Pakistan’s street children soccer players returned home yestrday to jubilant scenes after clinching the bronze medal in FIFA’s Street Child World Cup in Brazil, with captain Sameer Ahmed hailing the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.
Competing for the first time in the event, the Pakistanis hammered title-holders India 13-0 in their first match before beating Kenya and Mauritius and tying with the US to top their group.
They squeezed past the Philippines 3-2 in the quarter-finals before losing to Burundi 3-4 in the semis, but beat the US 3-2 on penalties in the third-place playoff to cap a remarkable tournament for the rookies.
About 4,000 people gathered at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport to welcome the junior team home in an overwhelming display of fanfare normally reserved for the country’s cricketers, Pakistan’s main representatives in international sports.
Folk musicians beat traditional drums as fans of all ages waved congratulatory banners and danced, though they were denied the chance to see the players, who were whisked away to attend a reception
“We were unknown kids before this World Cup, but after seeing such a big crowd I am very happy that people now know us,” Ahmed said. “We had never thought that we will go to Brazil, we just heard the name of Brazil which is famous for football.”
“Our representation in the event and finishing third has proved that there is enough hidden talent of football in our streets and the only need is to unearth that talent,” he added.
For Pakistan’s leading goalscorer Raziq Mushtaq, 15, the triumph over rivals India was particularly sweet.
“India beat us in cricket World Twenty20, but we exacted the revenge in football and that win over India gave us the confidence to do well in the tournament,” said Mushtaq, who hit the back of the net eight times against India and scored 18 goals overall in the Cup.
The children, many of whom are former drug addicts or members of gangs linked to Karachi’s ethnic and political violence, were rehabilitated by the non-profit Azad Foundation.
Coach Abdul Rashid praised the team’s commitment and said the third-place finish was a result of the hard training they had been putting in since October last year.
“They played with great passion,” Rashi said d. “They proved they had talent and we groomed them for the World Cup.”
He said the tournament also proved that Pakistan, currently 158th in FIFA’s rankings, could do bigger things on the world stage.
“It is now up to us to unearth the hidden talent which can go places and make Pakistan a bigger footballing nation,” he said.
The team was later taken to the provincial assembly where Pakistani Minister of Information Sharjeel Memon announced prizes of 200,000 Pakistani rupees (US$2,000) for each player.
The team are also to meet opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto, son of the slain former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who has promised them a “big surprise.”
FIFA initiated the tournament in 2010, with the first edition held in South Africa and the second in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the World Cup that begins in June.