Landikotal: On a recent visit to the Landikotal football ground, Muhammad Salim saw only dust and a damaged periphery wall. He saw a few goats in the deserted ground, nosing around for non-existent vegetation.
Salim does this quite often – going to the football stadium, hoping he will catch village teams playing a tournament but mostly to relive that sense of euphoria he would experience when being a part of a team himself, straining himself to pitch a goal, to win a victory for his team.
On most of his visits, he finds the windswept ground deserted, waiting expectantly to resound with the cheers of the spectators, the triumphant cries of the winning teams.
“It was a decade ago when i enjoyed the football match between the two of the best FATA football teams – the Shams football club and the Khyber Union football club – in the Landikotal football ground”, Salim reminisces. “It was a great moment for me, sitting here in ground with thousands of other spectators.”
Salim, 30, told News Lens that since 2002, he hadn’t seen a football tournament coming to Landikotal, his town in the restive Khyber Agency on border with Afghanistan. “Bombings and militancy related incidents is the only thing that visits the entire tribal region in the FATA now,” he said quietly.
Many players of football,cricket and other games have been forced to leave the area since militancy took roots in the tribal region. Salim has been experiencing only disappointment since 2002 when the summer season comes and goes without the sports Mella(festival) that used to be regular feature in August – organized on 14 August, the Independence Day.
Salim played for the Bara football team for a few years before militancy brought an end to outdoor activities. Militants have attacked volley ball and football matches in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
“FATA has so much young talent waiting to be discovered,” said Salim. “All we need is sports grounds,training and sports facilities for the youth for them to excel in games.”
Saleem is not the lone sportsmen longing for revival of sports and giving the FATA youth confidence and hope in the face of militancy and conflict in FATA.
Several well-known sportsmen like Farhad Shinwari, a former karate champion and a karate coach for international players in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa players, Riaz Khan Afridi, a former test cricketer and Shahid Khan Shinwari, a former football player and General Secretary of FATA Olympics Committee want to inject enthusiasm into a moribund sports scene in the region and bring back peace by reviving sports and cultural activities in the tribal areas.
Farhad Shinwari, who recently came from Bangkok,Thailand, and Malaysia after participating in the world karate championship as coach and referee, is optimistic about revival of sports activities in FATA.
“My visits [abroad to participate in sport events] would encourage tribal youth to join the Karate Club in Khyber Agency,” said Shinwari.
Shinwari started his carrier as karate beginner in 1994 after joining the FATA Karate Club in Landikotal. He got the Black Belt in a tournament in Lahore in 1998 and went on to play the Asian Karate Championship in 2000.
“I won gold for FATA,” he says proudly, alluding to the medal.
Shinwari told News Lens Pakistan that he was enjoying the glory days as karate champion just before 9/11 but then militancy came to his town.He said something bad happened every day,dampening the spirit of the community.
“Between 2002 to 2012, he lost many talented players to militancy in the area,” said Shinwari.
Farhad complained that due to apathy on part of the sports authorities and sponsors, the Karate players who played national and International tournaments could not continue their careers and joined other jobs to earn for their families.
Rather than waiting for the authorities to step in with a plan to revive sports activities, Farhad has started efforts to encourage youth to marshal art. “With support from the FATA Olympic committee, we took three players from FATA to play in the World Karate Championship in Bankok and in Kulalampur,” Shinwari told News Lens.
As part of struggle to revive the sports culture in FATA, Shinwari has reopened the Karate Club in Landikotal in Khyber Agency. He said a committee of former sportsmen were hiring players and providing training to them in Karate and other games like football and cricket.
Shinwari has been seeking to involve with the local administration and teh FATA Olympics Committee to streamline sports events in FATA.
“I have provided training to more than two hundreds young and talented players who would deliver a soft image of the FATA people to the world community,” he said.”So far i have trained 90 Karate players for international competitions and more than two hundred are under-training who would participate in the international championships in the future.”
Shinwari said sports taught us solidarity,patience and unity against social evils.
“Sports could be the foundation for restoration of peace in the area, ” said Shinwari. “Militancy not only destroyed our infrastructure, it also dismantled the social and cultural structure of our society.”
Shinwari was compelled to halt sports activities and anti-narcotics walks in 2007 when militancy struck FATA. In 2007, when an explosion occurred near his karate club in Landikotal, the number of trainee players gradually declined.
When they did not return, he was compelled to close his training centers and karate clubs in FATA. He is not happy with the decision of some of his students who left Karate and shifted to other places in Pakistan.
He says that 10 of his most talented students who participated in world karate tournaments left FATA and adopted other professions. Still more karate players and other sportsmen went abroad due to the bad law and order situation in FATA.
Not just sportsmen and sports lovers but also businessmen from FATA are happy with steps taken by individuals and agency administration for the restoration of sports culture.
Haji Dilwar Khan Afridi, a businessman from Khyber Agency, says sports could be used as tool for peace and development.Sports discourage anti-social elements and curb narcotics, he told News Lens.
Shahid Khan, General Secretary of the FATA Olympics Committee the region had immense sports talent such as Usman Shinwari, who played with the Pakistan cricket team in Sri Lanka and United Arab Emirates recently.
Khan said the Committee made an effort in 2013 and registered FATA with the International Olympics Organization. He said he registered cricket, hockey, football and athletic teams from all over the region.
“It was not for players to organize or play any sports in FATA before 2013; even the government discouraged not just sports but cultural activities”, said Khan.
“It is not hidden from anyone that FATA is passing through a critical phase of history where not only the ordinary man is suffering but artists,politicians,sportsmen and aid workers have rendered sacrifices for a semblance of normality and peace,” said Moeen Khan, a former first-class football player and sports organizer in FATA. “The time has come to unite against social evils and those who want to disintegrate out country.”
Khan said many tools were used to divert youth and young generation from healthy activities but they all failed. He suggested that organizing sports and cultural events across FATA would promote peace and harmony and encourage the local population to return to life.