Following in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandski and Karim Benzema, his dream of becoming a professional footballer seemed close to becoming a reality when he was selected for KU’s youth program in January. said it looked like

In just three months, he is already reaping the rewards of being associated with one of Pakistan’s most populous city’s leading professional football clubs.

“Before KU, no one respected my dream of becoming a footballer. Now, my parents encourage me and respect my football.” he said.

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Karachi United head coach Sheikh Hamdan briefed the under-12 side during their final match against Aspire Academy in Doha. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

From Weekend Club to Football Academy

KU was founded as a club in 1996 by a group of three “weekend footballers”. It is now growing into the center of football development in Karachi.

“We have a very strong community program supported by 11 community centers in the city,” club director Taha Alizai told Al Jazeera.

The club works with local coaches to find, train, and draft young footballers into their youth teams.

“Football is the main criterion for selection, but given the opportunity, we try to see which players can benefit from our development system and contribute to society,” Alizai said.

Complimentary coaching, kit and transportation will be provided for athletes who travel from remote areas to train three times a week.

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Karachi United select players from disadvantaged areas to train in youth academy [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Football Behind Gang Wars and Substance Abuse

Most of KU’s community centers operate in low-income areas of Karachi.

Two of these, Lyari and Malir, have a long history of producing footballers for decades despite being plagued with violence and crime.

Until 10 years ago, Lyari was synonymous with gang warfare Substance abuse is also rampant, with criminal gangs, dakoots, and drug lords holding local residents hostage, with frequent shootouts and shutdown calls.

The famous Kakuri Grounds, where barefoot boys fleeing violence came to play football, had been turned into a criminal hideout and corpse dump.

“Drivers hired to bring boys for training can refuse to go to Llyari because they are sent back from the suburbs or risk ending up in the middle of a shootout. There was,” said Alizai. Worst year of violence in Lyary.

“Our entire system operates out of these inner-city community centers. When gang warfare disrupted regular coaching and training schedules, we robbed these kids of their opportunities. . play soccer Get away from violence and ensure your mental peace and physical safety. “

In April 2012, a month-long police operation led to aspects of peace within the area.

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Karachi United’s U-11 and U-12 teams travel to Qatar for a friendly against Aspire Academy [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Since then, the club’s access to Lyari and other areas affected by violence has become easier, but players may still have to shield themselves from the lure of drug dealers and political confrontations.

According to KU head coach Shaikh Hamdan, there are some instances where clubs have had to go above and beyond to save a player’s life.

“One of the academy players from Lyari shared an apartment with a drug dealer. says Hamdan.

The 11-year-old was living with a single mother who was struggling to make ends meet, making him an easy target for drug dealers to recruit vulnerable boys.

“We intervened and moved both of them to safer places before the boy fell into a trap and became a drug supplier and an addict,” Hamdan recalled.

chase your dreams

Twenty-two of the 26 boys who were part of the team that toured Qatar were from Laryr and Marir.

The trip gave them the opportunity to train in well-equipped facilities and play on world-class pitches. Playing against an international sports academy team has been a dream come true for some players who struggle to eat his three nutritious meals a day.

For some, including 11-year-old Shams-ul-Omar, the first flight was the highlight of the trip. Omar lives in He Malir, a district to the west of Karachi, and plays as a fullback for the under-12 team.

Covering goals with timely tackles and sprints despite his diminutive stature, this spirited defender was vital to his team’s victory in the previous game.

Karachi United Youth Team
Shams-ul-Omar (r) plays as a full-back for Karachi United’s under-12 team. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Omar’s unemployed father supports his son’s ambitions despite the family’s financial difficulties.

“My father took me to the Marill Center [local football club] I was able to play without any confusion,” he said.

Kylian Mbappe fan Omar said he cried himself to sleep after France’s defeat to Argentina in the World Cup 2022 final last year.

Despite his heartbreak, he wants to “work as hard as Mbappe” and become a professional soccer player.

“I only know soccer, so if I can’t do it, I can’t help it.” [as a footballer]”

“Football is about inclusivity”

Alizai said the club is trying to ensure that all youth team members attend school and have three nutritious meals a day.

In a country like Pakistan where cricket is thriving, football and all other sports are secondary in terms of popularity and future prospects.

Under-11 team forward Anas Ahmed has been playing soccer since he was four years old.

“Most of the boys in my neighborhood played cricket, but football was on my mind,” he said. But I am very happy to be selected for this tour and now I have scored a goal for the team.”

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Despite their diverse backgrounds, the boys have developed a close bond by playing football together. [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Of the 50 boys enrolled in the club’s academy, 45 belong to low-income families living in areas consumed by violence and struggling to access basic facilities.

The other five come from wealthy families and live in the trendiest parts of the city.

Players blend in seamlessly and form a close bond, despite their vast differences in lifestyle.

“Football has always been about inclusivity and bringing people together,” said Alizai, who has run the club for 27 years.

Hours before the final game of the tour, boys from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different parts of the city were relaxing in Aspire Academy’s luxurious dorms. After a round of snooker, jokes and high fives, they got together and sang Lyari’s impromptu football-inspired rap of his song.

“There’s a match in Lyari – come on, come on
Brazil is playing – come on, come on
Neymar scored a goal, a goal
Lyari is playing dhol, dhol (drums).

The stage is Qatar,
let’s see who will be first
(We) must be far away from the Keeper’s (reach)
And play like (Lionel) Messi.”

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