by Natasha Raheel
KARACHI: “Should we all stop playing football, because obviously, despite spending our lives on it we are now obsolete?” asked a football player who endured abusive environment at the national women’s football camp back in August.
The story of women’s football in Pakistan is that of perseverance, passion, overcoming social isolation, fighting gender bias, and finding their own identity. Despite all this, their many years of hard work and strife still end in heartbreak.
The kind that leaves one numb, dejected, and angry, and should the women speak out against it, they are gotten rid of, as has been witnessed in the case of Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) Normalisation Committee’s (NC’s) handling of the players who had held the head coach accountable for mistreatment.
The players’ words played increasingly loud in my head as I saw the press release and pictures of the national women’s football team probables along with the coach Adeel Rizki, PFF NC chairman Haroon Malik and President of Pakistan Arif Alvi last week. Those pictures were deeply disconcerting to look at.
I learnt about it over the last two weeks after several women footballers spoke to me about their experience at the national football camp which was set up for the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Nepal last year.
The way players’ concerns and wellbeing had been neglected to keep the positions at the PFF and the national team was nothing short of a reprobate behaviour.
The pictures only brought about the horrifying realisation yet again that women’s football, much like every other department in Pakistan, is dictated by a bunch of men fighting for their place in the power corridors.
It is an open secret that the women footballers had submitted their letters to the PFF NC complaining about the head coach’s discriminatory and abusive behaviour, only to find out that the NC head was not only complicit but also showed all the letters to the same coach.
The SAFF Championship was historic for Pakistan women because it was finally a comeback for them on the international arena after eight long years.
In these eight years, the women who chose football, who stuck to their passion despite living in a patriarchal and traditional society that discourages girls to play sports, finally saw their chances of proving their mettle.
It was also the first tournament that any Pakistani team had played since FIFA lifted its 15-month-long suspension on PFF which came after a faction of former PFF officials overtook the federation’s headquarters in Lahore. The faction claimed to be the rightful office holders, which FIFA did not recognise; hence it suspended the membership of the country after several warnings.
That too happened in the middle of the Women’s National Championship. The takeover resulted in the cancellation of the event which left the women traumatised, angry and heartbroken.
It is always the case that women are not the ones who have a say in their own game.
Pakistan does not have an active women’s league and the federation only holds the annual National Championship that too would last for a month.
“Of course, every player wanted to play, we all had been hungry for an opportunity, but what we saw in the camp was so discouraging. The coach would not even look at the game of all the players, he had already picked his favourites, but it was interesting to know that we have not had any national championships before, there were only closed trials. We saw that the coach picked his favourites, only trained them, and we never even got the chance to learn anything because we were all grouped together, the unwanted ones to be trained by the assistant coach,” pointed out another player, and the information was verified by several others.
In my career covering football for more than a decade, I have never heard of this kind of coaching strategy before. In all the cases, the coaches treat every player equally and prepare more players to have more options to choose from. However, here was a scenario where the girls knew what the team would look like.
Even though Malik said in his press statements that he prioritised women’s game by making sure that the women’s team competes first after the resumption of PFF’s membership with FIFA. Red flags had been flashing bright when he hired an under-qualified coach, only underlying the apathy towards women and their game. It illustrates their hypocrisy as well, that PFF NC is using women’s game to build public perception and perhaps to raise funds from the FIFA and Asian Football Confederation.
But the tragedy is that the players were not only robbed of a fair chance to compete internationally but also learn and better their skills.
Rizki is a UEFA License B coach, and he is grossly under-qualified to be even running a national side.
“On this course, participants will learn age- and ability-specific coaching techniques to develop players at youth through to senior amateur level,” reads the UEFA website as to what License B covers.
The Olympic qualifiers traditionally require having a more qualified coach with the team, but Rizki’s qualification puts a big question mark on the hiring process of the PFF.
The environment at the camp was toxic at varying degrees but more so for the ones who were not from Rizki’s own club, Karachi City FC, and also not for diaspora players.
