You can sense the infectious energy off the other end of the phone. It comes from having been rocked in the cradle by the legendary squash icon, Hashim Khan (won 7 British Opens in the 1950s). It is bedded in the doting of uncle Jahangir Khan, another legendary squash icon (won 6 World Opens and 10 consecutive British Opens in the 1980s). The glorious history of the Khans of Nawakille has a new chapter: newly-named Pakistan national women’s football team captain, Maria Jamila Khan.
“I have so many great memories with my grandpa,” relates Maria, who grew up in Aurora, Colorado where her maternal grandfather Hashim Khan would spend his later years. “He would regularly take all of us grandkids to the local squash club [in Colorado] where he remained active well into his 80s. He often treated us to the awesome sandwiches served there!”
There aren’t many athletes that dominate a sport in their own country let alone dominate all over the world and make it synonymous with their family. That’s exactly what Nawakille, a village near Peshawar, gave squash; an association that has lasted longer than Pakistan itself and looks set to continue for generations to come.
Maybe if the late Hashim Khan had his way, Maria, too, would have picked up the squash racquet.
“Sometimes I do wonder why we didn’t just continue the family tradition of playing squash,” she chuckles. “Unfortunately, squash wasn’t available at school levels in places like Colorado at that time as it was mostly still confined to elite circles on the U.S. east coast. Plus, I really enjoyed being a goalkeeper!”
In a household where picking up a squash racquet before anything else is the norm, and despite the legacy of the family being etched in every Pakistani household across the world, young Maria followed her heart: she took up football (soccer) in school.
Her passion was patronised by her mother Subhania (Hashim Khan’s youngest daughter), the hyper-energetic soccer mom who took the kids to sport practice and will even fly to Nepal to see the Pakistan team play under her daughter’s captaincy.
“We all knew growing up what Grandpa and the wider family achieved in squash. But all of us siblings have been very active in sports from a young age. My brother played basketball and [American] football growing up, my sister is an accomplished volleyball player, and I also took up football aged six and played basketball at school level.”
Perhaps a different sport was her calling but ultimately, it was always about the country the Khans of Nawakille have called home: Pakistan.
With 31-year-old Maria Khan takes the field on September 7, 2022, to make her Pakistan women’s football team debut in the upcoming SAFF Women’s Championship in Nepal, she will do so as the country’s leader. The world’s greatest sporting family will now have an international footballer among its ranks, a third-generation Pakistani hero who will inspire many more Pakistani women and girls than even she is prepared to believe.
This conversation with FootballPakistan.com was years in the making. Maria first reached out to us via our Facebook page in 2016, asking about the Pakistan women’s team.
This was the time when political crisis in PFF since mid-2015 was well underway and still goes on till this day, resulting in two FIFA suspensions on Pakistan. Pakistan WNT didn’t feature in any match between 2014-2018 nor was there any National Women’s Football Championship (NWFC) organized in that period.
The reality of women’s football in Pakistan was easy to dissuade an ordinary fan. But Maria has that grit of champions about her.
Growing up in America meant that the sporting infrastructure she had access to would only hone her talents and provide her a pathway to excellence. The fierce warrior that she is, she rose through the youth teams in Colorado before joining the University of Denver ‘Pioneers’ where she played NCAA Division 1 soccer.
“Before picking Denver, I had to make a choice between either basketball or soccer as my main sport in college,” says Maria. “Both have very different technical and physical demands but I chose soccer. At Denver, I was the second-choice goalkeeper in their women’s squad for four straight years. I did get plenty of game minutes, but I had to work extra hard to show my worth. My coaches were always impressed with my work ethic and team leadership. The improvements I showed just in my first year there amazed them.”
Graduating from Denver, Maria moved to the UAE after 2013 initially to pursue a Master’s degree and then eventually settling in the Gulf country, “The UAE is always a stopover whenever my family visits Pakistan as we maintain very close ties with our extended relatives in Peshawar/Nawakille. Moving to the UAE became a natural choice between the U.S. and Pakistan.”
She became actively involved in the UAE’s nascent women’s football scene at the same time but now as an outfield player.
