The legendary ‘70s Liverpool FC football coach Bill Shankly famously said about the beautiful game, ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ I was reminded of this quote and the spirit behind it during a current visit to Rio de Janeiro, where I had the unbridled, fortuitous joy of watching nine boys in green shirts kick a ball up and down a Brazilian football pitch as if their very lives depended on it. The occasion was the Street Child World Cup 2014 and the boys were Team Pakistan.
The tournament’s inaugural edition took place in Durban, South Africa in 2010. For its second outing The Street Child World Cup arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – the spiritual home of football. Two months ahead of this nation hosting the biggest sporting event on the planet, the FIFA 2014 World Cup, this ten-day event may have been microscopic in scale against that looming juggernaut, but from what I witnessed at finals day at the Fluminense stadium, the passion, humanity and heart on display was without parallel. There were fifteen boys’ teams and nine girls’ sides participating from countries as diverse as Liberia, El Salvador and Egypt. Then, of course, there were the Pakistanis.
[quote]In front of a wildly supportive crowd of non-Pakistanis, Sameer and his boys fought hard against the US[/quote]
We had a squad of teenage boys of various ages from Karachi and Quetta, united purely by their love of the game and the fact that they had all been handed the wrong cards in life. Team Pakistan captain and goalkeeper Sameer Ahmed was their leader. Not just in name or by appointment, but through damned sheer example. At one point during Pakistan’s last match, a third/fourth place play-off against USA, I went and stood behind the Pakistan goal where Sameer had his back to me and was waving his arms and calling out to his players to push forward. Above the goal crossbar and beyond the stadium roof lay the peak of Corcovado mountain, where I caught the magnificent, iconic wonder Christ the Redeemer gazing down at the match – with his arms raised, oddly similar to the Pakistan skipper’s. I wondered who might be inspiring whom in this match.
Pakistan’s revelatory football run had begun a week earlier when they were barely out of Rio airport immigration and thrashing India 13-0. When I asked the team coach Abdul Rashid how they pulled off such an explosive opening performance, he told me that they really respected the Indian side and knew they were going to be a big challenge, so they just gave it their all. From the coach’s response, I learnt something about both pre-match mentality and also the truly delightful sporting notion of annihilating the opposition out of respect. However, Rashid was not being wry in his analysis. He was too sincere, too genuine a man to have any intention to mock the other teams. Between the captain’s positively heroic ‘do-as-I-do’ attitude and the coach’s balance and humility, I sensed there were some stars aligning in this bright picture that Pakistan’s street child football stars were painting in Rio. The team notched up more victories and enthralled crowds, volunteers and rival teams alike. Ultimately, a semi-final fixture against Burundi that was deemed the game of the tournament for its thrills, twists and turns, edged Pakistan out of the final’s reach with a 4-3 defeat. However, nobody who watched this tournament could deny that the green shirts had brought something exciting and passionate in their style and spirit towards the game and their fellow competitors.
[quote]They collectively decided that if the ambassador wanted to see them he would have to come over to their corner[/quote]
In the 3rd place play-off match and in front of a wildly supportive crowd of non-Pakistanis, Sameer and his boys fought hard against a very talented USA team. The Brazilians watching, despite generally possessing rather healthy economic and cultural ties with America, were clearly rooting for Pakistan all the way. After a full-time score of 2-2 and a badly injured goalie, Pakistan endured a very nervy penalty shoot-out for the bronze medal. It is at this moment that unwelcome, jaded memories of Pakistan’s many cricket ‘could-have-been’ moments rushed to the fore of my mind. With an injured goalkeeper and exhausted team, the nailbiting manner in which our team clinched victory was simply incredible. Sameer had already made two spectacular saves in the match and was clearly in pain. However, he found something in reserve to make a defining penalty save and score the winning goal from the penalty spot himself! The stadium erupted in cheers and the boys fell to the ground in victory. The Pakistan flag was brought out and the team carried their captain on their shoulders, partly out of admiration and partly because he could barely stand up on his own.
I realised only after the game when I spent some time with the Pakistan contingent that arguably the biggest hero in the Pakistan Street Child Football story was someone not seen on the pitch or shouting from the touch-line. Naveed Hasan Khan is the CEO of Azad Foundation, a social welfare organization focused on supporting and rehabilitating homeless and deprived children on the streets of Karachi. The idea to enter a team from Pakistan for the first time into the Street Child World Cup was Naveed Khan’s crazy dream. He recounted to me the year-long struggle to gain support from both national and international partners to select, train and fund a team. I found it telling that there was a woeful lack of governmental support during this development year whilst agencies such as Unicef and the British Council managed to muster some assistance for the foundation. Naveed praised Muslim Hands UK, a charity striving to alleviate poverty in over fifty countries, for their critically important sponsorship of the team. Listening to Naveed, the question of legacy was at the forefront of my mind and it was thus heartening to hear that an MoU had been agreed between Azad Foundation and Muslim Hands UK to continue supporting the Pakistan Street Child Football Team.
The most heart-wrenching moment whilst listening to Naveed Khan’s testimony of struggle was when he described to me how difficult it was to secure identity documents for the boys, some of whom had parents who had yet to be registered and issued with ID cards. This was truly an existential struggle for the street children and Naveed, who related his mission of securing identity for his boys to the tournament’s moving theme song, ‘I Am Somebody’.
Since the team beat India and started gaining press coverage back home, Naveed told me that after months of indifference, Pakistani ministers and governors had now started calling him out of the blue. He sounded notes of caution about such mixed blessings and we mused over how such transient interest could be converted into sustainable progress for his incredibly important mission.
I looked down at the beautiful medal ceremony being laid on at the Fluminense stadium from the stands with Naveed. Having heard the story firsthand, I confessed to him that I couldn’t believe what had actually happened here in Rio. He silently agreed with a nod.
As the team cooled down and prepared to receive their medals, we heard that a conspicuously absent Pakistani ambassador had just entered the stadium. He was milling about in the VIP area and expressed a desire to see the Pakistan team. It was here that Team Pakistan scored yet one more goal. As they sat together united in a far flung corner of the stadium, they collectively decided that if the ambassador wanted to see them, then he would have to come over to their corner, rather than have them awkwardly stumble across to meet someone who couldn’t even make it to see them play. It was a quietly defiant expression of self-empowerment that made complete sense. They were now used to overcoming obstacles with a mix of determination and respect. Today, they were indeed, somebody.
As Pakistan’s perpetually underperforming cricket egos crashed out of the World T20, another group of raw and passionate players raised the bar of Pakistani pride and achievement. I only wish Pakistanis back home could have had the same privilege I had in witnessing something truly special from Team Pakistan in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Perhaps it is now up to us to achieve the next goal.
Hammad Khan is an independent filmmaker. He is on Twitter @HammadKhanFilm