It was not just the players but also the team manager who had to face Rizki’s unwarranted wrath at times. “He had been abusive, even used foul language,” pointed out the players. “It was incredibly sad because we saw that the coach continued to misbehave with our team manager, we saw her being disrespected. It was a heart-breaking experience.”
The list of misconduct does not end here – the basic human decency had also been missing. Women’s football camp was also a great spectacle of socio-economic class divide, and some were more equal than the others.
“Of course, the coach would never misbehave with the players coming from aboard, they were treated very well, then the players of his own club too, the way they talked was different too. His favourites will say that the coach is just like their friend. They even had the privilege to choose their rooms, but all the rules were for the girls who were not the favourites.
“We were not even allowed to order our food from outside, but we saw the favourites had food coming for them from the fast food chains, while we couldn’t even get a single thing even when we would say that we’ll pay for it on our own, the divide was huge,” said another player.
The players who wrote to the PFF NC’s chief, barring two, were all excluded from the national camp and even the team for speaking up.
That alone set a dangerous precedent, and was a message for women footballers that if they speak the truth there will be consequences.
The PFF NC sent a team to Saudi Arabia for Four Nations Cup, where Pakistan finished second among the equally inexperienced teams from the host country, Comoros and Mauritius in January.
According to players, several of them tried their best in the trial, but it was made sure that they never got selected.
“I played Saff Championship, I gave my 100 percent, each day at the camp I gave my all, not a single day in the entire month I took off, what more can one give to the country? What more can one do, and we never got clear guidance from the coach, I never got a call back, even though I gave my all. We deserve to at least be guided as to where we can improve but we got nothing, that hurts,” said a player.
PFF NC took diaspora players with them instead, but that too without their passports, which resulted in those players not being accepted by the tournament’s management as they were not eligible to represent a country of which they did not hold a passport of.
“It was very heart-breaking, we worked hard, we get it that in the Saff camp and trials we were all coming after such a long break, but for this one we made sure that we stayed fit, it was shocking to learn that players who don’t even have Pakistani passports are preferred over us. We work hard, play hard and have been doing so to serve the country, but it looks like the country doesn’t want us. We found out that some of the players who were less fit were in the team, even a few players who were injured were in the team but we were not. Most of the girls who spoke out against the mistreatment were not even looked at, we know our football is finished, but where do we go?” was the collective plea and query of several players.
It was shocking to see the PFF NC making efforts for diaspora players even though it was a friendly tournament in Saudi Arabia, where girls get the chance to play and gain exposure and experience. These girls have been playing at national, inter-varsity, inter-departmental tournaments for the last eight years or so, and continued to play and inspire when the federation plunged into a political fiasco and got banned twice since 2015.
“I feel they should get all the players from abroad, isn’t what they want? Because we understand that there is no place for us,” said the players.
The major shock was the absence of prominent names at the tournament, who were also overlooked.
It is essential to protect the identities of the players because the truth is never accepted easily. Many question their talent too and they particularly fear further backlash.
Even some Pakistani fans have demeaned and disrespected the national players online because of the last article that I wrote on the case of Nadia Khan’s missing passport during Saff Championship and the preferential treatment given to the diaspora players along with verbal and emotional abuse inflicted on others.
A national player was also disrespected by the PFF NC Twitter account when she asked about the tax cut from the players’ income for Saff championship. It was an intriguing case when the PFF NC deducted 20 percent, saying all the players were non-tax filers. Also, nowhere does the letter issued to the players mentioned about it.
“We are talking to you and have done so before too because if we speak now, maybe that will help change things for others. We know our careers are being put to death without a fair chance,” expressed and echoed all the players I talked with over the last two weeks.
The NC announced the squad for the camp on February 23 whereas the camp for the team began on February 15 with overall the same probables for the 2024 Olympic qualifiers that are due in April against Hong Kong, Philippines and Tajikistan in Group E of the continental round one.
