As the World Cup bonanza kicks off in Brazil, it’ll be watched with unusual interest by a nation on the other side of the globe that enjoys no international success whatever on the soccer field.
The 200 million or so people of Pakistan are far more celebrated for their wizardry at cricket than at soccer, but that doesn’t deter this violence-battered country from taking great pride in the fact that it manufactured the official ball for this year’s tournament.
The brightly colored “Brazuca” ball that’ll dance at the feet of the world’s multimillionaire soccer superstars in the stadia of Brazil over the coming weeks were made by women in a factory in Pakistan’s eastern town of Sialkot.
Uplifting news is in short supply in Pakistan these days. News headlines paint a picture of unremitting gloom: a Taliban assault on Karachi’s airport, a woman stoned to death in Lahore, a TV anchorman gunned down in his car, endless power outages, and stomach-churning reports of two men being jailed for making a curry out of the exhumed corpse of a baby.
For Pakistanis, winning the contract for the World Cup ball — trumping their giant neighbors and competitors, China and India — was therefore welcomed as a happy success amid a slew of bloodshed and general misery. Watching the games in Brazil, some 8,500 miles away, will also be a welcome distraction to the searing summer heat now reaching its peak in South Asia.
Pakistanis are actually much more interested in soccer than their performance on the world stage would suggest. Pakistan is 164th in the FIFA rankings — two places ahead of Montserrat, a tiny volcanic Caribbean island with a population of just more than 5,000.
This lowly ranking doesn’t stop Pakistani sports fans of dreaming of a much brighter future. This year, a group of Pakistani slum kids were sent to Brazil to take part in the Street Child World Cup. There was much delight back home when they reached the semifinals.
Ten years ago, Pakistan set up its own professional Premier League. The names of teams are not quite as alluring as those great, glamorous clubs in the English Premier League, such as Manchester United and Arsenal. And the pay packets would barely pay for Lionel Messi’s laces.
The Pakistan Premier League 2013 champions were a team call KRL — the Khan Research Laboratories, an institution named after AQ Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb who is revered here but deeply resented in the West for sharing atomic secrets with Iran.
The drearily named Karachi Electric Supply Corporation were runners-up (they seem better at soccer than at supplying power to the more than 20 million people of Karachi, who are plagued daily by long power outages), followed by the Water and Power Development Authority, aka “The Watermen.”
The rest of the 16-side league reads like an anatomy of the machinery of the Pakistan state. There are teams from the army, navy and air force, the national airline — PIA — and various government departments.
It’s a start, yet a long road lies ahead. Funds and facilities are badly lacking, and developing any sport is not easy in a country plagued by violence. National teams have been put off visiting Pakistan after militants opened fire on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in the city of Lahore in 2009.
There are, at least, some promising pockets on the landscape where enthusiasm for the great game burns brightly. The best-known of these is Lyari, an overcrowded, gang-infested and generally lawless part of the giant city of Karachi. Soccer is played in the streets and kids wander around wearing Brazil shirts.
It isn’t easy for them either.
It’ll be a long time before they forget what happened at a big soccer match last year in Lyari between two teams that were both named after the same local gangster.
The game was played at 2 o’clock in the morning, as it was Ramadan — when Muslims fast during the day — and also stiflingly hot after sunrise. The score ended up at 7-7, so there was a penalty shootout. Just as the crowd was cheering the final whistle, a bomb detonated and killed eight people, including five young sports fans.