by Ali Ahsan
Who would have thought a freekick goal in women’s football would have made people remember Ronaldinho’s vs England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup. With Pakistan women’s national team getting desperate at the Prince Saud bin Jalawi Stadium in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia against the home side, captain Maria Jamila Khan stepped up and delivered to equalise on a historic 19th January evening.
The goal helped the match finish 1-1 with Pakistan 2nd in the 4-Nation Women’s International Friendly Cup, behind the hosts and tournament winners, after a 1-0 win against Comoros on the 11th and a 2-1 loss to Mauritius on the 15th.
Maria’s strike also went viral on social media, and attracted significant traction online. Even the Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif quote tweeted the video and offering his congrats to the WNT for their efforts at the Saudi tournament.
Now that excitement for Maria Khan’s epic freekick in Saudi Arabia has subsided, its important to share what went right, what went wrong, and what’s next for our girls to be regulars in international football.
A new beginning for Women’s Football
Firstly, credit to the Saudi Football Federation going full speed with women’s football. Their WNT been very active over past 12 months, having a proper women’s league, hosting this Four-Nation Cup – and becoming its champions – are going to help further women’s football in a part of the world where conservative values and strict gender norms often shape and restrict women’s participation in certain public activities like sport.
The event provided Pakistan WNT a great opportunity to not only play teams outside SAFF but also from Africa due to Comoros and Mauritius taking part. While both CAF teams were lower ranked than us, and Saudis remain unranked due to no competitive fixtures yet, rankings can be deceiving.
Both Comoros and Mauritius brought in a physical, more direct style of play while Saudi Arabia under legendary coach and women’s football pioneer Monika Staab were more possession-based. Such contrasting styles demand flexible tactics and player awareness. Sure quality down the rankings diminish, but its all about taking any and all chances.
With Pakistan yet to have proper domestic women’s football since the last National Women’s Football Championship got disrupted in March 2021 due to a hostile takeover of the PFF, having prolonged training camps at home and relying on diaspora players that feature in regular competitive football overseas becomes imperative.
Most of Pakistan squad from 2022 SAFF Women’s Championship in Nepal – our girls’ first international event since 2014! – was retained under head coach Adeel Rizki. Maria remained captain, Malika e Noor as vice-captain who partnered Mishal Bhatti in defence. There were some notable newcomers too. Aliya Sadiq became an option going forward while Sahiba Sherdil became the newest defensive recruit.
Among the diaspora players were England-based midfielder Amina Hanif, England-based striker Zahmena Malik, and Canada-based goalkeeper Rumaysa Khan. WNT star Nadia Khan of English side Doncaster Rovers Belles was expected to partner Zahmena upfront while captain Maria Khan moved up the pitch to take a more center midfield role.
But there were some notable absentees. Among those dropped from the SAFF 2022 squad were ex-captain Hajra Khan, midfielder Khadija Kazmi and goalkeeper Syeda Mahpara Shahid. Midfielder Zulfia Nazir, who had faced a bad knee injury during SAFF 2022, was also dropped. Nisha Ashraf found herself as first-choice goalkeeper for the Saudi tourney.
Different players being called up in international football is normal. Coaches live and die by their selections and tactics. It is their discretion and authority on who gets picked and how they play. If the plan works, the coach is given all kinds of praise. If the plan doesn’t work, they face questions from fans and media.
The dropped players can always go back to domestic scene, work on their performances, and push themselves to get selected again. That would be nice except Pak women’s football still awaits its next domestic tournament (preferably a proper league!).
Ex-captain and striker Hajra Khan getting dropped was, in hindsight, probably the one decision that could have been avoided. Hajra offers a useful presence in a utility role anywhere on the pitch and much needed physicality too. In SAFF 2022, she was played out of position as a right back but did well for all matches she played in.
Nonetheless the new names from diaspora meant that despite muted expectations ahead of the tournament, some were quietly confident that this full-strength Pakistan had what it takes to even win a first ever international women’s trophy.
A cagey opening game vs Comoros was decided late by Anmol Hira squeezing a shot into the net from a clever backheel by debutant Zahmena. Yet everyone got puzzled why Nadia and the two other diaspora players were not even part of playing side.
