KARACHI - Pakistan's street children footballers returned home Tuesday to jubilant scenes after clinching the bronze medal in Brazil, with captain Sameer Ahmed hailing the "once in a lifetime" experience. Competing for the first time in the Street Child World Cup, the Pakistanis hammered title-holders India 13-0 in their first match before beating Kenya and Mauritius and tying with the United States to top their group.
They squeezed past the Philippines 3-2 in the quarter-finals before losing to Burundi 3-4 in the semi-finals, but beat the US 3-2 on penalties in the third-place play-off to cap a remarkable tournament for the rookies. Around 4,000 people gathered at Karachi airport to welcome the children back home in an overwhelming display normally reserved for the country's cricketers, Pakistan's main representatives in international sports.
Folk musicians beat traditional drums as fans, both young and old, waved congratulatory banners and danced, though they were eventually denied the chance to see the players who were whisked away. "We were unknown kids before this World Cup, but after seeing such a big crowd I am very happy that people now know us," said Ahmed. "We had never thought that we will go to Brazil, we just heard the name of Brazil which is famous for football. Our representation in the event and finishing third has proved that there is enough hidden talent of football in our streets and the only need is to unearth that talent," he added.
For Pakistan's leading goalscorer Raziq Mushtaq, 15, the win over rivals India was particularly sweet. "India beat us in cricket World Twenty20 but we exacted the revenge in football and that win over India gave us the confidence to do well in the tournament," said Mushtaq, who hit the back of the net eight times against India and scored 18 goals overall.
Cash prizes for players: The children, many of whom were former drug addicts or members of gangs linked to Karachi's ethnic and political violence, were rehabilitated by the non-profit Azad Foundation. Coach Abdul Rashid praised the team's commitment, and said the third-place finish was a result of the hard training they had been putting in since October. "They played with great passion," said Rashid. "They proved they had talent and we groomed them for the World Cup."
He said the tournament also proved that Pakistan, currently ranked 158 in FIFA rankings, could do bigger things on the world stage. "It is now up to us to unearth the hidden talent which can go places and make Pakistan a bigger footballing nation," he said.
The Sindh Assembly gave rousing welcome with standing ovation to the Street Child World Cup players of Pakistan, who witnessed the assembly proceedings. When the Street Children arrived at Jinnah Airport early in the morning, the Sindh Social Welfare Minister Rubina Qaimkhani and MPAs from PPP, MQM and PTI welcomed them. Along with the team of the Azad Foundation, which managed the travel of the street children to the Brazil, they reached in Sindh Assembly, received standing ovation from the MPAs, while lawmakers from all parliamentary parties-PPP, MQM, PTI, PML-N and PML-F paid tribute to them.
Information Minister Sharjeel Inam Memon on behalf of Sindh Chief Minister, announced a cash reward of Rs200,000 for each child of the team and promised to construct a street children football stadium in Karachi. Education Minister Nisar Khoro announced that each player shall receive free education till post-graduation. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf MPA Khurram Sher Zaman gave Rs 10,000 to each player while Minister for Youth Affairs Mumtaz Ali Jakhrani announced Rs500,000 for the team.
Wearing Sindhi Ajrak and Sindh caps, the Street Children Football team witnessed the Sindh Assembly proceedings and seemed happy over getting words of praise and recognition from the MPAs. All the MPAs termed the Street Children as pride of Pakistan, Sindh and Lyari. The team later met opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto who announced cash prizes of 100,000 rupees for each player. Bhutto also announced that he has invited Argentina's legendary footballer Diego Maradona to coach the youngsters.
Meanwhile, the Coordinator to Chief Minister of Sindh for Human Rights Nadia Gabol congratulated team on securing 3rd position in Street Child Football World Cup and welcomed the players of Pakistan team on their returned from Street Child Football World Cup 2014 held in Brazil. She applauded the hidden talent in Liyari and said that the kids of Liyari needed only encouragement and support as they possess every natural talent. She said that the children who selected for Street Child Football World Cup 2014 was a proof that Liyari is a city of living hearts and slap on those who hatched propaganda against them. She said that he sportsman of Liyari were ambassadors of the soft image of Liyari.
FIFA initiated the tournament in 2010, with the first edition held in South Africa and the second in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the World Cup that begins in June.