Spanish Atletico Madrid faces a tough challenge to win as the league. Football is developing in cricket-crazy Pakistan, where rackets and ball are king, the stumps are not stumped, and even the prime minister is a former World Cup winner.
At a recent meeting at the club’s new facility in Lahore, the country’s first European football academy, a coaching Spanish coach watched a new class of young Pakistani hopefuls fire a penalty.
“We are not looking for players for Atletico Madrid because we know that this will be very difficult … Our goal is to improve football here,” said coach Javier Visea to AFP.
In order to create a place for football, they must overcome the support of the government, a poor infrastructure and a difficult past at FIFA, which has led to several prohibitions for violations of the corporate rules.
The country remains on ice with the government’s organization, is currently ranked number 199 on the FIFA list and has never qualified for a FIFA World Cup
Things were not always that bad.
The national team had until the 1970s a top 10 place in Asian football. Sport is widely watched by middle-class citizens. Football video games like the FIFA franchise are more popular than ever.
These seeds of fandom are what Atletico wants to promote with its facility, which was opened last September to over 200 million people.
“We know that cricket is the main sport,” Visea said. “But … there are many football fans, they follow the Premier League, they follow the La Liga.”
Atletico aims to promote football, health and sports in general, he said – along with their own brand on the vast unused football market in South Asia. And a promising future for football may not be as quixotic as it sounds.
For decades, field hockey was the country’s most popular sport as Pakistan dominated international competitions and won four World Cup titles.
The sport was only overshadowed by the rise of cricket’s all-rounder all-rounder. Now Prime Minister Imran Khan was in office, culminating in 1992 under Khan’s leadership in the country’s World Cup victory.
Cricket has dominated the athletic shelter since then – but the hope is that another strong personality with a winning streak in football can change everything.
A Little Bit Scared
Ten-year-old Fiza Shahid dreams of becoming a footballer like heroes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who trained in their garden before joining the Atletico Academy.
Her father Muhammad Shahid said he was very proud that his daughter was playing the beautiful game in conservative Pakistan, where boys are more likely to do sports than girls.
Shahid, a modest man with conservative religious beliefs, firmly believes in his daughter’s right to play.
For the 12-year-old Hussam Suhail, the Atletico Academy not only offers a place where he can imitate his idols, but also a safe stand to improve his skills.
“There are trees and cars on the streets, you can not play well, while you can play very well here without stopping,” he said.
The opening of the academy is also underway, as Pakistan’s security has dramatically improved after years of militancy, paving the way for the gradual return of international sport.
“At the moment, when they asked us if we came here, we were a bit scared, because all the news coming from Pakistan to Spain is not good news,” said coach Daniel Limones.
But when he landed in Pakistan, everything changed. “We feel like Spain, so there are no security issues or things like that,” he said.