Spain’s Atletico Madrid are taking on a challenge tougher than winning La Liga – developing football in cricket-mad Pakistan, where bat and ball are king, pitches come with stumps not goalposts, and even the prime minister is a former World Cup winner.
During a recent session at the club’s new facility in Lahore – the country’s first European football academy – a cabal of Spanish coaches watched as a new class of young hopefuls fired off penalty kicks. Youths play at Atletico De Madrid club’s new facility for developing football in Lahore. – AFP
‘We are not looking for players for Atletico Madrid because we know that this is going to be very difficult… Our target is to improve the football here,’ Coach Javier Visea told AFP. To succeed in carving out a place for football, they will need to overcome marginal government support, poor infrastructure and a troubled history with FIFA that has resulted in multiple bans for violating the body’s rules.
Pakistan remains on thin ice with the governing organisation, currently sitting at 199th in the FIFA rankings, and and has still never qualified for a football World Cup. Cricket country
The national squad boasted a top 10 place in Asian football until the 1970s. The sport remains widely watched by middle-class Pakistanis, and football video games like the FIFA franchise are as popular as ever.
Those seeds of fandom are what Atletico hopes to nurture with their facility, which opened last September in the nation of over 200 million.
‘We know cricket is the main sport,’ said Visea. ‘But … there are a lot of football fans, they are following (the) Premier League, they are following La Liga.’
Atletico De Madrid coach Javier Visea (C), 22, trains with Pakistani youths at the club’s new facility for developing football in Lahore. – AFP
Atletico aims to promote football, health, and sports in general, he said – along with their own brand in the vast untapped football market that is South Asia. And a promising future for football may not be as quixotic as it sounds. For decades, field hockey was the most popular sport in the country as Pakistan dominated international competitions and won four World Cup titles.—Agencies