by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: The National Women’s Football Championship has always had one classic rivalry. In fact the two most feared teams, Army and Wapda, have been led by two best friends – Malika-e-Noor and Syeda Mahpara Shahid.
The event, with all great things, will be missing Malika and Mahpara’s moments on the field as rivals and as friends.
Both being the top footballers of the country, Malika having being the captain of Pakistan Army and five-time champion will be watching the event with her new born, while Pakistan’s top goalkeeper and six-time champion Mahpara will be missing her friend while playing for Wapda. Both are role-models or young athletes as both defy norms each time with their performances, and also with their perseverance when it comes to being full-time women footballers.
“It is going to be something I will miss the most. It is what it is right now, but the championship will be missing her. We’ve played together each year, we’ve been best friends since 2007, so I really have thought about it,” Mahpara told The Express Tribune as she finished off her training in the evening. “But I feel great right now that the championship is starting. However, there has been too much time that has gone, and a lot of years went to waste really. I think about that too, but I’m happy that the PFF is organising this event. A lot of players are now above 25, lots of good players, a lot may have quit too, so just having the events really helps, and we need international football for our women.”
Meanwhile, Malika believes that this year will be emotional for her to see her teams play without her, while she is expecting her side to make the hat-trick. “I trust them to win,” said Malika. “Army has a lot of good players and if we win it this time that will be our third straight trophy. So I want that.
“But I am not competing this year, and that alone makes me emotional. It has not even been a month since my son’s birth, so I can’t come back right away, but I will be back soon.”
The championship will begin on March 8, as the Pakistan Football Federation had announced earlier, to kick the action off on the International Women’s Day, and will have 20 teams in four groups vying for the title. The winner will take Rs1 million, runners-up Rs750,000 and third place team will take Rs500,000.
Mahparahas been the most regular goalkeeper for Pakistan national team while she believes that the championship in Karachi from Monday onwards has some promising features, like 20 teams, and at the same time individual prizes for the top players in each position, and that can help motivate the participants to improve their level of football.
Mostly, as witnessed over the years, the national football championship for women sees extreme scorelines with departmental sides scoring even more than 10 goals in a match, while club teams lag behind, as they do not have the same facilities as the departments have.
“The clubs need major restructuring, I know because I have played in clubs too,” said Mahpara. “But there are no football academies for women and the worst part is that clubs really don’t fulfil the needs of the players. In departments at least we can hold someone accountable, with clubs there is no accountability. So my hope is that this should change.
“In Pakistan being a woman footballer is not easy. Whether it be clubs or departmental teams, they should support women who are studying, playing and working all at the same time and then pay them too, because that is important.”
She added that the biggest challenge, even in 2021, is the environment and the way managements deal. They are still not supportive of female players. There is a need of having women-friendly culture.
“A lot of girls come from different backgrounds, and they are playing, they are determined but there have been times I have seen that the management has not been supportive or there seems to be the feeling that all the players are not comfortable. But we need to establish this culture where women are relaxed and feel supported and have professionals to help them. I feel that needs to be the aim,” said Mahpara, the 2020national women’s championship’s best goalkeeper.
On the other hand, Mahpara feels that goalkeepers and defenders are underrated in Pakistan, mostly in football, but more so in Pakistan.
“There will be a lot of talent, but as far as my field in concerned, I have never seen anyone become a goalkeeper willingly, or defender even. Everyone wants to be a striker or maybe in the midfield, but defending is tough and so is goalkeeping. In Pakistan they say whoever is the biggest in size should be the goalkeeper which also goes for defenders. I think that’s unfair. There should be at least specialized goalkeeper training for us,” added the Wapda captain while being hopeful that the new PFF management will be improving the conditions for players.
However, coming back to the national championship she added that the event will be exciting and her team has been preparing well, echoing Malika’s message for the younger players.
“Female footballers need to persist. They should keep trying. Most of the time the results are not what you are looking for but it is important to carry on,” said Malika, as she looks forward to a good year ahead since PFF are interested in having more activities for women footballers. “The PFF is looking to be serious about women’s football this time. There may be a league too later or some courses, so I will be back.”