Hajra looking forward to Pakistan’s return to action after eight-year gap [Dawn]

Hajra looking forward to Pakistan’s return to action after eight-year gap [Dawn]

by Umaid Wasim

KARACHI: It’s been an excruciatingly long wait for the Pakistan women’s football team to return to international action. And perhaps no player has felt that pain as much as star striker Hajra Khan.

Hajra was 20 the last time the national team played with a promising career on the horizon. Eight years on, her peak as a player might have passed but nonetheless, she’s looking forward to Pakistan’s participation at this year’s SAFF Women’s Championship in Nepal.

Pakistan’s football has been mired in crisis since 2015 due to infighting in the Pakistan Football Federation and while the men’s national team has found fleeting action since then, it’s the women’s game which has suffered the most.

The last time the women’s team played an international tournament was at the 2014 edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship which was hosted by Pakistan.

But with the FIFA-appointed PFF Normalisation Committee back in charge of affairs and the 15-month suspension on it lifted by the world’s football governing body last week, Hajra is hoping women’s football in the country will bounce back strongly.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Hajra told Dawn on Thursday, “… eight long years, we’ve missed out on so many tournaments and qualifiers [for AFC events. It’s really motivating to [kind of] know that after the ban is lifted, the first tournament that’s coming just short of two months we’ll be participating.”

This year’s edition of the SAFF Women’s Championship is set be held in Nepal from Aug 29 to Sept 10 and the PFF NC has to send its entry by Friday. Sources in the NC told Dawn on Thursday that the entry will be sent and the national team will be participating.

Discussions have also been held by the NC on where to hold the team’s training camp for the event. While Abbottabad has been mentioned as a potential venue with its altitude helping players acclimatise to the conditions in Nepal, there is strong backing for Lahore — where the PFF headquarters are situated — to hold the camp as football activity is returning to the country after a long time.

For now, though, the focus is about getting the team to participate rather than dwelling too much about the results it produces.

“I think it means a lot just to get back on the FIFA women’s rankings regardless of the results because you know eight years is a long time to be inactive in international competitions,” said Hajra.

“Once we prove our presence and hopefully the drive the girls have to change the game and finally play, it’s really going to boost the morale for the rest of the coming months and perhaps the next entire year the Normalisation Committee is in charge.

“Hopefully a path can be set up for more international tournaments to come so I think it will be great and there is no doubt that the girls will be working hard as they have been out for such a long time.”

Pakistan was suspended by FIFA in April last year after a group of officials led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah — elected president in PFF polls conducted by the Supreme Court but never recognised by FIFA — seized control of the PFF headquarters from the NC.

At the time of the takeover, the National Women’s Championship was underway in Karachi and was forced into an abrupt halt. The officials of Ashfaq’s group tried to carry on with the championship with Raheela Zarmeen — then PFF’s director of women’s development — asking teams if they wanted to continue participating.

Teams, however, backed out and Raheela told Dawn on Thursday she had not been approached by the PFF NC to retake her role.

“They have not approached me yet,” she said. “Neither have they taken me on board after NC announced they have got possession [of the PFF headquarters].”

The PFF NC has to act quickly as trials for the women’s team have to be held and coaching appointments still have to be made.

Dawn has reliably learnt that Dani Limones, who was PFF’s technical director at the time of the takeover, has been approached by the PFF NC but it is not yet confirmed whether he will return to his post.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2022