By Mirza Khurram Shahzad – DAWN
Saher Zaman’s Gilgit background and the fact that she’s the only girl amongst six brothers has made her family very sensitive about her going away from home for any extended period of time — and that too for playing football.
Her interest in football, which she started playing back in 2007 when she was only nine, became harder to keep undiminished with every passing day. “It was okay for my family as long as I was playing as a child. But as I grew up, they started resisting,” says Zaman, mid-fielder for the Young Rising Stars (YRS) girls’ football club and one of the country’s best female football players. She has just played in the opening match of the inter-clubs girls’ championship at the Pakistan Sports Complex in Islamabad.
“Witnessing my craze for the game, my dad somehow agreed to allow me to continue playing football but it keeps coming up from time to time,” she adds. “You know the sensitivities about us girls.”
Refusing to be disheartened by opposition, though, Zaman, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, dashes up and down the pitch, coaxing teammates on. On the field with 21 other young women, her team in black and the opponents, the Soccer Queen Rawalpindi (SQR) club, in red, she dribbles the ball towards the goalpost.
There are thick, grey clouds looming ominously low, choppers landing and taking off from the adjacent Islamabad heliport. But the girls’ passion for the game is evident. As the cloudburst comes, Zaman’s teammate Ayeza Waheed strikes the sixth goal on a penalty in the last minute. Their team wins 6-0 against the relatively new SQR. The YRS club, established in 2007 in Rawalpindi, has changed the lives of many girls.
Some of Zaman’s seniors, with whom she started playing in the beginning, have joined international universities and clubs abroad. This fact has become a huge inspiration for Zaman. “I want to play for an international club and bring fame to my country, my family and my club,” she says. “My friends have won scholarships from international universities and one has just won a contract from a Maldives club, but I want to play in the US.” Zaman’s former captain, Sana Mehmood, won a scholarship from the US on the basis of her football skills while Hajira Mehmood, a player from Karachi’s Diya club, signed a contract with one of the leading clubs in the Maldives.
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The YRS club was formed by a former national footballer, Ghiasuddin Baloch, in 2007 when he observed that Pakistani girls had ample talent and were in need of only a base. Baloch’s efforts were endorsed by the US embassy in Pakistan and the diplomatic mission supported him with a financial grant of around $30,000 over a period of seven years. The assistance was very well invested because the YRS football club became the national champions in 2008.
They have been defending the title successfully since then. The YRS also went to the US for a recreational tour, an opportunity that presented the players unprecedented exposure and boosted confidence. Zaman has also visited several other countries, particularly in South Asia, to compete in a number of championships.
“My passion is to take my players to the heights of the sport in the world,” Baloch says. “My goal is to beat South Asian, Islamic and Asian countries and that I will Inshallah achieve. If I get proper funding for three successive years, I can make this dream come true. I have gathered together the best talent in the country and the support from the US embassy has helped me raise this club, which I have every reason to believe is of international standard. If I get the required support from the government and the private sector, there is no reason for these girls to not perform well at the international level.”
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has organised a national women’s football championship since 2005. Unfortunately, though, female football players are still limited to clubs and departmental teams, and no regular women’s team has been raised as yet.
For Zaman, an irregular national team is insufficient to hone women’s skills. “If we had a regular national team to tour internationally and play in regional and international events, our game would improve and we’d become a top competitive side, a force to be reckoned with on the international football calendar,” she believes.
Baloch thinks Pakistan needs to bring about some structural changes to further strengthen women’s football. “We should regularly organise a national under-16 girls’ championship,” he says. “Plus, we should make it mandatory for each team playing a national event to include a certain number of under-17 players.”