Meanwhile in Karachi

July 22, 2018

An intermittent sports fan from France watches the FIFA World Cup Final in Lyari, which on the night of July 15 was even more buoyant than usual

Meanwhile in Karachi

I must begin with a confession: I am a ‘footix’. Originally, Footix was the name of the mascot of the 1998 World Cup -- an anthropomorphic rooster referring to the mythologised Gallic roots of France -- which hosted the event.

Following the victory of les Bleus, the word acquired a new meaning in French popular parlance, though: it came to designate these versatile sports fans who only support the national team when it wins during large scale competitions, and whose understanding of the said sports’ history and subtleties tends to be minimal.

That is me, sadly. Not that I relish sudden eruptions of sporting nationalism, as they rely on the bizarre conviction that ‘we’ won while in fact all we did, as a nation, was to watch from our sofa 11 young men sweat it out to victory.

And yet, every four years, I wait for the World Cup with anticipation, looking forward to these moments of collective tension and camaraderie, when our imagined nation briefly seems to acquire some texture and emotional density. I know that it’s just a game and that the feeling won’t last. For a few days and nights, it feels damn good to share this illusion of belonging and to momentarily suspend our differences, pretending that everyday xenophobia and racist state policies can be erased by the magic of 11 men of various shades running after a ball.

Three years after the worst terrorist attacks in French history (one of which targeted a football match, incidentally), the stakes were even higher. Since the annus horribilis of 2015, French flags had become synonymous with collective mourning -- the morbid fetish of a nation that only seemed to reconcile itself in death. Like many other French citizens, I was longing for this opportunity to reclaim public spaces for more joyful collective ceremonies.

In these times of national emergency, what was I doing in Pakistan? A nation infatuated with cricket, where only the proverbial few would be following the global event unfolding in Russia.

A new book project had brought me back to Karachi and, for me at least, national re-union would have to wait. But as the French team shifted gears, especially after its match with Argentina (4-3), I started longing for a vibrant environment where I could unleash the beast of a supporter lurking inside me.

This longing logically drew me to Lyari, Karachi’s oldest and most combative working class area, known as Pakistan’s ‘Mini Brazil’ for the devotion of its residents towards football. There is no better time to take stock of these feelings than the World Cup. On this occasion, the walls of Lyari’s gullies are adorned with the flags of competing teams -- to which local residents often add that of Pakistan, eagerly waiting for their country to join the show. In every neighbourhood, public squares become open-air projection halls, while in some localities the residents block traffic and sit in the middle of the street to watch the game on a makeshift screen.

There was something mesmerising in the fervour of this crowd watching every move of the players… a brilliant dribbling action by Paul Pogba thus invited the following comment by one of my neighbours: "Bakri bana dya!" (He’s really played it like a goat!).

I attended several of these events with local friends and, as an intermittent sports fan, always felt humbled by the mix of expertise and sheer passion that infuses the relationship of Lyariites with football. Even more striking is their ability to see beyond their preferences to acknowledge a team’s or a particular player’s skills.

Undoubtedly, the Brazilian team remains the most popular of them all in the neighbourhood. This elective affinity has to do with the identification of many Lyariites with Black Africa, courtesy of the trade networks (including the slave trade) that gave birth to Pakistan’s ethnic African community, known as the Sheedis or Makranis.

But when I watched the defeat of Brazil at the hands of Belgium on July 6, I was surprised to see local youths and elders cheer whenever the ‘rival’ team scored. And at the end, the audience celebrated just the same -- Brazil could stand defeated but football would always win.

While in Karachi, watching the World Cup Final in Lyari went without saying. On the much-awaited night of July 15, I gathered a group of like-minded friends and we headed towards Karachi’s densely populated inner city, which on that night was even more buoyant than usual. Our initial plan was to watch the match in Mombasa Street -- yet another trace of Lyari’s African roots, which during the World Cup becomes a shrine of the popular religion, prone to the most intense outbursts of emotions during and after the matches.

A couple of days after the Mastung attack, security concerns were running high, however, and the paramilitary Rangers banned these local gatherings to regroup football fans in larger and supposedly safer venues. This is how we ended up in Gabol Park, where hundreds of local residents of all ages (but almost exclusively male, save for a few young girls) sat on the ground to attend the final.

There was something mesmerising in the fervour of this crowd watching every move of the players with rapt attention and dissecting every action with the expertise of real connoisseurs -- a brilliant dribbling action by Paul Pogba thus invited the following comment by one of my neighbours: "Bakri bana dya!" (He’s really played it like a goat!). For all its expertise, however, the audience -- which mostly consisted of manual workers, petty traders and municipal employees providing the bulk of Lyari’s labour force -- sometimes seemed unfamiliar with the French team. Local elders, in particular, seemed a bit disoriented and I overheard one of them ask his friends: "France wale kale wale ya lal wale?" (Are the French Blacks or those in Red?).

Local youths, for their part, had seen the French coming. Among the younger generation, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann were already household names before the World Cup. So when the latter scored a penalty at the 38th minute, the kids went on the rampage, jumping, screaming and throwing fistfuls of sand in the air. It took a severe danda-wielding volunteer to restore order -- until the next goal.

I somewhat expected a more intense conclusion to this joyful celebration. True, the crowd threw its hands in the air and cheered for the new world champions. But there were no smoke canisters, no frenetic dances, no processions in the streets. I guess there’s only so much you can ask of Lyariites.

For all the unprejudiced love that they showed for football during this edition, a World Cup final without Brazil does not have the same flavour. Or maybe Lyariites have understood better than anyone else that in football as in any other collective endeavour, final victories have a bitter taste, as they herald the return to the ordinary. The only ones rejoicing were probably the local politicians who eagerly waited for this moment to resume their campaign, which was put on hold throughout the competition. As one of the friends accompanying me put it, "Football khatm, abhi politics shuru!" (Football is over, now politics can begin).


Meanwhile in Karachi