One young player had also been dropped in a staggeringly mean way this time, which left her utterly disturbed.
On the other hand, the PFF NC is working hard to get the passports of the diaspora players.
It is also fascinating that Rizki is still the coach and the team that may be fielded will mostly comprise players who went to Saudi Arabia. It will consist of inexperienced players against the Philippines (ranked 53rd), Hong Kong (77th) and Tajikistan (144th) in the world, while Pakistan is 160th now.
The presence of an under-qualified coach coupled with obsession with diaspora players is harmful to the women’s game. It is a short cut where there may come results, but it is against all the fundamentals – developing the sport in the country and building pathways for women who are playing and earning their livelihoods from football in Pakistan.
Diaspora players may be more patriotic and they do face racial injustice and Islamophobia in their home countries at times, but they are not representatives of Pakistan women’s football in a bigger picture because they do not endure the struggles, economic constraints, social isolation and gender bias, risks to their safety, and playing infrastructure like the women who choose football here in Pakistan.
As the renowned American author Booker T Washington said: “You measure the size of the accomplishment by the obstacles you had to overcome to reach your goals.”
There may come short-term results by recruiting diaspora players, but they do not represent the quintessential struggle of Pakistani women.
When Pakistan-bred players lose on the international arena, it shows how underdeveloped the beautiful game is in Pakistan. It only shows there is no identity of Pakistani women on the field because their voice is never given a chance to be heard. In fact, when they don’t perform well, they are chastised.
What it does highlight is the missing voice of the women who play football in Pakistan, and they deserve better, they deserve a women’s league, they deserve qualified coaches, they deserve women coaches and a fair chance at playing for their country.
When we look at the examples of professional gamer Arslan Ash, javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem, weightlifter Nooh Dastgir Butt, boxer Muhammad Waseem, karatekas Kulsoom Hazara and Nargis Hazara among others, who have won accolades for Pakistan, their game has been developed in this country. Their techniques are unique and indicative of the kind of talent that thrives in the local circuit and community.
It adds weight to their achievements, gives them a distinctive style of play. Although these examples are of individual athletes, the rule remains the same.
Like the example of cricket or hockey.
Development of the game must happen from bottom-up, instead of chasing results by bypassing the organic way of making champions.
If they are only getting their passports made so that they can play football for a country they barely live in and travel on the passports of their home countries compared to those who play football in the conditions that are prevalent in Pakistan, tells exactly who deserves to play in the national squad more.
PFF NC responds
The PFF NC on Sunday evening replied to the questions sent by the Express Tribune pertaining to Rizki’s eligibility to coach the women’s team at the Olympic qualifiers and the non-payment of the money to the women’s teams who competed in the National Championship 2021.
PFF NC member Shahid Khokhar said that if the Olympic qualifiers required a License A coach, then the women’s team would get another, but confirmed that they were sticking with Rizki till then.
The official also refused that any abuse was incurred upon the players in the camp and instead reacted with disappointment that the players chose to speak up. He insisted that the treatment women players were receiving now was ‘unprecedented’.
The PFF NC downplayed the concerns and complaints of the players yet again, and even expressed dismay that the players talked about matters of tax or money and their letters to Haroon with anyone .
On the issue of outstanding dues, Khokhar said that there could be technical issues as the PFF was using an alternate account and they were answerable to FIFA, while the payments were previously made through the PFF account before the suspension. He added that they were willing to clear all the dues.
“They said that they will pay us the money, the remaining sum once the ban would be lifted, but it has been months. Since June 2022, we never received a reply when we asked for the money. We managed to bring our team to Karachi by arranging money on our own. The NC sent us a notification that we were to receive the money in two instalments, but we never received the second one. Some clubs and players didn’t even receive the first, and that is a shame. We don’t have sponsors and we all struggle with that but we want our girls to play, so it was very unfair,” said an owner of a women’s club.
The PFF NC had promised to pay several staff members their dues but all they ever received were excuses.