By Ahsan Raza – DAWN
One player, three goal posts. This is how life has been for 26-year-old Faiza Mahmood.
Being a sportswoman in Pakistan comes with societal pressures, but Faiza is grappling with much more.
She’s a professional footballer, a sports coordinator at a school and is also one of the breadwinners in her family.
“Unlike other professional players around the world, where being a sports person is a lucrative career and a full time job, this is not the case in Pakistan,” says Faiza, a dedicated player of football, hockey and badminton.
It doesn’t help that she’s pursuing her passion in a society where women are still expected to fill traditional roles and sports is rarely encouraged let alone thought of as a serious profession for females.
Faiza is the vice-captain of Young Rising Star Women Football Club and has also represented the national women’s football team.
She was recently invited to the International Women Empowerment Conference in Islamabad to share her success story with the Pakistan-US Alumni Network. After the session, she spoke to Dawn and shared her experience as a football player.
One of her primary concern is not getting enough matches to play throughout the year.
“Pakistan Football Federation only organises tournaments in July and August,” says Faiza who has found a job as a full-time sports coordinator at a school after which she attends a coaching camp for her training regime in the evening.
“This story stands for every professional female athlete in the country. Sports as a profession does not feed enough, so we have to take upon other jobs for a living,” she says.
Faiza wanted to be professional athlete since her childhood. Although she does not belong to a family of sportsmen, she says “sports is in my blood”.
“I was considered a tomboy at home, by my neighbours and even at school.”
“I wanted to break the stereotypes associated with girls in our society that they can’t be tough.”
Her family had initially showed resistance to her inclinations, but soon gave in after seeing her all-round performance in sports events. At the time she took part in eight different games and performed exceptionally well in all of them.
After getting into college and reaching “adulthood”, she felt that the dynamics changed completely. All of a sudden there were rules imposed on the “appropriate” style of dressing and safe timings for a woman to travel in public transport. She soon realised she could not wear a tracksuit in public or travel back home late at night.
Then she came across Young Rising Stars (YRS) Women’s Football Club.
“The YRS groomed me and the other women footballers helped us to excel,” she says.
The YRS was established in 2007 and the club provides players with everything, other than financial support, so that they can focus solely on their game on the pitch.
The club received financial support from the US Embassy Islamabad, Mari Gas Co and Rotary Club International. This support and training turned into overwhelming success — the club has won the National Championship from 2010 to 2013 – four times in a row.
But winning the championship did not bring any financial incentives for the players and Faiza, like other members on the team, has to continue her school job, time which could have otherwise been spent on the field.
“Not a cricket fan”
In a cricket-mad country, it comes as a surprise that with such all-round prowess, Faiza does not play cricket.
“I’m happy being a footballer. Although I played cricket a little bit, it just never fascinated me. Even Twenty20 matches consume an entire day and on other hand, the games I play have global appeal and they take up only a couple of hours to finish,” she says.
The budget crisis and financial plight is universally faced by all sportswomen, including cricketers, with lack of facilities, training and matches against overseas teams being the major issues, says Faiza.
Faiza believes that Pakistan is wrongly termed as a cricket-crazy nation.
“We are, in fact, a sports crazy nation. There are die-hard football fans in Pakistan, and this can be seen especially during the football World Cup when everyone is glued to their TV sets.”
“Though hockey is our national game, it is mostly off the radar.
“But every time our team is in a major event, there is a sudden wave of interest in hockey among the people.”
Regarding the budget allocated to cricket, Faiza feels if it is spent equally on football, hockey, athletics and other games, players can bring laurels for the country.
The budget crisis and financial plight is faced by all sportswomen in Pakistan, including cricketers, with lack of facilities, training and matches against overseas teams being the major issues, says Faiza.
“Public and corporate departments hire players but dole out only Rs 5,000 to 10,000 monthly. That is disrespectful to say the least.”
She says just like the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), the football federation needs to be more effective and assertive. So far, its role is to arrange two tournaments – one a qualifying round and the other a National Championship.
Faiza has played against India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Her ideals in football are Argentinian wizard Lionel Messi and top female footballer Brazil’s Marta. She dreams of taking her team to international events in Europe and North and South America and play perhaps even come face-to-face against her idol Marta.
“I’m fighting hard to pursue my passion, but to a sportsperson, time is everything. Every single day is important for us. I wish women get the required support in time to realise their dreams.”