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From gang wars and drug lords to football fields

Doha, Qatar – Karachi United’s footballer Sanjar Qadir receives a pass from his captain and runs towards goal with the ball.

It’s the last moments of the game. The score is equal 0-0. If Qadir scores, it would not only win the game for his team, but also complete 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 field, harassing him before diving in unison in a burst of joy and making the most of their last few minutes on the pristine green fields of Aspire Academy in the capital Doha.

Qadir was part of the Karachi United (KU) team that traveled from Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi – its largest metropolis – for a friendly tournament against Aspire Academy.

“These fields are so smooth and well cared for. When we pass the ball, it actually slides over it,” a beaming 11-year-old Qadir told Al Jazeera after the hard-fought victory.

KU’s visiting team consisted of under-11 and under-12 teams who played three games each, trained in the Academy’s facilities, watched a game in the local football league, and returned home with their hearts filled with hope for a future in the sport.

Sanjar Qadir of Karachi United was all smiles after scoring the winning goal for his team (Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera)

Qadir grew up playing football on the streets and on a dusty field in the Malir district of Karachi.

“When I played in my neighborhood I missed so many goals because the ball bounced over holes and stones on the ground,” he explains.

Growing up with Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandoski and Karim Benzema, he said his dreams of becoming a professional footballer almost seemed to come true when he was selected for KU’s youth program in January.

Barely three months later, he is already reaping the benefits of his partnership with one of the leading professional football clubs in Pakistan’s most populous city.

“Before I came to KU, nobody respected my dreams of becoming a football player. Now my parents are encouraging me and my football is respected,” he said.

Karachi United
Karachi United head coach Shaikh Hamdan briefs the under-12 team 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’. Now it has become a hub of football development in Karachi.

“We have a very strong community program supported by 11 community centers across the city,” explained Taha Alizai, the club’s director, to Al Jazeera.

The club works with local coaches to source, train and field young footballers for the youth teams.

“Although football is the main selection criterion, we also try to see which players would benefit from our development system and contribute to society if given the opportunity,” said Alizai.

The players receive free coaching, uniforms and transport when they come from distant areas to train three times a week.

Karachi United
Karachi United selects players from disadvantaged areas and trains them in the youth academy (Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera)

Football in the shadow of gang wars, drug abuse

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

Two of them – Lyari and Malir – have a long history of producing footballers over decades, despite being plagued by violence and crime.

Until 10 years ago, Lyari was synonymous with gang warfare and rampant drug abuse as criminal gangs, outlaws and drug lords held the locals hostage with regular gunfights and closure calls.

The famous Kakri Ground, where barefoot boys seeking respite from the violence turned up to play football, had turned into a hideout for criminals and a dumping ground for bodies.

“Sometimes the drivers we hired to take the boys to training refused to go to Lyari because they would be sent back from the suburbs or risk being caught in the middle of a firefight,” Alizai said, referring to the worst years of violence in Lyari.

“Our entire system runs at community centers in these inner-city areas, and when gang warfare disrupted regular coaching and training schedules, these kids were deprived of the opportunity to play football and be away from the violence, have some mental peace and physical security. .”

In April 2012, a month-long police operation helped restore semblance of peace to the area.

Karachi United
Karachi United’s under-11 and under-12 sides visited Qatar for a friendly against Aspire Academy (Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera)

Since then, the club’s access to Lyari and other violence-affected areas has become easier, but at times the club must protect its players from the lure of drug dealers and political rivalries.

According to Shaikh Hamdan, the head coach of KU, there have been several instances where the club had to go to great lengths to save a player’s life.

“One of our academy players from Lyari shared an apartment with a drug dealer, who we suspected would lure the boy into his business with the lure of easy money,” said Hamdan.

The 11-year-old lived with his single mother who was struggling to make ends meet, making him an easy target for drug dealers who recruit unsuspecting young boys.

“We stepped in and moved them both to a safer place before the boy could fall into a trap and become a drug purveyor and possibly an addict himself,” recalls Hamdan.

Chasing dreams

Twenty-two of the 26 boys who were part of the squads touring Qatar were from Lyari and Malir.

The trip gave them the chance to train in fully equipped facilities and play on world-class pitches. Competing against teams from an international sports academy has been a far-fetched dream for some players who struggle to eat three nutritious meals a day.

For some, including 11-year-old Shams-ul-Omar, traveling by plane for the first time was the highlight of the trip. Omar lives in Malir, a district in western Karachi, and plays as a full-back in the under-12 team.

With his timely tackles and sprints to cover the goal despite his small frame, the feisty defender was crucial to his team’s victory in the final game.

Karachi United youth team
Shams-ul-Omar (r) plays as a fullback in the under-12 team of Karachi United (Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera)

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

“My father took me to Malir Center (local football club) so that I could play undisturbed,” he said.

Omar, a Kylian Mbappé fan, said he cried himself to sleep after France lost the 2022 World Cup final to Argentina last year.

Despite the heartbreak, he wants to “work hard like Mbappé” and become a professional footballer.

“Football is all I know, so I don’t know what I will do if I (as a footballer) can’t make it.”

‘Football is about inclusiveness’

According to Alizai, the club tries to ensure that all members of the youth teams go to school and eat three nutritious meals a day.

In a cricket-crazy country like Pakistan, football and all other sports are second in terms of popularity and prospects for the future.

Anas Ahmed, a striker for the under-11 team, has been playing football since he was four.

“Most of the boys in my neighborhood played cricket, but football was in my heart,” he said. “I’ve only been with KU for two months, but I’m so good that I got selected for this tour and now I’ve scored a goal for my team.”

Karachi United
Despite their diverse backgrounds, the boys have formed a close bond playing football together (Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera)

Of the 50 boys enrolled in the club’s academy, 45 belong to low-income families in areas ravaged by violence and struggles for access to basic services.

The other five come from privileged families and live in upmarket areas of the city.

Despite the big difference in lifestyle, the players interact seamlessly and form a close bond.

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

Hours before their last match on the tour, the boys from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different parts of the city relaxed in the luxurious dormitories of Aspire Academy. After a round of snooker, jokes and high-fives, they got together for an impromptu football-inspired rap song by Lyari:

‘There’s a competition in Lyari – come, come
Brazil is playing – come, come
Neymar scored a goal, a goal
Lyari beats dhol, dhol (drums)

The stage is set in Qatar,
Let’s see who will be first
(We) have to go far from the keeper’s (range).
And play just like (Lionel) Messi does”.