In Pakistan's urban badland, soccer offers hope

Tue Jan 24, 2012 4:02pm EST
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By Sahar Ahmed

KARACHI (Reuters) - In the heart of one of Pakistan's most dangerous neighborhoods in the teeming city of Karachi, soccer pitches are keeping vulnerable teenagers from joining abundant gangs, kidnappers and extortion rackets.

Dozens of hard-scrabble soccer clubs give youngsters with few chances for education or work the opportunity to get off the streets and even dream of getting a nod to join a national team or a semi-professional club.

"There is so much talent in Lyari. It can be a great way of keeping these kids away from drugs and street crime especially if they are well paid and rewarded," said Yacoob Baloch, a soccer coach at one of the clubs.

Pakistan, a strategic U.S. ally, spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on education which translates into a lack of skills needed to find work for much of the young population of the country of nearly 180 million.

Pakistan's police and security forces also lack funds, making it easy for criminals to thrive in Lyari, a densely populated area in Karachi with dilapidated buildings, potholed streets and raw sewage.

More than 1,600 people were killed in Karachi last year in either political and sectarian violence or by drug dealers, mafia hitmen and extortionists, marking the worst bloodshed since the army was called in to ease street battles in the 1990s.

But soccer has proven to be a way out of the chaos for some.

"Because of my focus on football, my mind has never wandered off to other things like drugs or violence," said Muneer Aftab, 15, who led Pakistan to victory in the under-16 South Asian Football Federation Championships in 2011, defeating arch-rival India.   Continued...

<p>Muneer Aftab, 15, gestures during an interview with Reuters at his home in Lyari neighborhood, in Karachi October 19, 2011. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro</p>