“My switch from being a goalkeeper into an outfield player was not that challenging. At Denver, all the goalkeepers would take part in similar technical drills with the outfield squad in training, so we were always comfortable with the ball at our feet. Goalkeepers have the entire action taking place right in front of them in every game, so I always paid close attention to how the outfield players worked tactically and technically. By then, goalkeepers around the world had become more involved in build-up plays from the back so playing in other positions was not an issue for me.”
UAE’s women’s football circuit also helped introduce Maria to her would-be husband Omar. He was also active as a coach before they eventually got married and both remain actively involved in the game.
Then in 2014, Pakistan hosted the SAFF Women’s Championship where the Pakistan WNT would end up playing for the last time for the next eight years. News and content from that event somehow caught Maria’s attention sometime later and that piqued her curiosity.
“Someone shared something with me on social media about Pakistan having a women’s team. I was completely amazed by it. I knew I had to find out more about this and tried reaching out to the relevant people about the possibility of playing for Pakistan. My entire family have always been proud of our Pakistani-Pashtun heritage and our Muslim faith for our entire lives. So playing for Pakistan in another sport comes naturally to us!”
The dream of representing Pakistan as a footballer was now real.
The next question was who were the others? Where did they play? Could she help them in any way? Playing in the UAE’s women circuit, she’d keep tabs on any Pakistani women coming through.
And they did: the likes of Zulfia Nazir and Syeda Mahpara managed a brief stint in the UAE’s women league where they first came across Maria.
“Given how small the UAE women’s football circuit is, I always like to know what kind of players are coming in and where they come from,” says the captain. “So, I was very pleased to know that some from Pakistan also came in and we connected during their season here.”
When the first FIFA ban on Pakistan in 2017-18 was lifted and football resumed, the PFF organised a National Women’s Football Championship after four years to try and rebuild women’s NT. Maria had established contacts with some of the players and PFF in that time with some old-school folks offering her a chance to play in the NWFC for local coaches to assess her.
Royal Eagles FC, where Zulfia would also play, took part in the 2018 NWFC and they offered Maria a shot. Putting aside her NCAA Division 1 credentials and playing organised football in UAE, she took the opportunity and played for the side, reaching the knockout stage in their first attempt.
Her skill and abilities clearly impressed PFF staff and coaches. Maria would be called up again to play the NWFC twice more in 2019-20 and the disrupted 2021 edition as a star midfielder for a talented WAPDA women’s side featuring the likes of Sahar Zaman and Mahpara.
Looking back at the experience of playing domestic women’s football in Pakistan, Maria gets emotional. “It was honestly the greatest sporting moment of my life. Playing the NWFC, I saw almost 200 girls playing football in a country like Pakistan and that really touched my heart. It was such an amazing feeling!”
Just as PFF might have looked to resume women’s NT with a view to prepare for 2019 SAFF Women’s Championship, the political aspects of Pakistani football took another turn when the Supreme Court ordered fresh PFF elections for December 2018. These elections weren’t recognised by FIFA and all officially organised football came to a halt. With the FIFA-recognised PFF ousted from office, no national team camps or tournament entries were done, missing the 2019 SAFF.
In June 2019, FIFA appointed a Normalisation Committee to run PFF affairs. The NC organised a National Women’s Championship and Maria helped WAPDA reach the semi-finals before losing to eventual champions Army retaining their 2018 crown. NC management too had been impressed by her and wanted to revive Pakistan WNT with Maria in their plans for 2020 but the world was hit by COVID-19 pandemic and all immediate plans of friendly matches or competitions scrapped.
As pandemic restrictions eased in late 2020, the PFF’s new Technical Director Dani Limones was keen on getting the Pakistan WNT back together. While friendly matches were hard to find due to restrictions, Dani wanted to bring the players together for a brief training camp in October 2020. Maria joined up with squad and everyone was all praises for the camp which was the first time Women’s NT got together since 2014 and how well it was handled.
Now with training camp done and restrictions easing, there was hope for international action. However there was more drama brewing in the PFF as NC Chairman Humza Khan resigned and interim Chairman Munir Sadhana refused to entertain any football plans, domestic or international. PFF’s planned NWFC for January 2021 was also derailed by Sadhana and it took the newly composed NC further two months to start the competition in March.
