KARACHI: Just a week ago, millions of Pakistanis came out of the cricket fever with their team standing second in the Twenty20 World Cup held in Australia. Now, sports fans are looking ahead, with a raging football fever gripping the otherwise cricket-crazed country as the 2022 FIFA World Cup rolls on in Qatar.
In Siddique Goth, a suburban locality of the country’s commercial capital Karachi, streets are festooned with man-sized portraits, and posters of soccer stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar Jr.
A couple of streets are also dotted with posters of Egyptian wing wizard Mohamed Salah, although the North African nation could not qualify for the finals, Anadolu news agency reported today.
Flags of leading football nations like Brazil, Argentina, Germany, England, Portugal, and the host Qatar can be spotted in the locality.
A large screen has been set up by residents at a busy square to watch the slogs together.
Nestled in the outskirts of Karachi’s Malir district, the remote neighborhood is also known as mini-Qatar because hundreds of area youths – ethnic Balochs – are working in the wealthy Gulf state.
Brazil is by far the favorite squad of local football lovers, while European sports juggernaut, Germany stands second.
“Neymar is going to rock this time,” Nasir Baloch, a local footballer, told Anadolu Agency.
Meanwhile, Sagheer Baloch, a schoolteacher, sees Germany as a favorite.
“The professionalism and coolness that the game of football requires, German players are embedded with them,” Sagheer, a fan of Spanish horsepower, Barcelona, opined.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, he counts on captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Kevin Trapp and Marc-Andre ter Stegen to turn the tables in favor of Germany.
Football is a popular sport in the otherwise cricket-loving Pakistan, particularly in rural areas. Yet, the national team is ranked 200th in the FIFA world rankings.
Straddling the edge of the Arabian Sea, Lyari, a small shantytown south of Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi, has long been a poster child for gang wars and drug trafficking.
However, it is also known as “mini Brazil” among soccer fans for the talented male football players that this run-down locality has produced over the decades.
“Lyari has always supported Brazil. They (locals) consider it their own team,” Ahmad Jan, who coaches Lyari’s girls’ football team, said.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Jan said Argentina is another favorite team in Lyari but “of course nowhere close to Brazil.”
“Football runs in our blood. We will congratulate any team that would win the title but our inclination towards Brazil is unchangeable,” he maintained, smiling.
At present, he said, Neymar, Salah, and Messi are most popular among the local youths.
T-shirts plastered with the faces of the three players are in high demand nowadays in Lyari, where drum-beating youths took out a rally last week to celebrate the beginning of the event.
The Brazilian national flags can also be spotted fluttering on the roofs of dozens of houses across Lyari.
Home to 1.5 million people, mainly Baloch, the area has over the last 74 years produced a large number of players who have won many titles for the country, especially between the 1950s and 1960s, known as the golden era of Pakistan’s football team.
Nonetheless, lacking glamor and government funding, while having to deal with intra-federation schisms and land-grabbing mafia who have been sweeping up sports grounds, football in Pakistan has gradually declined from its previous rank as fourth on the Asian continent in the 1960s.
In April last year, FIFA suspended the Pakistan Football Federation’s membership for six months, citing a hostile takeover of the federation’s head office by a rival group.
The action was taken when the group refused to vacate the office and hand it over to a FIFA-approved group.
The membership, nonetheless, was restored by FIFA after a period of over a year in July this year.
Pakistan-made football to shine in event
Aside from their love for the sport, Pakistanis will have a special reason to rejoice, although their team is not participating in the event.
Together with China, Pakistan is supplying soccer balls to be used in the forthcoming mega event, which this time will be held in the winter instead of the summer due to the hot weather in the Qatari capital.
Named “Al-Rihla,” an Arabic word for “The Journey,” the official match ball for the 2022 World Cup was unveiled in March by Adidas in Doha.
Nestled on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Sialkot, Forward Sports, which also makes footballs for the German Bundesliga, the French league, and the Champions League, has manufactured Al-Rihla for the mega event.
The company was also the official football provider for the 2014 and 2018 World Cups in Brazil and Russia.
The city, which borders India, has been famous for producing the finest quality sports goods and has been supplying footballs for mega-events for a long time.
Production of high-quality footballs is not Sialkot’s only forte. It also exports sports goods ranging from cricket bats to hockey sticks and from shining (cricket and hockey) balls to other accessories like kits, shoes, and gloves.
The country earns $1 billion annually from sports goods exports, including $350 million to $500 million from footballs alone.
The soccer ball being used in the tournament is technically called “thermo bonded,” which was first introduced in the 2014 World Cup.
Before that, Pakistan had supplied hand-stitched soccer balls for most of the World Cups from the 1990s to 2010.
Thermo-bonded balls are made by attaching the panels through heat – the latest technology adopted by Adidas and transferred to Forward Sports in 2013. There are no stitches. Courtesy: Anadolu news agency