by Ayesha Izhar

It was clear from the first day of the Gilgit-Baltistan Girls Football League (GBGFL) tournament last October that the players had improved markedly. After a hiatus of one year, due to Covid-19, the GBGFL returned to the mountains with renewed fervour.

They had used the past year well to practise and hone their skills. With the support of their parents and coaches, they had come with fighting spirit and focus. The tournament was hosted by the Passu Youth and Sports Organisation, at the scenic venue of the Surunabod Football Ground in Passu Valley, Gojal.

A total of eight teams participated, with 112 players. The teams consisted of Chipurson, Passu, Shishkat, Hunza, Morrkhun, Ghulkin, Shimshal and Khyber.

The GBGFL tournament has produced brilliant players such as the Shimshali Ronaldo, Ambreena, with her agile goal scoring, and Marvi Baig, who showcased brilliant dribbling skills in the 2018 tournament. These players have gone on to avail scholarships and study at some of the best universities of Pakistan. Every GBGFL tournament is carefully designed to catapult their footballers to the forefront of the sports world. The players get an opportunity to showcase their talent in front of the entire country, and this exposure leads to wider recognition.

Marvi Baig was introduced to GBGFL through Gulmit Young Star Club, for which she played for three years. Baig started playing football when she was only seven years old. She was encouraged by one of her brothers who also played football. The game was such a source of inspiration for her that she chose to turn her passion into her career. She says she has discovered and developed her own athletic skills throughout her playing years.

Participating in the GBGFL tournament helped Baig gain more experience at the regional level. She went on to play league matches and achieved career milestones with her outstanding performance. She says everyone at GBGFL not only encouraged her, but also sparked her ambition for a football career.

Some of the most prominent players in the 2021 tournament were Karina Zia, Irum, Saheefa, Haleema and Malaika. Most of the footballers participating in this tournament come from families that face tough socio-economic conditions, yet more than 120 families religiously send their girls to play. Parents, especially fathers, are present at the games to show their support.

Unlike their families, however, the authorities continue to fail to support these women footballers. Sports organisations and the government are yet to fulfil their promises of constructing proper football fields. The Surunabod ground can injure and wound the players in the worst ways possible. It is unfathomable how the women play on rough fields such as this, where the flying dust also hampers their performance. It also makes you imagine how much better the players would perform on proper, grassy turfs. Yet the players adapted to the uneven grounds well and enjoyed the tournament thoroughly.

Marvi speaks about the challenges that every participant has faced with regards to the lack of a proper football ground and full kits. She says that it was difficult playing in such conditions, as they got several injuries because they did not even have shin pads.

Following last year’s tournament in Gilgit, the government has made many promises to fund further competitions, but these have yet to be followed up with action. Going beyond encouraging words, the government can facilitate the women footballers more by funding a proper football field, so that proper league matches can be organised. Presenting girls a safe environment in which to play will encourage more families to support their daughters and sisters to participate in the sport.

Marvi believes that the GBGFL will grow stronger and it will contribute towards breaking gender stereotypes and the empowerment of women.

Things are already beginning to change. The National Women Team’s former vice captain, Hajra Khan, launched the Fortis Sports Academy last year. The academy selected 25 players from the GBGFL Season 3, for a fully sponsored professional five-day football training camp at Passu Valley from October 4-10. Five coaches were selected for this elite coaching training. Being trained by a professional football player was an amazing opportunity for these players.

The tournament is also featured at Dubai Expo 2021, where co-founders of GBGFL, sisters Karishma Inayat and Sumaira Inayat, are representing the league.

It is the responsibility of sports organisations of this country to create a future in sports for girls.

To reiterate, people give a plethora of reasons to justify why women’s sports should be supported and funded. But the actual answer is plain. They should be supported simply because women want to play.

The writer is a junior editor with a publishing house. She tweets @UnitedsFreak

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 20th, 2022