Lahore: The sight of Pakistani children playing football is a rarity in a country in which the vast majority of sports fans follow cricket, and only cricket.
But Atletico Madrid, Spain’s third largest football club, have become the first European team to open an academy in Pakistan, a country where cricket is an obsession and whose prime minister, Imran Khan, is a former captain of the national cricket team.
Under the watchful eye of Javier Visea and Daniel Limones, dozens of youngsters take part in different training exercises, practicing everything from short passes to shots on goal.
“They always have their eyes open; they are willing to learn. Some kids come here for new experiences, just to try. But others are already football fans,” Visea, who has been teaching football skills in the eastern city of Lahore for several months now, told Efe news.
The 22-year-old Madrid native seems himself as a ‘pioneer’ who is bringing the so-called ‘beautiful game’ to a country which lacks institutional support and infrastructure. But both he and his colleague Limones are optimistic that they can help the game grow in this cricket-mad land.
“We have found a lot of people that want to play football,” 33-year-old Limones says.
Atletico Madrid set up the academy in Pakistan after an initiative by businessman Mohamed Atta Tanseer, a Kohat Cement executive, who had tried and failed to get Atletico’s cross-town rivals Real Madrid to come to the country.
Syed Zahab Ali, who was appointed the director of the Atletico Madrid Academy in Pakistan, cannot hide his optimism for the project.
“We plan to open six academies in the next five years in Pakistan. Two in Lahore, two in Karachi, one in Islamabad and one in Rawalpindi,” he said.
Currently, Daniel and Javier’s team provides teaching three days a week at three schools in Lahore, and on weekends lead training sessions outside of the learning centres.
So far, 600 children have taken part in the training sessions.