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World Cup Fever Sweeps Pakistan

by AFP
Asif Hassan—AFP

Asif Hassan—AFP

Brasilia’s ambassador to Islamabad tells reporters around 500 Pakistanis are traveling to Brazil to watch the football tournament.

A corner of Karachi will forever be Brazil. Seen from overseas, Pakistan’s biggest city this week issued a fresh reminder of its reputation for chaos and violence but on its teeming streets, the more burning topic of interest is the World Cup now underway.

The “beautiful game” offers residents of the commercial metropolis a brief respite from the maelstrom of violence that blights their everyday lives. Earlier this week militants laid siege to the city’s airport in a sophisticated nighttime raid that killed 38 people, the latest in a series of militant attacks to bring chaos to the country’s vital economic hub. But in the Lyari neighborhood, the talk is all football.

Most of the homes in this gang-blighted slum are festooned with the flags of different national teams, with Brazil’s yellow and green colors by far the most popular. Local resident Mohammad Ameen was busily preparing for his wedding on Friday. Yet he was equally determined to catch all the footballing action, despite cricket ranking far ahead of football for most Pakistanis.

“I can’t miss the World Cup,” the 27-year-old said. “I have asked my relatives to come early so that we can wrap up the ceremonies early and I can watch the match with my friends.”

Lyari has overcome miserable facilities and a notorious reputation for gang violence that has killed hundreds of people over the past 15 years to produce the country’s best football players. Former Pakistan international Aurangzeb Shahmir, who lives in the neighborhood, said local residents are obsessed with the tournament, even if his countrymen have never even qualified for the finals. “When you come to Lyari these days, you will realize that the football World Cup is on,” he said.

Finding a working television is not easy in a city beset by regular power outages. Like thousands of fans, Shahmir almost missed the opening ceremony on Thursday night after much of the city’s southwestern suburbs were plunged into darkness. “The power came on just minutes before the opening ceremony, so I was lucky. But we appeal to the authorities to reduce load-shedding so that we can watch all the matches,” he said.

In Malir, which lies on the western edge of Karachi airport, a football fiesta is also underway as people do their best to forget about how Pakistan’s aviation hub was briefly turned into a war zone only a few days before. “We started preparations for the World Cup late because of the airport attacks,” said local resident Jalil Baksh, whose house is painted with a tournament schedule and group standing tables. “But now we can’t wait any more as the festival is on.”

The timing of the tournament suits schoolchildren, who are currently on their holidays and can stay up late into the baking summer nights. “I am gearing up to watch matches and there will be no school to worry about,” said local student Abbas Ali Shabbir, an avid football fan.

Those who can afford it have also taken advantage of a recent relaxation of visa restrictions to go and watch the games in person. “We have issued visas to around 200 people from Pakistan, while some 300 Pakistanis are traveling to our country from other parts of the world,” Brazil’s ambassador Alfredo Leoni told reporters in Islamabad on Thursday. “Here in Pakistan, we’ve given 100 percent waiver on visas to Pakistani fans to help them enjoy football extravaganza in our country,” he added.

But for the vast majority of Karachi’s estimated 20 million inhabitants, a television—and a prayer that the city’s electricity supplies hold up—will just have to do.

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