Eight of football’s biggest stars, including Brazilian hero Ronaldinho, will play two exhibition matches in Pakistan this weekend in hopes of attracting more players from the cricket-mad country.
Recently retired Ronaldinho, famous for his stints with Spanish club Barcelona, is the lead attraction among the group dubbed “Ronaldinho and friends” set to play in Karachi on Saturday and in Lahore on Sunday.
Former Manchester United stalwart Ryan Giggs, Brazilian Roberto Carlos, former England goalkeeper David James, Dutch star George Boateng, former French players Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka, and Portuguese player Luis Boa Morte complete the line-up.
Ronaldinho, 37, who won the World Player of the Year twice and was part of the 2002 World Cup winning team, said he is on a goodwill mission aimed at inducing youngsters to play the game.
“I am excited at the prospect of playing in Pakistan,” he said in a statement.
“This is a great opportunity for us to induce youngsters in Pakistan and we will do our best to do that.”
Giggs, who retired after a long career with United in 2014, said he was “privileged” to take part. He replaced former England and Chelsea captain John Terry, who pulled out due to new commitments with English side Aston Villa.
Pakistani organisers hope to both promote football, and signal that security has improved in militancy-plagued Pakistan, with officials ready to welcome back international sport – which fled the country after an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009.
“Our aim is to promote football and this is the first of many steps,” said Ishaq Shah, CEO of Leisure League, a subsidiary of World Group which is organising the visit. “We want to give a positive image of Pakistan through sports.”
The Pakistani Army is set to provide security for the players and matches, deploying troops in and around hotels, airports and stadiums over the weekend, officials have said.
Pakistan boasted a top place in Asian football until the early 1970s, but a lack of government support and poor infrastructure helped push them to as low as 200th in the FIFA football rankings.
The game is growing in popularity once more, however, even in a country obsessed with cricket.
“It’s a great occasion,” said Pakistan team captain Kaleem Ullah, who also played for Sacramento Republic FC in USA and Kyrgyzstan’s FC Dordoi Bishkek. He will take part in one of the matches.
Fans in the football-mad Lyari neighbourhood of Karachi said they had spent their savings on tickets. “I want to have a glimpse of Ronaldinho,” said young fan Mohammad Essa.