Cinderella Salamat: The trailblazer of Sialkot City FC [Express Tribune]

Cinderella Salamat: The trailblazer of Sialkot City FC [Express Tribune]

by Natasha Raheel

KARACHI: Switch the Cinderella story for a new one. Instead of castles make it a football field and instead of evil female antagonists have the goal post and the dream to make Sialkot City FC one of the best teams for women in the country.

This is the real story of Cinderella Salamat, the coach and captain of debutants Sialkot City FC and hers is the struggle not just to see her team that took her six long years to put together play at the only women’s championship in the country but also have the opportunities for herself and her players to shine through, making it all happen by building a whole new football culture in Sialkot, just to get to this point.

Her team sensed a win, she knows it, during their 2-2 draw against Karachi Women FC at the KMC stadium, where Sialkot FC scored the first goal in the fifth minute through Noor, and Cinderella doubled the lead in the 15th minute on a penalty, while Hania scored two goals for Karachi Women FC to save them from losing their second consecutive match.

Earlier, her team had to bring themselves back into the tournament emotionally after getting thrashed 19-0 in the opening match of the National Women’s Football Championship in Group B against Masha FC.

Cinderella was forcing a smile, but knew very well that she must believe in the process and the journey.

“It has been a long journey, we had to set up our academy in Sialkot, there is no culture of football there for women, none at all, for us to be even playing here in this tournament. It has been a labour of blood, sweat and tears,” Cinderella told The Express Tribune, after the draw against Karachi Women FC, who also took the devastation on the opening day conceding a 19-0 defeat against Karachi United.

“It was a better day for us. After the opening match, we had a break and we managed to look into our mistakes, it was a tough loss, we learned from it, but of course Masha United FC have foreign players and they are older and stronger too, we only have very young girls. But I’m very happy that they made less mistakes, they played better, you must have seen it, we improved, the confidence is also back.”

For Cinderella, the Sialkot City Academy and her teams and football are a way to change the lives for the better.

“Football means a lot to me, we had to establish this whole culture in Sialkot, there isn’t much sports there, we used to volunteer in schools and colleges just to see the players and encourage them to play football, just to introduce the sport to them. But now with Sialkot City FC and academy we have this small platform that I’m very proud of, that we are proud of,” explained Cinderella.  

The coach and founder Malik Abdul Aziz added that forming the girls’ team has been a journey of six years, while the academy has 400 boys playing football and some also getting scholarships for colleges and universities through sports, while for girls, the task was herculean because at first the parents were not as open to the idea and in a city like Sialkot, there are more restrictions culturally too, for example girls cannot play openly at public spaces, or even while wearing sports gear. 

“We now have 67 girls in our academy, some couldn’t make it to Karachi because the parents didn’t allow them as the Covid-19 pandemic fear is still very much there, but our struggle to have a team has been a long one and we are happy that all the hard work is paying off. We used to go to schools and colleges on Fridays and Saturdays on alternative weekdays just to help girls play and pick the players, just to at least work on grassroots and establish this idea, culture that girls can play football too, safely and successfully.

“For six years we have done that. I’ve been to at least 186 schools throughout this time, training the girls, introducing them to football. We’ve done that in big cities like Karachi where girls can still play openly, there is awareness, this was not so in Sialkot, it is still not there to this day, but in these six years we made our own ground too for the academy. We took the initiative, begged the parents to let their girls play. The idea is to have players from all the backgrounds,” said Abdul. 

A former Railways player, Abdul Aziz understands what sports can do for character building and even more than that how playing a big tournament for the first time can boost the confidence of his players, but mostly he credits Cinderella for the efforts that went into bringing the team together.

“For our players like Noor who scored the first goal today, she is just 14 but a powerhouse of talent, and we have our younger players very motivated now, however, this all goes back to Cinderella, she has worked hard, and she is the reason why we even have this girls’ team. This is the truth, she is inspiring, she works so hard, even marks the field with paint before the matches, she even rides her bike and picks up players, she has worked so hard for this team, and all of this for the love of the sport.

“She has been unemployed throughout this time, for two years, and she is a hero in many ways, and our layers follow her. She did her License C coaching course online that was offered by the Pakistan football Federation last year, and now she is doing wonders with that,” said Abdul Aziz proudly, adding that the academy needed a women coach for girls and that women coaches bring in more comfort and support for players compared to men coaching women all the time.

“There is a need for women coaches, there are certain things that only a woman can help with and we need this in our academy, in our eco-system. For now, this is our first National championship so it is like a festivity, like Eid for these players, and we want to make the best of it,” concluded Abdul Aziz.  

The dream is limitless

Cinderella believes that her calling is to get the young girls and women out of their houses to the field but for that there needs to be opportunities for women in football apart from being players.

“I would love to see my players at the departmental teams. Of course they are more resourceful, but there should be jobs, ways for us to rise above, like I couldn’t shine through earlier as a player because of financial restraints, then the PFF stopped football activities from 2015 till a year ago, so I couldn’t play even, although I represented Punjab at the National Championship before,” Cinderella revisited the beginning.

“I started playing when I was just a teenager, under 16 years of age, but it had been a struggle, when you don’t have money or resources. However, now my dream is to have women out in the field, in the coaching positions. The PFF needs to work on empowering women coaches, have them employed, some programmes, that can earn them money too. I myself have not had a job for two years now, despite all this work. Sialkot City FC is not a business, we do it for love and care but this needs to change, it needs to be professional now.”

Cinderella’s view is on point. The national sports are usually dominated by the departmental sides, while in football particularly, clubs come in on their own just to play the tournament, as there is an absence of professional set-up for women and men’s but for women, it becomes even harder, because of lack of opportunities and only one championship in the calendar year.

Cinderella however, concluded that she is letting her team relax and the goal for herself is to not stress out much. “I have told my players to give their best, regardless of the win or defeat and I try to stay relaxed and not stress out as much as possible, because worrying can be contagious, and I internalize most of the things, just so that my players stay calm, and this is a lesson for me to stick to, whatever the result maybe,” said Cinderella.

In other matches of the day at the National Championship, Karachi United defeated Higher Education Commission 2-0 with Zulfia Nazir scoring both goals in the other Group B fixture at KPT Stadium. In the Group A match, Gilgit FC crushed Hazara Quetta FC 5-0 with two goals from Misbah Rasool while Zahra, Samreen and Shahzadi scored a goal each.

Published in The Express Tribune, 12 March 2021