These young women get a real ‘kick’ out of levelling the playing field

Published in the Express Tribune

KARACHI: When it comes to fancy footwork on the football field, some of Karachi’s women are no less skilled than the men.

When 20-year-old Maheen Aqeel, a striker for the Karachi Gladiators Football Club (KGFC), scored goals in a football tournament held a couple of months ago, each kick was a strike at long-standing stereotypes about which gender belongs out on the field.

For her, the game is not a means to get physically fit but something she’s really hooked on to – and you can really tell by the gold medals and trophies she’s won as a team captain. “I hope to continue playing sports in the future and improve my game, work harder than I ever have before and achieve what I haven’t done as yet,” she said. In a society where women are hardly provided with much opportunity to showcase their skills on the field, the KGFC’s football league for women organised at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) ground was a chance to step into the limelight.

Uzair Qadri, KGFC’s founder and captain, said, “After I gained enough experience myself, my ambition became to encourage women in this sport.” Qadri, who had been a part of the Pakistani team in the 36th Asian Under-18 Football Championship, went on to form his own club to train youngsters. He eventually decided to make a separate team for women and coach them at the KMC ground as well.

“When the idea for the women’s league was floated around, everybody liked it. But when it came to the finance, everyone backed off,” said Qadri. “The Pakistan Football Federation showed its interest only by asking the players I had groomed to join the national side but abandoned them when it came to training.” The football federation’s spokesperson was not available to comment.

It was only when the KGFC arranged for the funds for the league itself that the ball literally got rolling for women footballers. “We couldn’t take any money from teams as the league’s sole purpose was to encourage them. Finding sponsors proved to be quite a tough task in the end.”

But this wasn’t the only snag the league hit along the way – an even bigger hurdle to be crossed was the players’ families, who were jittery about the whole idea. But the women eventually won over their anxious parents.

“Juggling studies, sports and social life can be a real challenge. Setting priorities was a major issue,” said Maheen. “I had to balance my studies with football. I sacrificed my spare time for the sake of studies and sports. I didn’t hang out with friends and didn’t go to some family reunions.” Mashal Hussain, the captain and head coach of Karachi United Football Club’s women squad, recalled the time when she was a fitness assistant for the men’s football team at her university.

“I helped injured players recover through various drills and exercises. In doing so, I developed a liking for the game and began watching various European leagues, learning the game and playing it,” she said. “This grew into a passion and I have been coaching and playing the sport since then.”

Mashal is determined to continue pursuing this passion. “As long as I’m able to, I’ll continue to play. Should the day come when I can’t [play football], I’ll continue to coach so that girls like me can pursue their interest.”

Qadri harbours hopes that his efforts have been enough and more . “These young women are very passionate about football and very committed…more than men,” said Qadri.

KGFC is planning another tournament for women at the end of this month.