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Footballers Ronaldinho and Giggs enthrall Pakistani fans

Brazil's Ronaldinho and six other international footballers participated in two exhibition matches in Pakistan over the weekend. International sportsmen rarely visit Pakistan, a country plagued by Islamist violence.

Pakistan is known for its passion for cricket, but when former Brazil and FC Barcelona star Ronaldinho landed in the country to play an exhibition game, thousands of fans greeted him with love and respect.

The group of international footballers, dubbed "Ronaldinho and friends," included former Manchester United stalwart Ryan Giggs, former England goalkeeper David James, Dutch star George Boateng, former French players Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka, and Portuguese player Luis Boa Morte. The first match was held in the southern city of Karachi on July 8 and the second in the eastern city of Lahore on July 9.

Ronaldinho, 37, who was part of Brazil's 2002 World Cup winning team, told reporters he was on a "goodwill mission" aimed at inspiring youngsters to play the game.

Giggs, who retired from international football in 2014, said he was impressed by Pakistan's love for football. His former club, Manchester United, has a strong fan base in the Islamic country.

The event was organized by Leisure Leagues Pakistan, which said the purpose behind bringing football stars like Ronaldinho and Giggs to Pakistan was to promote the sport in the country and portray its positive image.

International sports have taken a back seat in the South Asian country since a failed terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009.

Pakistan Fußball Ankunft Spitzensportler (DW/T. Saeed)

Thousands of fans had gathered to watch international football stars play in their country

Passion for sports

When Ronaldinho and other international football players were unveiled on the pitch in Karachi, the packed stadium cheered in excitement and chanted the footballers' names to the top of their voices.

The moment clearly rose to the occasion where the nation, mostly deprived of sporting events because of political crises and terror attacks, proved that their love for sports was unparalleled.

The first and second leg saw Ronaldinho VII defeating Giggs VII on a 4-1 aggregate.

"I feel proud. It was a big deal playing with these players," Pakistani striker Kaleemullah told DW after the Karachi match.

Saadullah, another Pakistani footballer, said: "I've played all over the world but this is the biggest game for me. It shows that Pakistan is ready to host sporting events. It will also help revive other neglected sports in the country."

Fans who attended the match were also excited, and long before the start of the Karachi game, they stood in long queues to get inside the stadium.

"These events are rare for us. It is equally important to stress the fact that it was due to the public demand that these players have come to Pakistan. The huge turnout demonstrated that there is an appetite for more such events in this country," Saif Ahmed, a Manchester United and Ryan Giggs fan, told DW.

Read: Pakistani footballs ready for kick-off

In the shadow of the military

Addressing a press conference in Lahore, international footballers were impressed with the hospitality they received in Pakistan.

"We are happy to be here, we are enjoying it and hopefully, we will be able to send a message to the world that Pakistan is a good and safe place to visit," Giggs told media.

Giggs, however, urged Pakistani authorities to invest in the infrastructure for sports.

Pakistan Schaukampf Fußballspiel mit Ronaldinho (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Inter Services Public Relations)

Pakistan's army chief, Qamar Bajwa, thanked Ronaldinho and other footballers for visiting the country

"To progress to the next level, you need to bring in the best coaches in the world and not bring their philosophy but a framework and infrastructure so that the Pakistani culture and football in the country can flourish," Giggs said.

Despite the enthusiasm and fanfare surrounding Ronaldinho and Giggs' visit, the high level of security provided by the Pakistani military revealed a difficult scenario for hosting such games in the country.

Soon after landing in Islamabad in a flight from Dubai, the international footballers visited the Pakistani army's headquarters and met with Qamar Bajwa, Pakistan's military chief.

"Sports promote peace and your visit is most welcomed by all Pakistanis, especially young footballers," Bajwa told Ronaldinho and other footballers.

The involvement of the army during the event was not a pleasant sight, as one could see security personnel guarding the pitch from all sides of the stadium.

Read: Champions Trophy: Cricket, nationalism and the 'enemy' narrative

Looking ahead

After the success of the event, the Leisure Leagues Pakistan wants to host more international tournaments in Pakistan. The organization also announced the launch of a football league to be played in all big Pakistani cities.

Maaz Khan, one of the organizers, told DW: "We have plans for more big events next year. It is evident that we have the potential. The excitement and joy shared by public make us enthusiastic to carry out such projects in the future."

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