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Atletico Madrid is bringing soccer to cricket-mad Pakistan

Jaime Leon / Lahore (Pakistan) / The sight of Pakistani children playing soccer is a rarity in a country in which the vast majority of sports fans follow cricket, and only cricket. 

But Atletico Madrid, Spain’s third largest soccer club, have become the first European team to open an academy in Pakistan, a country where cricket is an obsession and whose prime minister, Imran Khan, is a former captain of the national cricket team.

Under the watchful eye of Javier Visea and Daniel Limones, dozens of youngsters take part in different training exercises, practicing everything from short passes to shots on goal.

“They always have their eyes open; they are willing to learn. Some kids come here for new experiences, just to try. But others are already football fans”, Visea, who has been teaching soccer skills in the eastern city of Lahore for several months, tells EFE.

The 22-year-old Madrid native seems himself as a “pioneer” who is bringing the so-called “beautiful game” to a country which lacks institutional support and infrastructure. But both he and his colleague Limones are optimistic that they can help soccer grow in this cricket-mad land.

“We have found a lot of people that want to play football”, 33-year-old Limones says.

Atletico Madrid set up the academy in Pakistan after an initiative by businessman Mohamed Atta Tanseer, a Kohat Cement executive, who had tried and failed to get Atletico’s cross-town rivals Real Madrid to come to the country.

Syed Zahab Ali, who was appointed the director of the Atletico Madrid Academy in Pakistan, cannot hide his optimism for the project.

“We plan to open six academies in the next five years in Pakistan. Two in Lahore, two in Karachi, one in Islamabad and one in Rawalpindi”, he says.

Currently, Daniel and Javier’s team provide teaching three days a week at three schools in Lahore, and on weekends lead training sessions outside of the learning centers.

So far, 600 children have taken part in the training sessions which “follow the same lines as the sessions in Madrid”, Zahab says.

Many of the children at training share Zahab’s enthusiasm.

“I like it because it’s fun. I would like to play when I grow up”, says Zahra Hassan, a nine-year-old girl who says she is a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo whilst showing off her Juventus replica jersey bearing the name of the Portuguese superstar.

Hassan is one of the 11 girls among more than 100 children who are currently training with Atletico on weekends, another highly unusual sight in the conservative Muslim nation.

“More girls are joining every day. Usually girls don’t have opportunities to play but this is a good one for them”, Mehwish Rafique, a 23-year-old who has played with the Pakistani national women’s team and who was signed by Atletico as a trainer.

Another youngster, 11-year-old Zaid Akber, cannot hide his delight after seeing his dribbling skills dramatically improve in the four weeks that he has been training with the Spaniards.

Despite the optimism of the both the children and the trainers, there is much work still to be done to improve infrastructure in a country where the sport remains severely underdeveloped.

“Here we mostly train their technical skills, whereas in Spain we use tactical concepts”, says Visea, who adds that one of their main tasks is teaching the kids how to play “as a team”.

Limones goes even further, saying “I think they are 20 to 25 years behind Europe in terms of training concepts”.

The issue goes deeper than just training, though; Pakistan, a country that is home to 207 million people, ranks a lowly 200th out of 211 in the FIFA World Rankings, lower than tiny places such as Guam, Brunei and Macao, among others.

Pakistan has never managed to qualify for a World Cup or the Asian Cup, and there is no professional league.

Despite this landscape, Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League and the World Cup are avidly followed by the country’s middle class, indicating a latent interest in the sport that can be exploited.

The lack of a footballing culture and training infrastructure does not stop Zahab from dreaming: “I would love for the Pakistan national team to play in the World Cup in 10 or 15 years”.

Limones is more doubtful, while Visea employs a turn of phrase often used in the country.

“Inshallah (God Willing)”, the Madrid-native says. (April 28, 2019, EFE/Practica Español)

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