Ronaldinho, Giggs in Pakistan for soccer exhibition matches
Former FC Barcelona player Ronaldinho, right, gestures to his teammate Rivaldo during the friendly soccer match between FC Barcelona legends and Manchester United legends at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Friday, June, 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
RIZWAN ALI, AP Sports Writer
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs were among soccer stars to arrive in Pakistan on Saturday to play exhibition matches which organizers hope will boost the sport in the country.
Dutchman George Boateng, former France players Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka, former England goalkeeper David James and Portugal's Luis Boa Morte flew in via private jet to the capital Islamabad.
Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa hosted a reception, saying "sports promote peace," before players flew out to Karachi for the first seven-a-side exhibition match later Saturday amid heavy security.
The tour has been organized by a private company, World Group, aiming to promote football in Pakistan, which is No. 200 out of 211 in FIFA rankings.
Lahore will host the second exhibition match on Sunday.
Pakistan has not hosted a major foreign team in any sports since an attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team's bus in Lahore in 2009.
"For us it's a big moment," Pakistan football captain Kaleemullah said. "We didn't ever dream that such big stars will come to Pakistan. I grew up watching Ronaldinho on television and I still can't believe it, he's in Pakistan."
The 37-year-old Ronaldinho said in a statement he was "excited at the prospect of playing in Pakistan."
Cricket is the major sport in Pakistan, but English Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga soccer have attracted a growing following among younger fans.
Tickets were priced from 2,000 to 30,000 rupees ($280) with 1,000 free tickets for young people in Karachi.
Manchester United has a large following in Pakistan.
"Pakistani fans have not seen (international) players. This is a great opportunity to see footballers live and in their home country," former United great Giggs told Geo Television in Dubai before flying in a private jet to Pakistan.
Back in Karachi, young fans had started arriving at the stadium — heavily guarded by army soldiers — hours before the match. The stadium was decorated with giant-sized billboards of the foreign players.
Television footage showed the players escorted by armed soldiers in a convoy as they left Quaid-e-Azam International Airport.