by Umaid Wasim

Goals change the course of matches, but there are some that have the potential to change a landscape, alter the course of history and shape the future.

Maria Khan’s stunning free-kick for Pakistan against hosts Saudi Arabia in their Four-Nations Cup match last month could do just that for women’s football in the country.

It’s been all the rave; Maria has become an overnight sensation. Clips of her goal have been widely shared on social media, the attention it has received has brought the women’s game in Pakistan into the spotlight and put sharp focus on what the team can achieve.

Trailing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia in their third and final game of the round-robin tournament at the Saud Bin Jalawi Stadium in Al Khobar City, Pakistan received a free kick wide on the right with 25 minutes left to play.

Up stepped their captain with the goal in her sights and she wrapped her left foot around it. As the ball swerved in the air, the Saudi goalkeeper misjudged the flight and, although she did get a hand to it, she couldn’t prevent it from going in. It was Maria’s moment. It was Pakistan’s moment; the goal seeing them finish runners-up to the Saudis with the 1-1 draw.

For a side that was only playing its second tournament after an eight-year exile from international football which ended in September last year, there is renewed hope that more good things are in the offing.

Pakistan could’ve done better in Saudi Arabia if they had every member of their squad available. Nadia Khan, the England-based striker who’d emerged as Pakistan’s breakout star at September’s SAFF Women’s Championship — the national team’s first international tournament since 2014 — was one of three players who weren’t allowed to play because they didn’t have Pakistan passports.

Nadia’s National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis allowed her to feature at the South Asian event but the rules set by the global football body FIFA mean players need to have a passport and the Saudis were abiding by them for the tournament they had organised. The FIFA-appointed Pakistan Football Federation Normalisation Committee, which is running the sport in the country, later admitted that they knew that the players didn’t fulfill the eligibility criteria.

“The players had applied for passports, but they didn’t come in time before the departure,” PFF Normalisation Committee chairman Haroon Malik told reporters two days after the team returned from Saudi Arabia.

“We took them along because they were impact players and even if they’d received their passports for the last game, it would’ve made a difference. We could’ve won the tournament.”

The team’s coach Adeel Rizki struck a similar chord. “Players like Nadia can make a huge difference but, even though she didn’t play, her presence in the training sessions helped the others and kept the morale high in the camp,” he told Eos.

The tournament in Saudi Arabia came after an extensive five-week camp for the national team. Both the men’s and women’s teams have been high on the agenda for the PFF Normalisation Committee since it regained control of the PFF headquarters at the end of June last year, when a 15-month suspension on Pakistan was lifted by FIFA.

That suspension had come after the PFF Normalisation Committee was thrown out of office by a group of officials led by Ashfaq Hussain Shah. Shah was elected as the PFF president in polls held by the Supreme Court in December 2018, which were not accepted by FIFA. It was due to the bitter wrangle over control of the PFF that prompted the world’s football governing body to install a Normalisation Committee in September 2019.

Maria came into national reckoning after her strong performances in the National Women’s Championship in 2020 — the first domestic tournament organised by the PFF Normalisation Committee, which was initially led by Humza Khan.

A change at the helm of the Normalisation Committee, as well as its members, came in January 2021 and the Women’s Champ­ionship was reaching its final strait when the takeover of the PFF headquarters saw the tournament suspended, never to resume.

But it was the women players who led Pakistan’s international return once the suspension was lifted. Having lost to India and Bangladesh in their opening two matches of the SAFF Women’s Championship, Pakistan claimed a record win in their final game; thrashing Maldives 7-0 to go out on a high with Nadia scoring four times.

The tournament in Nepal also signalled a changing of the guard in the women’s game in the country. With Adeel looking at introducing new blood and overhauling the team, stalwarts like striker Hajra Khan and goalkeeper Mahpara Shahid were not called up to the camp for the Four-Nations Cup.

There was some controversy attached to it too. After the SAFF Women’s Championship, some players had written to Haroon, raising questions over Adeel’s demanding nature as a coach and accused him of nepotism by selecting his favourite players.

Of those who’d raised the issue, only one was called up to the training camp for the Saudi Arabia tournament. “Adeel knows the limits of each player but, of course, he demands everyone to get even better,” Pakistan midfielder Suha Hirani, who plays for Karachi City FC where Adeel is the coach, told Eos.

Suha, who featured in all three games at the Four-Nations Cup where Pakistan opened with a 2-1 win over Mauritius before losing 1-0 to Comoros, is very much looking forward to the future. But it remains to be seen whether Adeel stays on as the head coach.

The national team’s next assignment is the Olympics qualifiers in April, where they’ve been drawn with the Philippines, Hong Kong and Tajikistan in Group ‘E’. The qualifiers for the 2024 Paris Games will require an A-licence coach to be on the bench, while Adeel holds a B-licence.

Adeel’s appointment has come under intense scrutiny but the players — those who have been selected — have shown a united front in the face of adversity. The ones who are based in Pakistan might not see domestic action or a consistent source of earning until the women’s league, which has been proposed, kicks off.

But with the PFF Normalisation Committee promoting equal pay among the men’s and women’s teams during camps and international assignments, there is still something to live on and they can foresee a future as professional footballers.

Maria’s goal has seen women’s football in the country become a talking point. With more eyeballs and more attention, the hope is that it will continue to grow.

The writer is Dawn’s Sports Editor.
He tweets @UmaidWasim

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 5th, 2023