There they were, standing and waving at us, just a few feet away. It was more like a dream come true.
My love for football goes back to late nineties, as stated previously, when Brazil was top of the world. They played three consecutive world cup finals and apparently were never out of football talent. In 2002 they last won the World Cup and despite Ronaldo and Rivaldo’s heroics, one young man’s contribution stood separately. Ronaldinho scored the winner with THAT free kick in the quarter final against England. He went on to become one of the few in the world to get a standing ovationfrom the usually hostile crowd at Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
When Ronaldinho destroyed Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu
When I first heard about him coming to Pakistan with players like Roberto Carlos and Giggs, I didn’t even click the news. For me it looked like nothing more than another clickbait article. It was impossible. We are living in an era where we have had no proper international cricket in Pakistan for almost a decade now, minus few below par matches. How can you expect football legends – World Cup winners – to come and play in a country which is ranked 200th out of 202 in FIFA rankings?
It did come as a pleasant surprise to see an actual video footage of Ronaldinho shared by UK based Leisure Leagues, whom I then got to know as the largest 5, 6 & 7-A side football league supplier in the UK.
Ronaldinho shocked England from some 40 yards
Being the pessimist that I am, I still expected pull outs or cancellation of the project altogether. But against all odds, the tickets went on sale creating a great sense of excitement in my football loving circle. People were inquiring about tickets. I know a number of people came all the way from Sargodha and Islamabad. Due to the fear of missing out, a friend of mine ended up paying extra money as he bought the tickets in US dollars.
It was a festive environment at Fortress Stadium, Lahore. The traffic plan was working very well and there was no jam on our way. You could feel the party songs and crowd’s buzz from the entrance gate. A large number of people, boys and girls, were wearing their football jerseys with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United being the popular choice. We reached there almost an hour before kick-off and got pretty good seats. The crowd was kept alive by the DJ and we did come across celebrities like Azhar Ali, Hassan Ali and our very own women football captain Hajra Khan. We had to wait almost 2 hours before the players arrived but boy, was that a moment!
Personally, I can definitely say that I never expected this to happen in my lifetime. World Cup winners like Ronaldinho, Pirès, Anelka, and legends like Ryan Giggs and David James were standing in front of us, in Lahore. They were warming up, smiling, waving and moving under the green flag. It was no doubt a huge moment for this country as probably the closest international event that ever happened at this scale in Pakistan was the Bon Jovi`s concert from the mid-2000s.
The match was uneventful to say the least. It was a short, slow paced match with the usual ill-disciplined crowd. Fortress Stadium was an ideal location from security point of view. But otherwise, it is not designed for football or cricket matches, even the hockey stadium in Karachi was a better choice. When the people in the front rows stood up, it became harder to watch the match. There were no divisions in the audience stand, hence it was chaotic.
But honestly, none of it mattered at all.
The mistake Patrick Vieira might never forget
It was truly an unbelievable sight. Yes, they were all over-aged and retired stars. But people like me grew up watching them. They have played and won at the highest level. Kids in Lyari grow up watching and idolising Ronaldinho. They were the players who marvelled us on television screens, yet there they were assisting goals for our local players.
There is no doubt that sports have a huge fan following in Pakistan, and I hope events like these and the follow-up league plans take a shape. It might be the first step in bringing some structure to the game as our Sports Federation is engulfed with political affiliations and corruption charges. There is a huge viewership of football to bring it to mainstream. But we need to develop proper structures, brands and the media needs to realise the potential and invest in it.
For now, I will just savour the moment when Ronaldinho waved at us.
I still can’t believe my eyes.