Ok, maybe not vuvuzelas. But certainly crazed football fans.
The 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa is currently underway, and fans throughout the world have been riveted to television screens, celebrating or cursing the results (ah, Italia). In Lyari, one of the most densely populated slums in Karachi, the World Cup has been a welcome alternative to the constant gang violence, unemployment, poverty and drugs, [see this CHUP backgrounder on past Karachi violence]. According to The News, Lyari has been known for two things – gang warfare and producing some of Pakistan’s best football players (including Abdul Ghafoor, the ‘Pele’ of Pakistan). During the World Cup, Lyari yields to the latter, with residents arranging and setting up big screens (an Express 24/7 correspondent I spoke to said gang members often set up the screens because the population is so intermingled with gangs) on the streets for the community to enjoy the games together.
Their football team of choice? Five-time World Cup winner, Brazil.
One local resident told Dawn, “Lyari is Brazil’s den and people seek happiness in football, especially Brazil, because they love this team and its players.” Another Lyari resident added, “Watching football is our only enjoyment. We forget all the pain and suffering in the 90-minute action and everyone wants Brazil to win the sixth title on July 11.”
So much so that one “footballer-cum-gangster” told The News that he would have “shot at” the referee for giving Brazilian player Kaka a red card during the recent Brazil-Ivory Coast match. The young gang member, part of Rehman Baloch‘s gang (Lyari is dominated by two gangs, one that follows Ghaffar Zikri and the Uzair Baloch group under the late Rehman Baloch) told the news agency that he wants Brazil “to win at any cost,” especially against Argentina.
According to Dawn, some people of Lyari also support Brazil because they see them as “spiritual cousins.” A local journalist noted, “The people of this area see racial similarities with Brazil, like if they are black and have curly hair they feel they are like South Americans and they play with the same style.” Interestingly, Lyari is considered a center for the Sheedi community, who are believed to be descendants of African sailors who came to Karachi 200 years ago.
During the 2006 World Cup, news agencies reported that Lyari’s crime rate actually fell. Given the relative silence that has descended upon the slum during this tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar trend, a true testament to how sports unites divided communities, even if such unity is transient and is likely to dissipate in its aftermath. But it is also a testament to how football and other sports (namely, cricket) could be used as part of a longer-term strategy to break the cycle of violence and poverty in areas like Lyari. The aforementioned young gangster told The News, “I used to play football, but I ended up carrying a gun due to the twists life had in store for me…It was my utmost desire to die as a great soccer player, but, sadly, I happened to be born in a neighbourhood where wishes are just not answered.” Obviously, sports alone cannot tackle the complex issues and layers of violence plaguing these Karachi slums. But given the potential, talent, and passion evident among the community, it very well could be part of a solution.