by Shahrukh Sohail

Pakistan finally made a long-awaited return to international women’s football this September, after an eight-year absence.

Having last played in the 2014 South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship at home, the ladies have missed out on scores of international tournaments because of the ongoing crisis at the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).

However, after the FIFA ban was lifted in late June, the PFF were able to hustle their way into a last-minute entry and Pakistan played their hearts out against a formidable group that included five-time reigning champions India, Bangladesh and Maldives.

While all the results weren’t in their favour, the ladies put up a commendable fight against India, and recorded their biggest-ever win with a 7-0 thrashing against the Maldives, earning plaudits from throughout the country.

Here are five things we learned from Pakistan’s 2022 SAFF Championship campaign …

1. Nadia Khan is the new star of women’s football

Doncaster Rover Belles’ Nadia Khan was in excellent form for the club in the FA Women’s National League, scoring 11 goals in 24 appearances last season, and she took to international football seamlessly, impressing in her debut against India.

As a forward, she was mostly utilised on the wing by head coach Adeel Rizki for both the opening games. But with Pakistan struggling to maintain possession for longer times against stronger opponents, Nadia seemed to have limited time on the ball, where she could utilise her explosive speed and dribbling skills.

In the last game against the Maldives, Pakistan clearly had the edge and it eventually turned into a Nadia Khan show, where she ran the opponents ragged, especially in the second half, in which she managed to notch four goals.

In 45 minutes, Nadia announced herself to the nation and her name was trending on Twitter for a good 24 hours, as messages poured in from people of every background. Considering the little attention the team has got in the past, this was a massive boost for women’s football in the country, and Nadia is now the poster girl for it.

2. Maria Khan is captain fantastic

Maria Khan, the granddaughter and niece of squash legends Hashim Khan and Jehangir Khan respectively, was announced as captain of the Pakistan team, which showcased the continuity of the world’s greatest sporting family, whose legacy in Pakistan squash is unparalleled. With Maria, football became the family’s latest contribution and, as a senior figure within the team with experience of playing in the highly competitive National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States and later the United Arab Emirates (UAE), she became a rallying figure for the team to gather around.

On the pitch, Maria showed superb utility as she started the opening game against India in defence and helped the team absorb an immense amount of pressure from the Indian attack, recovering quickly from an unlucky own goal.

With a changed formation against Maldives in the last game, Maria looked equally comfortable in the midfield and had a quite underrated performance, as she broke up play and controlled the midfield tempo while releasing the ball to the likes of Suha Hirani, Zulfia Nazir and Nadia Khan. This

is even discounting the fact that she played in goal for the University of Denver ‘Pioneers’ during her collegiate years, and can even play as a goalkeeper if ever the need arises!

With almost 16 debutants in the tournament, having an experienced figure within the dressing room and on the pitch was quite important for Pakistan. In Maria Khan, they now have a captain that exudes confidence and can lead the troops from the front.

3. Rameen Fareed is a rare find in Pakistani Football

One of the most impressive players for Pakistan was Rameen Fareed, a holding midfielder with the ability to dribble and maintain possession. Players in such a mould have been rare for Pakistan, including in the men’s team, and that makes Rameen’s senior international debut even more exciting.

Rameen previously played for the Pakistan U-18s in 2018 as captain and earned the best player award during the 2018 U-19 Women’s National Championships. And, although we were only able to witness glimpses of her potential — especially against stronger sides such as India and Bangladesh — it proves that Pakistan has talent for women’s football in abundance. All it needs is polishing and a platform to grow further.

With Pakistan looking to build continuity with more international matches, expect Rameen to mature as a player and grow further.

4. Mishal Akram is a solid defender

Mishal’s crunching tackles were one of the highlights of Pakistan’s brave defensive performance against India and, though the Bangladesh attack overwhelmed the backline, the left-back can be extremely proud of how she performed in her first international tournament.

Burgeoning with potential, Mishal has all the necessary qualities to improve further and become a mainstay of the Pakistan team as it aims to improve further. Considering the situation of football domestically over the last year, it is amazing to see such sharpness during an international game, and it is an indication that Mishal would do well in regional leagues outside Pakistan too.

5. Women’s football has immense potential

After eight years of going without a game, the Pakistan women’s team proved that they are no pushovers and, even despite a shortage of preparation time, put up a commendable performance at the 2022 SAFF Championship, capturing the hearts of the nation.

Following their emphatic 7-0 win against the Maldives, the team received possibly the highest amount of coverage by any Pakistani Football team, and it is certainly an indication of how popular the sport has truly become.

The real question is where do the ladies go from here? On the immediate horizon, the 2024 Paris Olympics qualifiers are set to begin in April, with Pakistan beginning from the first round. The PFF is already looking at organising friendlies for both the November 2022 and February 2023 FIFA Windows, which would be fantastic exposure for the team and allow Head Coach Rizki to experiment with his tactics.

Alongside Nadia Khan, the PFF is reportedly looking at other diaspora players, such as Aqsa Mushtaq (Avantes Chalkida), Maryam Mahmood (West Bromwich Albion) and Layla Banaras (Birmingham City), which would add another layer of quality to the team.

However, another key aspect is restructuring the entire women’s team set-up within the country, which has, so far, mostly relied on the month-long National Women’s Championship to develop local talent. The PFF must look at a long-term revamp with a more consistent competition, ideally on a league basis, spread out over a few months to give players more playing time.

Moreover, a cup competition and youth championships, to build a conveyor belt of talent that can supply both the senior and junior women’s teams, also looks like the need of the hour.

Nonetheless, with the team’s spirited performance on their return to international football, for now, the future of women’s football looks bright in Pakistan.

The writer is a sports management and marketing expert

He tweets @shahrukhsohail7

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 25th, 2022