The 2021 NWC had more teams than ever. Masha United had recruited 4 players from Nepal despite Covid-19 challenges, Maria had brought another UAE-based Pakistani player with her to play for WAPDA and they were one of the favourites once again.
As the tournament was in full flow with countless feel-good stories of women’s teams coming from places such as Quetta, Manghopir/Karachi, KPK, Gilgit, Sialkot and South Punjab, it all came crashing down when the unrecognized 2018 PFF election winner Ashfaq Shah and his group captured the PFF House and ousted the NC. The group took over the event which now had no official status and teams started to withdraw from the tournament in protest as football again became victim to politics.
It was a tragic end to a wonderful tournament which would have helped identify players for senior and junior women’s national teams, Pakistan went on to be suspended by FIFA for 15 long months and the suspension was only lifted on 30 June 2022. “It was heart breaking to see how football suffered because of the political crises in the Federation. All the girls were just devastated by what happened,” recalled Maria as she had to return back to UAE.
Back playing in UAE league, with Pakistan banned and future uncertain, Maria pondered over whether she could live her dream or if it was all futile.
But with the second FIFA ban on Pakistan ending after the NC regained PFF control, momentum gathered around the return of Pakistan WNT after eight long years, just in time for the 2022 SAFF Women’s Championship in Nepal. Maria Khan was again contacted about finally making her long awaited debut for Pakistan.
But this time, she wanted to see a project that can provide a platform for Pakistani women to shine. Locked in conversations with various people from Pakistani football, including the NC, she was convinced. “I am very thankful to everyone who reached out to me and had an honest conversation of why me playing for Pakistan is important for everyone.”
Maria again packed up her belongings in August and landed in Pakistan to join the WNT training camp in Lahore. The players and coaches around her were instantly in awe with what she brings on and off the pitch. When the final 23-member squad was announced, Maria Khan was named Pakistan WNT captain, “It was an extremely emotional and humbling moment for me. I still get teary eyed just thinking about when I was announced as captain. I realize the responsibility it brings and its not just about wearing an armband. Mashallah we have such a great bunch of players in this squad with the likes of Malika-e-Noor, Hajra Khan, Sahar Zaman, Mahapara among the senior lot that last played in 2014 and the talented younger ones like Rameen Fareed, Suha Hirani, Marvi Baig and Nadia Khan who will be making their debuts. Its wonderful to meet girls from places like Hunza, Gilgit, Karachi, Islamabad etc. all together as one national team. We all get along so well as a bunch during training and outside.”
She is somebody who doesn’t just add to the team on the pitch but also off the pitch, as someone who has been helping female footballers in the UAE to further their careers. Maria strongly believes that Pakistani footballers, if they can’t get improved competitions at home, should look to explore opportunities abroad, be it through sports scholarships in universities in North America or clubs in the region.
This is something she has been trying to do for the younger players ever since she first played in the National Women’s Championship but the instability, the bans and political turmoil hasn’t helped, she hopes she can do this soon. The idea of giving back to her sport and teammates is something she has always been inspired by her grandfather Hashim Khan who after retiring spent considerable time and energy in helping other Pakistani athletes and especially in Squash. She also feels she will be able to help mentor younger players in the national team setup as well as be the bridge with any new overseas based recruits.
When Maria leads Pakistan out on the pitch against India on September 7, she will carry the family’s nearly eight-decade long sports legacy in a different direction. A debut that she should have made years ago so, she alongside her teammates could have enjoyed their peak years taking Pakistani women’s football forward. Instead, they had to wait this long just to get a match. The Khan squash family continue to produce squash players even now with 15-year-old Umair Khan, a great-grandson of Hashim Khan, winning the All Pakistan Junior Squash title.
“Whenever I visit Pakistan and catch up with my cousins, it’s always a lovely surprise knowing I now have another nephew or niece in the world, and many of them keen to take up the sport to continue Hashim Khan’s legacy. Grandpa would be so proud!” beamed the Pakistan WNT captain.
But all eyes remain on the trajectory of 31-year-old Maria Khan’s career: it might well define the future of Pakistan women’s football.