Keeping Faith [Dawn]

Keeping Faith [Dawn]

by Mir Shabbar Ali

Syeda Mahpara Shahid has seen it all. She was the first ever goalkeeper to represent Pakistan since the women’s football team came into existence in 2010.

She has maintained her stronghold inside the box ever since.

Her story, however, is not a typical one. It’s not really about a passionate football fan desperately wanting to represent her country. It’s more about fate and Mahpara’s mother, and how both combined 10 years ago to make an average school-going teen achieve the Pakistan #1 jersey.

Her story began when the American Embassy in Pakistan sponsored the Young Rising Stars Football Club and asked Mahpara’s school to encourage good players to join its football team.

“I told my mother about it and she thought I should go for it as it was a good opportunity, although I was not at all interested,” says the Rawalpindi-born player.

The 23-year-old reveals that at that time she was very lazy when it came to sporting activities. Had her mother not pushed her in the direction she would have not achieved the limelight that she later did.

Mahpara, though, did not start her career as a goalkeeper. “I started playing as a central defender for Young Rising Stars,” she says.

“In 2008, our goalkeeper left the club. Back in those days I used to do some keeping to help my teammate Malika-e-Noor do her shooting practice. One day my coach saw me and felt that I possessed potential to become a good goalkeeper,” she says.

Her motivation to take up the role then was comically unique. “Being very lazy I was happy being the goalie since I didn’t have to run anymore,” she reveals.

“Eventually, my coach trained me as a goalkeeper. He helped me learn the skills and technicalities related to the position.”

It took just three years for Mahpara to prove that she was good enough to be a part of Pakistan’s first ever women football roster, selected ahead of the South Asian Games.

“I used to play for Young Rising Stars taking it as an extracurricular activity until I was called up for the national team’s camp in 2010. Following that I chose football as my profession,” she says.

“The opportunity was hard to let go since I was getting to wear the Pakistan colour and our first South Asian Games match was against India.”

Mahpara’s first face-off against archrivals India did not go the way she wanted it, however. She saw the ball go past her into the net six times — while Pakistan failed to score.

And in the next match, Pakistan conceded eight against Nepal.

Two back-to-back humiliating drubbings, however, were not enough to bring down the morale of the girls in green and as Mahpara describes the feeling.

The players were “nervous, but not negative” about their first experience in international football.

Mahpara, a Real Madrid fan, continued playing for Young Rising Stars until 2013 when she made a move to the Balochistan United Football Club (BUFC).

She represented BUFC for just one year but made a lot of memories and a special friend too — a friend she lost in October last year.

“She was more than just a teammate, more than just a footballer. She was a compassionate human being, who always liked helping people,” says Mahpara about her BUFC and Pakistan teammate Shahlyla Baloch, who was tragically killed in a car crash last year.

“BUFC was a great experience because we played like a real team there. But Shahlyla will always remain the highlight of my time with the club. I miss her a lot,” she adds before becoming silent for a while.

In 2014, when the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Championship was hosted by Pakistan, Mahpara and company were presented with a golden opportunity to prove their mettle as a developing football side.

“It was exciting as it was the first time ever that we were going to play in front of our home crowd,” says Mahpara, who is currently associated with Rossoneri Dubai FC.

Pakistan, placed in Group ‘B’ of the eight-team tournament, kicked off their campaign with a 2-1 loss to Sri Lanka followed by a 2-0 loss to Nepal in their second outing.

“We were an improved side, defensively, in that match as compared to the South Asian Games in 2010 where we conceded eight against Nepal,” Mahpara points out.

The goalkeeper believes that the SAFF Women’s Championship was a “shut-up call” for critics who expected too much from a side which faced scarcity of training resources and time for practice ahead of the event.

“Our efforts, despite the lack of proper training, sent a message to the people who criticised us that they were wrong,” she says.

“I think the tournament could have been promoted in a much better way among the people and we could have had more fans backing us,” complains Mahpara about the lack of effort by the organisers.

Mahpara has been the undisputed Pakistan goalkeeper in the national women’s side since her debut.

She obviously has enjoyed being the best but also longs for competition from other girls who are passionate about football and goalkeeping in particular.

“I believe I am the best woman goalkeeper in the country and naturally I’m proud of it. But things will become much more interesting when I face a challenge from the emerging players vying for my position,” she says.

Present conditions in the country’s football scene, however, don’t at all indicate anything of the kind happening soon and Mahpara is not happy about this.

She feels that development can only take place when the country’s football governing body resolves the never-ending controversies within it.

“Even if they don’t,” she says, “the players do not deserve to suffer in such situations.

“The game should go on. Tournaments should be held on a regular basis so that the players, too, may continue to work on their fitness and technique. We can’t always train on our own,” she says.

Despite the hopelessness associated with the country’s football scene, women’s football here has prospered exceptionally in a social environment which tends to keep girls away from sporting fields.

The Pakistan women’s football team, which appeared on to the international scene only in 2010, is surprisingly ranked higher than the more experienced men’s side. The men’s team is 197th in FIFA World Rankings while the girls in green are currently ranked 128th, with 105 being their top ranking in the last six years.

Mahpara’s journey as the Pakistan number one could not have been possible without the people who motivated her at different stages of her life.

The most important of them all, she says, was her coach at Young Rising Stars FC, Shahid Khan.

“Sir Shahid was the one who found potential in me as a goalkeeper and worked really hard on making me what I am today,” she says.

She also credits former Pakistan coach Tariq Lutfi and former national skipper and goalkeeper Jaffar Khan, for her growth as a footballer.

There are things that have been a cause for worry for Mahpara throughout her career and she believes they can potentially constrain the growth of women’s football in Pakistan.

She strongly feels that no progress can be made if fans do not back the team.

“No matter how poor we are at our game we will only get better if people keep backing us,” she exclaims.

“Women’s football is usually not taken seriously here. What really gets to me and makes me mad is that most people do not even know that Pakistan has a women’s football side. And despite their lack of awareness, they are always looking for an opportunity to ridicule us on social media,” complains Mahpara.

“When we lose matches, they call us ‘parchi’ [unfairly selected] players,” she complains. “They criticise our playing kits. All these things play on a player’s psyche. We really need people to support us.”

The writer tweets @MirAliRed

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine February 12th, 2017