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Watching the World Cup in One of Karachi's Most Dangerous Neighborhoods

Unlike most people in Pakistan, residents of the densely populated and extremely dangerous Lyari neighborhood prefer soccer over cricket.

by Osama Motiwala
Jun 20 2014, 12:10pm

Photo by Osama Motiwala

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports.

Lyari is widely considered to be one of Karachi's oldest neighborhoods. It's also one of its most dangerous. It is one of the smallest areas of the city in terms of physical area, but also the most densely populated, with an estimated 1.2 million people.

Unlike other places in Pakistan, residents of Lyari prefer soccer over cricket. Interestingly, this is not a new obsession. Locals have been playing "soccer" long before soccer actually arrived in this area. Residents used to make a ball with cloth and used papers to play during the evening to relax. "Most people in Lyari prefer playing and watching soccer. I remember boys from our neighborhood in Juna Kalri used to play soccer all the time. I am 82 today, so you can do the math," laughed Gohar Bibi hysterically. Gohar Bibi used to teach at a local college in Lyari, but took retirement and now spends most of her time at home in Lyari.

Locals believe that the crime rate goes down during FIFA World Cup because all the gangsters are busy watching football and supporting their favorite teams. Lyari's notorious gangster Arshad Pappu was killed last year, and the killers (who were also from Lyari) chopped his head off and played football with it.

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Kalri is an area within Lyari where locals gathered for the Brazil-Mexico match on Tuesday. Houses in the neighborhood had hoisted flags of their favorite teams: Brazil's being the most common. "Our heart beats for Brazil," chanted Rehman, who used to survey the area for a gangster in Lyari who used to pay him 1500 rupees, which equates to $15 per day.

A few hundred supporters were gathered in the street. A generator was rented to ensure no interruption due to electricity being rationed. The streetlights were turned off for a clearer projection on the wall. During ordinary days, the streets are deserted at midnight, but because of the match, everyone was out in the streets full of energy. The atmosphere was strange for an outsider because the mainstream media only feeds us how dangerous Lyari is. What it fails to capture is the passionate and down-to-earth residents. Energetic and colorful, Lyari is Karachi at its best. Violent and divided, Lyari is Karachi at its worst.

Pakistani government doesn't provide residents of Lyari with any sporting assistance even though the majority of players in Pakistan's national soccer team live in Lyari. Due to lack of assistance, residents of Lyari are seen playing soccer on roads, sometimes with cricket balls which give them better control because the ball's size is smaller which makes it move faster.

"I have always been a die-hard supporter of Argentina. Although, my 7-year-old son and my father both support Brazil. They don't realize the true power of Lionel Messi," laughed Saeed Buksh, a 45-year-old laborer. A few minutes into the game, Saeed started chanting "Long live Mexico" just to piss off other Brazil fans and his son in particular. "He hates me when I say anything against Brazil. But I can't force my opinion on him."

Saeed Babar, 15, is also a resident of Kalri. He plays soccer for Pakistan's national U-16 team. He toured Japan and Iran to compete in soccer tournaments. "Two to three months before an international tour, training camps are setup for the players with all facilities. Otherwise, we have to beg them for our kits and soccers to play with. The only proper soccer stadium in Lyari is under Rangers' control now and we can't just go and play over there. We have to take permission which takes days."

Children wore jerseys of their favorite teams. Shaukat Ali, 9, wore a head band of Brazil's flag which his mother stitched together before the match. Samiullah, 14, doesn't play soccer but watches it religiously. He plays street cricket and ironically supports the Indian cricket team even when they are playing against Pakistan.

During halftime, a lot of people started betting on their favorite teams. The loser had to buy the winner a bottle of Pepsi. Most of the residents supporting Brazil were disappointed when the match ended. "I think that's the beauty of soccer. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes this is what happens," exclaimed Ghaus Buksh, an engineer and Argentina supporter.

Lyari has always been free from religious extremism. During Lyari Operation last year, some gangsters were killed and a lot of them escaped to other countries, leading to a power struggle between those who remained. Locals are scared that if a local gangster doesn't take a hole of the area, a militant religious party might.

[Editor's note: All the names in this story have been changed.]

Karachi Erupts in Protest After Its 'Biggest Brother' Is Arrested. Read more here.

Follow Osama Motiwala on Twitter: @osamamotiwala