By Umaid Wasim – DAWN
KARACHI: As the sun set beyond Karachi’s famed Netty Jetty Bridge overlooking the KPT Football Stadium, Balochistan United wrapped up their training session.
The players ran a lap of the stadium before doing their final stretching exercises. With the last flickering ray of sunlight entering the ground, they run towards the sidelines towards the changing rooms or to pause for a drink after an intense training session in the August heat.
Nothing fanciful about that, except for the fact that Balochistan United are a women’s football club preparing for the PFF Women’s Championship which kicks off next week.
Beaten finalists last year, the club are aiming to win their maiden title this year in the 10th edition of the championship.
A brainchild of Senator Rubina Irfan, the club have invested heavily this year signing the country’s top striker Hajra Khan from Diya Women’s FC while goalkeeper Mahpara Shahid has joined them from Young Rising Star Women’s FC.
“I’d like to think that we’re the best side in the championship,” the club’s captain Sohaila Zarrain tells Dawn as she wipes the sunscreen off her face.
“We’ve the best club setup as far as the women’s teams are concerned in Pakistan so there is no reason why we don’t go one step better than last year.”
Sohaila is one of three daughters of Rubina, also the chairperson of the PFF Women’s Wing, who are actively involved in promotion of women’s football in the country.
She and her sisters Raheela Ahmedzai and Shahlayla Ahmedzai were the first three players to play for the club.
“It started from home,” Rubina tells Dawn. “The first three players who played for the club were my own daughters and slowly and gradually we started building upon that.”
Shahlayla was seven when the club’s foundations were laid ten years ago. Now, the 17-year-old who was voted the best player at the last edition of the championship, is hoping to cap off what she calls a “great journey” with the title.
“It’s been great … it’s been absolutely great,” Shahlayla says as she reflects on her 10-year career.
“This year I hope to be the best player in Pakistan once again and hopefully that will propel me to better things.”
Better things would mean a move abroad — and a crack at professional women’s football.
Hajra became the first woman footballer from the country to move abroad when she signed up for a short stint with Maldives’ Sunrise Hotels and Resorts Women’s FC in June this year.
Named one of five top players in the competition during her month-long stint, she believes her move has opened a window of opportunity for Pakistan’s women’s footballers.
“Personally it was a good experience for me,” Hajra tells Dawn, “but what it’s also done is that now women footballers have hope that there is a future for us in the game.”
Her reasons to jump ship from Diya FC, the country’s oldest women’s football club?
“Balochistan United is one of the most professional clubs in the country,” Hajra says. “I began playing football for Diya FC in 2008 but the club wasn’t making any progress so I guess this was the best time to make the move.”
While Diya FC is based in Karachi, the foundations of Balochistan United were laid in Quetta.
Both clubs have been crucial in empowering women through sport and have broken cultural barriers.
“When I started the club, I had to convince parents of the girls to allow them to play football,” Rubina tells.
“At the start, we only had players from Balochistan and convincing the tribal people in the province wasn’t easy but we were able to convince them that these girls had a future in football.”
Today, these girls play in shorts and t-shirts – according to the standard kit set by world football’s governing body FIFA.
An occasional one could be spotted sporting a headscarf. FIFA lifted its controversial 2012 ban on wearing a headscarf for women during football matches earlier this year.
Maldives’ Areesha Riza gestures during Balochistan United’s team-talk on Thursday. Areesha is the first foreign player to have signed for a women’s football club in Pakistan. — Photo by White Star
The new ruling now states that the colour of the headscarf should be of the same colour as the team kit.
“The players can wear whatever they are comfortable with,” says Raheela, Rubina’s eldest daughter who has a degree in business administration and is now the manager of the club.
“We have players who are comfortable in longer shorts and headscarves so that’s not a problem.”
The problem is the lack of sponsorship for women’s football in Pakistan — an issue that also hangs heavy over the men’s game.
“We approached companies for sponsorships, some leading brands, but they told us they had no funds allocated to sponsoring women’s football … it was only for women’s cricket,” Raheela adds.
Due to the lack of sponsorships, women’s clubs like Balochistan United, Diya and five-time domestic champions Young Rising Star, are supported financially by their owners. But what if the cash supply was to dry up?
“There needs to be government support for the players,” Rubina says. “Women football needs sponsorships if it is to grow in Pakistan.”
In a sign of growth for women’s football in Pakistan, Balochistan United signed Maldives international Areesha Riza for a six-week stint last month.
Areesha’s signing is the first international acquisition by a women’s football club in Pakistan.
And Pakistan’s most decorated football coach Tariq Lutfi believes Areesha’s signing will be a boost to women’s football.
“This reflects the work being done at Balochistan United,” Lutfi, who has been involved in the coaching of the national women’s team at their international assignments over recent years, tells Dawn.
“The arrival of a foreign player is an indication that something good is happening in women’s football in Pakistan.”
Pakistan is set to host the third edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship in November this year.
Semi-finalists in the inaugural edition in 2010, Pakistan failed to progress beyond the group stage two years later.
“The team has been performing well over the years and I think we’ll be able to give a good performance in the SAFF Championships,” Hajra says.
Her international team-mate Mahpara is also hoping to impress on home soil.
“With the event being held in Pakistan, I hope we show the country the potential we have in women’s football,” the country’s top goalkeeper says.
The national team, however, has been inactive since the last 18 months – as the FIFA Women’s Rankings show.
The PFF plans to send the team to a tour of Qatar and Bahrain as preparation ahead of the SAFF event.
“We’ll be going to Qatar and Bahrain ahead of the SAFF Championships which would hopefully provide us with good practice for the event,” Sohaila, who hopes this year would be good for both club and country, says.
“My first aim is to win the national championship and then give my best at the SAFF Championships.”
Sohaila is one of eight players in the Balochistan United squad who are expected to be in the Pakistan squad for the SAFF Championship.
So how much credit would go to Balochistan United if Pakistan were to win the SAFF Championship?
“When I entered into women’s football and created Balochistan United, it was my contribution to the country which has given me so much,” Rubina says.
“There would be no greater fulfillment to my purpose than seeing Pakistan finishing top of the pile in the region’s biggest women’s football tournament.”
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2014