Since the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, very few international sports’ competitions have taken place in Pakistan. Some recent developments, however, indicate that the landscape is changing.
There are very few things which bring the politically divided, militancy struck and entertainment starved people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan together. Cricket is one of those things.
So when, in early March, the country staged its biggest match in almost a decade, millions flocked to cafes, restaurants and other venues to see Pakistan Super League's final, which was played in the eastern city of Lahore. But the euphoria didn't end there.
Somewhere around the middle of March, social media went berserk over the news that several international wrestlers were travelling to Pakistan for a competition. And now, it has been confirmed that former England goalkeeper David James and former Dutch midfielder George Boateng will join Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho for a visit to Pakistan in July, taking the excitement up a notch. Are international sports finally returning to Pakistan?
PSL final –a landmark achievement
The final of Pakistan's T20 cricket league, PSL, was played on March 5 at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. It was outside this very ground, almost eight years ago, that Pakistan cricket suffered its worst blow when militants attacked a bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers. Eight people were killed in the attack while another nine were wounded, including six visiting players. The attack virtually ended the playing of international cricket in Pakistan.
West Indies Darren Sammy (2R) takes a 'selfie' with Pakistani groundstaff members prior to the start of the final cricket match of the Pakistan Super League (PSL)
Despite opposition from certain quarters and a surge in terror attacks recently, the staging of an important match in the country with foreign players participating, was a landmark achievement. Faizan Lakhani, a sports journalist from Pakistan, told DW, "it is clear that international sports are returning to Pakistan." Lakhani claimed that the stadium was completely full and fool-proof security was provided to the players and spectators, which sent a very important message of resilience to the international community.
"Security officials from not just the International Cricket Council (ICC )but also from several states including England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were present in the stadium and they witnessed the proceedings," he added. According to Lakhani, they will now submit a report in the ICC meeting to be held later this month. He added that the ICC has already announced it will send a World Eleven cricket team to Pakistan this September.
Citing the recent incident in London, the journalist from Pakistan also said, "terrorist attacks take place all over the world but to use this as an excuse and deprive a nation of international sports' activities, is not legitimate in my opinion."
Wrestlers to rumble, footballers to tackle in Pakistan!
Some 25 international sportspeople, including former WWE stars, will make Pakistan their stomping ground in May when they visit three major cities in the country. Wrestlers Tiny Iron from the US, Frenchman Flesh Gordon, Yaseen Usmani from Algeria and US-Pakistani Badshah Pehalwan Khan are already in Pakistan. Zeeshan Bashir, Director of Pakistan Wrestling Entertainment expressed hope that the successful staging of their bouts will promote the 'soft' image of Pakistan and help bring international sports back to the country.
The imminent arrival of the clutch of international football stars in Pakistan has also set social media in the area alight. World Group's Leisure Leagues Pakistan disclosed that James, Boateng, Ronaldinho and several others will make the trip to Pakistan in the coming months to form part of the World XI team which will face Pakistan XI in an exhibition match.
James, played for English Premier League clubs Liverpool and Manchester City as well as Indian Super League team Kerala Blasters in 2014. Boateng played for Aston Villa and Middlesbrough in the Premier League and is currently director at Malaysian club Kelantan FA. FIFA's Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, Ronaldinho, is currently the club ambassador for Spanish club Barcelona where he enjoyed his best days as a player.
Maaz Khan from Leisure Leagues in Pakistan told DW that the objective of this event is to promote the game of football in Pakistan. "In order to revive sports activities in the country, a big bang is required. And Ronaldinho coming to Pakistan is a big bang," he said. Maaz, himself a football enthusiast, compared the current situation to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. He said, "business activities are on the rise and China Pakistan Economic Corridor(a collection of infrastructure projects currently under construction is progressing. The return of international sports to Pakistan is another part of this puzzle and it will benefit the overall scheme of things."
A positive outlook
According to the United States Institute of Peace, despite the internal and regional security challenges, Pakistan's economy is expanding, Islamabad government is addressing issues like energy shortage and investing in infrastructure development. These steps are boosting economic growth which is vital to improved stability. As experts put it, sports is one essential part of this big jigsaw puzzle and it's all coming together; slowly and gradually but surely.