Kickoff with Ronaldinho and friends

Long, unending queues of football enthusiasts didn't mind the waiting through extended security checks to watch Ronaldinho and friends play in Karachi on Saturday evening.— Photo by author

KARACHI: “I don’t think taking the Sharea Faisal route is a good idea. They are observing Edhi Saheb’s first death anniversary at the hockey stadium named after him and traffic is really chaotic there. Even the army has come out to help,” said the driver, not quite aware of what was actually going on.

“Even though it’s July 8, they are not observing Abdul Sattar Edhi’s death anniversary under floodlights there. They are holding an exhibition football match, with international stars gracing the occasion,” I explained.

The tall white building across us then proved my claim to the man as it sported a big poster of the stars, including the great Ronaldinho.

Catching a glimpse of the goings-on at the stadium’s turning from the other road, yes, one could see army personnel deployed there. Some cars were being allowed to pass through while others were being told to drive on. Perhaps they didn’t have tickets or passes.

Meanwhile, those with passes felt like they were in full control of the game, dribbling away happily towards their goal … until … they ran into an obstruction.

After taking a look at my pass, one Jawan directed the driver to move on and turn left after Hotel Mehran. “The people we are allowing in from this point have VVIP passes,” he said apologetically.

Driving ahead on the road indicated by him, one did find another passage to the ground. Actually, it was itself an enormous ground, a compound with an opening or two into the street around the Hockey Stadium, but the army engaged in zone defence here, too.

Only ticket and accreditation card holders were allowed inside.

Up ahead were forming two long, unending queues, with football enthusiasts patiently waiting for their turn to be frisked and allowed to enter the stadium. Almost every youngster standing in line sported a football jersey of one club or the other.

Asked how he felt about security measures, Saad Arbab, a fan with gold category tickets, smiled and shrugged. “It’s no big deal. It’s Pakistan so everything goes. While standing here in line with my friends for hours now, we have seen some daredevils trying to scale the back walls of Askari Apartments from this side to get in. The decent ones are made to wait while the scoundrels get ahead,” he said.

Also standing in the same line were bronze category ticket holders from Lyari. “Leisure Leagues, the organisers of the exhibition matches, have been kind enough to give 1,000 free passes to District South’s football leagues,” said Abdul Rehman, who plays for a football club, Son of Baloch. “Every registered football club of Lyari was given five free tickets from that lot,” he added.

Sameer, a club player from Lyari wearing a white Real Madrid jersey, said he was a fan of Ronaldinho, Messi, Neymar Jr and Ronaldo. When reminded that Ronaldinho was here with Ryan Giggs, Nicolas Anelka, Robert Pires, Luis Boa Morte, David James and George Boateng, and not his other favourites, he laughed and said it was all right as long as Ronaldinho was here. “It will be great to see them in action with our players such as KPT’s midfielder Abdul Aziz Baloch, PIA’s forward Shakir Lashari, SSGC’s stopper Aurangzeb, etc” he said.

With several people also holding Brazil’s flag, a man wearing the Pakistan flag around his neck stood out. When reminded that Pakistan were nowhere on the world football map, he said the presence of big names was a good sign in itself.

“I will be waving my green flag during the match being played on the blue hockey turf,” he said.

Many critics who watched the match lamented the stands were not packed to capacity, long queues notwithstanding, due to management and the army’s harsh attitude. But few were aware that the two stands behind goal posts at the Abdul Sattar Edhi Hockey Stadium were declared dangerous structures years ago.

But all said and done, Karachi had the honour to host seven icons of the world’s most popular game, thanks not to the national governing body but to a private company that managed to persuade them to play here.

Football in the city was back on track when Ronaldinho tweeted: ‘Thanks Karachi. Thanks Pakistan!’

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2017