Atletico shoot for soccer future in cricket-mad Pakistan

LAHORE: Spain’s Atletico Madrid are taking over a problem more durable than profitable La Liga — creating soccer in cricket-mad Pakistan, the place bat and ball are king, pitches include stumps not goalposts, and even the prime minister is a former World Cup winner.

Throughout a latest session on the membership’s new facility in Lahore — the nation’s first European soccer academy — a cabal of Spanish coaches watched as a brand new class of younger Pakistani hopefuls fired off penalty kicks.

“We aren’t searching for gamers for Atletico Madrid as a result of we all know that that is going to be very tough… Our goal is to enhance the soccer right here,” coach Javier Visea advised AFP.

To achieve carving out a spot for soccer, they might want to overcome marginal authorities help, poor infrastructure and a troubled historical past with FIFA that has resulted in a number of bans for violating the physique’s guidelines.

The nation stays on skinny ice with the governing organisation, at the moment sits 199th within the FIFA rankings and has nonetheless by no means certified for a soccer World Cup.

– Cricket nation –

Issues weren’t at all times so dire.

The nationwide squad boasted a prime 10 place in Asian soccer till the 1970s. The game stays extensively watched by middle-class Pakistanis, and soccer video video games just like the FIFA franchise are as fashionable as ever.

These seeds of fandom are what Atletico hopes to nurture with their facility, which opened final September within the nation of over 200 million.

“We all know cricket is the primary sport,” mentioned Visea. “However … there are a number of soccer followers, they’re following (the) Premier League, they’re following La Liga.”

Atletico goals to advertise soccer, well being, and sports activities usually, he mentioned — together with their very own model within the huge untapped soccer market that’s South Asia.

And a promising future for soccer might not be as quixotic because it sounds.

For many years, subject hockey was the preferred sport within the nation as Pakistan dominated worldwide competitions and gained 4 World Cup titles.

The game was solely overshadowed by cricket with the rise of the dashing all-rounder, and now prime minister, Imran Khan — culminating with the nation’s World Cup win in 1992 below Khan’s management.

Cricket has dominated the sporting roost ever since — however the hope is that one other robust character with a profitable streak in soccer may change the whole lot once more.

– ‘Slightly bit scared’ –

Ten-year-old Fiza Shahid desires of changing into a footballer like her heroes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, practising in her yard earlier than becoming a member of Atletico’s academy.

As she sprinted down the brand new facility’s pitch, her father Muhammad Shahid mentioned he takes nice satisfaction in watching his daughter play the attractive sport in conservative Pakistan, the place boys usually tend to be allowed to compete in sports activities than women.

Shahid, who’s from a humble background and holds conservative spiritual beliefs, is a agency believer in his daughter’s proper to play.

“Each the little kids have equal rights,” he mentioned.

For 12-year-old Hussam Suhail the Atletico academy not solely offers a spot to emulate his idols but additionally a secure pitch to hone his abilities.

“Within the streets there are bushes and vehicles coming, you may’t play effectively, whereas right here you may play very effectively with out stopping,” he mentioned.

The opening of the academy additionally comes as safety has dramatically improved throughout Pakistan after years of militancy, paving the way in which for the gradual return of worldwide sports activities.

“For the time being they requested us about coming right here we had been a bit of bit scared as a result of all of the information coming from Pakistan to Spain (is) not excellent news,” mentioned coach Daniel Limones.

However issues modified when he landed in Pakistan.

“We’re feeling like if we’re Spain, so there is no such thing as a safety difficulty or these issues,” he mentioned.

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