Their absences continued to be noticed in the 2-1 loss to Mauritius and the 1-1 draw with hosts Saudi Arabia. The team coaching staff did not offer any explanations, neither did the PFF Normalisation Committee back home as to why someone like Nadia – who had lit up SAFF 2022 in Nepal due to her pace and goalscoring – was not played.
It was eventually discovered that Nadia, Amina, and Rumaysa had not been issued Pakistani passports on time from the local office of the Directorate General of Immigration & Passports (DGI&P). They had traveled to Pakistan to take part in the month-long camp on their NICOPs (National ID Card for Overseas Pakistanis) that technically show Pakistani nationality for overseas residents.
However, the event organizers in Saudi Arabia had insisted on strictly following FIFA rules where only players possessing valid passports can play international matches for their national teams. To be fair, the rules are compulsory when playing competitive matches like World Cups, Continental Cups, Olympics and their qualifying matches as per FIFA/AFC regulations.
But for friendlies, having passports is not a strict requirement as long as a player can show some form of ID to be considered eligible to play for a national team. This 4-Nation Cup was a not a major tournament and would thus be considered friendlies by FIFA/AFC. This is also the same for regional tournaments across Asia organized by the likes of SAFF, WAFF etc. Yet the Saudi organizers insisted that passports needed to be shown this time round.
Nadia, who had played in SAFF 2022 on her NICOP and with evidence that she had indeed sent out a passport application at a local Pakistani consulate in England, got hamstrung by Pakistan’s bureaucratic red tape causing delay after delay across many months. Amina and Rumaysa applied for passports in Pakistan and were told by DGI&P officials they would receive them before the squad departed. They didn’t, and as a result neither could play in any match as the squad left for al-Khobar.
Any other Federation would have gone the extra mile to ensure all documentary requirements for players were completed beforehand. This could include having a working rapport with relevant government officials at high enough positions to expedite any pending applications. At the same time, FIFA could also be contacted for clarification on the ID document rules for playing non-competitive international matches.
National ID cards are the primary citizenship document in countries like Pakistan where people often cannot or do not travel overseas and hence may not even have a passport at all. Surely FIFA could have considered possessing NICOPs to be enough proof for playing friendlies and minor tournaments when passports where under process, and issued a letter allowing the inclusion of such players.
It does appear PFF NC had neither the right enough government-level contacts or approached FIFA for clarity beforehand so a full-strength Pakistan could play, and potentially win, the tournament. Even the media could have been used to build public interest for overcoming DGI&P red tape on time, but again the NC seemed lacking in that regard.
‘Do More’ would be our advice, especially with the need for having as many quality diaspora players for both the men’s and women’s national teams for crucial international events expected in 2023.
Tactical Talking Points
Hamstrung by not having their main attacking threats at play, Pakistan had to make do with what it had. Keeping possession for significant periods remained a challenge for all WNT sides to be fair. Sarah Khan, Malika and Mishal did the job to keep the defence tidy. Maria worked overtime in midfield with defensive and attacking duties, with the likes of Rameen Fareed and Sanober Sattar often forced to chase the ball when pressed out of possession.
Zahmena had to regularly track back to pressure opposition given clear chances were few and far between – a testament to her high workrate in all 3 games. Suha Hirani, playing more as a winger this time, showed skill but often had to deal with physical style of play from opposition by herself. Anmol Hira also faced similar challenges due to a lack of pace required to pounce on loose balls and counterattacks.
Across all 6 matches, goalkeepers for all teams had little to do given much of the action was all tied up in the center of the pitch. But the few times they did get tested, goals weren’t far away. Nisha Ashraf had her moments – good and bad – in goal, often in the same game. Against Comoros, she had her first main test as a counterattack caught Pakistan out but mercifully the shot went past her and out for a goal kick.
In the second game, she missed with should have been a regulation ball in the box to catch or punch away as Mauritius took an early lead. At the other end, the Mauritius goalkeeper did not cover a Suha Hirani freekick, allowing Maria to pounce on the rebound and equalise before half time. In 2nd half, Nisha remarkably saved a Mauritius penalty – with her leg no less. However, just minutes later Mauritius made it 2-1 with a Puskas Award worthy strike from distance even Hope Solo would struggle to save. Pakistan did win a penalty later in the half, but Maria went for power and hit straight at the goalkeeper down the middle instead of placing it into the corner.
One thing to note is the sheer lack of goalkicks and punts by Pakistan WNT goalkeepers, making them pass the ball to a defender so they can clear, only to allow the opposition to press up the pitch and put pressure in dangerous areas. That’s what Mauritius did in the 2nd half and what the Saudis also often did in the third game. This is a weakness that needs significant working to improve Pakistan WNT’s domestic goalkeepers and their kicking moving forward.
Pakistan vs Saudi Arabia
By the final day Saudis had won both their games against Mauritius and Comoros to lead the table. Comoros picked up their own first win over Mauritius 2-1, with both Comoros goals being opportunistic lobs from distance the goalkeeper could not deal with each time. That meant Pakistan had to win if they fancied to win the title, otherwise a draw meant 2nd place.
With over 5000 fans in attendance, including plenty of Pakistanis living in al-Khobar and nearby Dammam in full voice, the Saudis took a lead at half time. Pakistan did not react enough at a Saudi freekick landing near the box, allowing Albandari Mubarak to pounce and easily finish past Nisha Ashraf. Playing three in attack meant the three in midfield would often get outnumbered by the Saudis, forcing Pakistan to lose possession due to not enough players tracking back to disrupt opposition plays.
The 2nd half was all Pakistan though, with Maria doing everything to rally her troops. But it took a moment of cleverness to equalise in 64th minute when Maria deliberately hit a free kick from quite a distance at goal, with the Saudi goalkeeper failing to clear the ball as it entered the net. The Pakistanis in the stands, including many families and their kids, erupted in cheers.
Deep in stoppage time, Maria almost found the winner as a long freekick from Mishal Bhatti caused a goalmouth scramble, with Zahmena being double teamed by two Saudi defenders – worthy of a penalty shout – but the loose ball bounced to Maria whose cheeky lob just sailed over the ball with seconds left. The 1-1 draw meant the home side finished as 4-Nation Women’s Cup champions with 7 points, Pakistan got 2nd with 4 points, while Mauritius and Comoros occupied the remaining places.
Pakistan captain Maria Jamila Khan was named the Best Player of the tournament due to her leadership and abilities both on and off the pitch. She was no doubt Pakistan’s best player in all three games with 2 goals and often being a machine in midfield.
The tournament generated very feelgood moments for Pakistan’s women footballers. Having not been able to play a single international senior game between 2014 and 2022, Pakistan now has played 6 in 4 months. More are needed, especially with the 2024 Olympics women’s qualifiers in April with Pakistan facing a daunting group featuring a strong Philippines, Tajikistan and Hong Kong.
That would be the first time Pakistan WNT would feature in a competitive fixture and for that nothing needs to be left to chance. With more diaspora players in Europe and North America waiting in the wings, the PFF NC must work to ensure all their documents – yes, especially passports – are completed. This would definitely require outreach with the Federal Government, especially the Interior Ministry long-term, so that some arrangement can be made for diaspora Pakistani footballers to get their documents done smoothly and quickly.
On the social media front, the PFF NC did provide regular content from the WNT camp and tournament sidelines to generate interactions on various platforms. Though its also important for proper media persons to handle all necessary media commitments and norms expected at this level, from covering pre- and post-match press conferences, to releasing any official statements when expected. Lack of proper media management meant vast majority of Pakistani media failed to adequately report our WNT matches.
Given how precarious the domestic football situation is, especially for women’s football, drastic reforms for national-level tournaments and leagues would take nearly a decade of consistent effort to produce even enough domestic players to handle the increasing demands of international football. Which means our reliance on quality diaspora players from Europe and North America will continue.
At the same time, the WNT needs a dedicated coaching staff – ideally female – with the requisite qualifications and desire to prepare a team with the best combination of domestic and diaspora players available to maximize chances of good results. This would especially be true for competitive fixtures like Olympic, Women’s Asian Cup, and Women’s World Cup qualifiers.
Most people in Pakistan give knee-jerk reactions to women’s football, calling it a ‘waste of time and money’ at the best of times. A winning and performing team is necessary to change these attitudes and make women’s football realize its true potential moving forward and proving that football is the game everyone gets to play. Football doesn’t and shouldn’t discriminate on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or social class. Football is for everyone.