For Kayla Siddiqi, Pakistan’s WNT is like home

For Kayla Siddiqi, Pakistan’s WNT is like home

by Ali Ahsan

Making your international debut in football is always a big moment for any player. But the gravity of the situation does not hit until they don their country colours and walk onto the pitch. Standing in the tunnel of Singapore’s Jalan Besar Stadium in the greens of the Pakistan WNT just before their international friendly with the home side on 18 July, Kayla Siddiqi finally felt it.

While Pakistan lost 1-0 due to a late Singapore goal from a corner, the experience was amazing. “I thought it would be just another game of soccer, but as soon as I walked out with the girls and lined up for the Pakistani national anthem, that’s when I realized this moment was much bigger than anything that I had ever experienced before,” beamed the delighted 20-year-old on a Zoom call with FootballPakistan.Com.

The Midlothian, Virginia native was now playing for a country she shared a partial heritage with. For 90 minutes, Kayla Siddiqi marshaled Pakistan’s defence on debut without ever putting a wrong foot in – a testament to her 5’10’’ physical presence and NCAA Division I credentials – much to the delight of fans. She combined well with captain Maria Jamila Khan as center backs and with fullbacks Mishal Bhatti and Sarah Khan to repeatedly stop Singapore attacks from open play.

Kayla Siddiqi (#4) and Maria Jamila Khan (#6) – Pakistan vs Singapore

WNT vice-captain and defensive mainstay Malika-e-Noor’s absence was felt in the Singapore game due to her understandably wanting to spend some time with her two young sons after a lot of domestic and international football over the past year. Kayla and Malika would have made a solid defensive pairing whilst allowing Maria to play in her more preferred centre-mid role.

The match was also a deeply personal moment for the defender who had desired to take her playing career to the next level. Kayla had only recently transferred to Florida Atlantic University in Spring 2023 to continue her civil engineering major and joining their women’s soccer team after initially being at North Carolina State University.

At NC State, she was mostly used as a substitute but wanted more, “No player likes to sit on the bench. I knew I had it in me to be a starter. I felt I deserved more as a player, and that another team deserved to have me. So I sought a new challenge, put my name into the [NCAA] transfer portal and thankfully got an offer from FAU. Plus you can never say no to the [Florida] beach!”

Kayla had always been in love with soccer since she was a little kid, playing the game for local youth clubs and for her school teams. Her childhood idol and source of inspiration is former USWNT striker and 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup winner Sydney Leroux. Kayla even played varsity basketball for her high school team, before sticking with soccer – first as a winger before becoming a fullback that can play across the defensive live – as she went to college. Coming from a highly educated and professionally sound family, they gave the support she needed at all times, “They made my dream their dream too.”

The July debut made Kayla Siddiqi became the first active NCAA Div I player to play international football for Pakistan. For context, Maria Khan had played at the University of Denver in Div I many years prior to donning the greens of Pakistan, while Isra Khan’s Dickinson College is a Div III school.

America’s NCAA collegiate sports system has become a godsend for women’s football that has not only fueled the USWNT’s absolute international dominance in the sport for over three decades now, but also allowed other countries to either send their best young women players into NCAA colleges or discovering diaspora players living in America who may be willing to play for their countries of heritage.

Kayla Siddiqi (#4) and Isra Khan (#22) for Pakistan vs Singapore

Whilst at NC State, Kayla was initially approached on social media by Maria Khan around the same time as Pakistan WNT were returning to international football after eight years in the wilderness and after the end of a 15-month long FIFA ban on the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF). It took a while for Kayla to consider responding, but eventually the two started talking, “[Maria] kept it straight, kept it real. I liked the vibe. She really sold the idea of playing international soccer for Pakistan.” Soon enough, other WNT officials spoke with her and the family to get them on board, “They assured us that I will really click with the whole WNT squad, and we all agreed to go for it.”

The idea was straightforward: the Pakistan WNT was in desperate need of good quality players from the diaspora; Kayla qualified because she played at the NCAA Div I level and also because she could get Pakistani citizenship via her paternal grandfather, Shaukat Siddiqi. He had come to the U.S. from Pakistan in the 1960s, married an American lady, became a university professor, and raised a family that now has many grand kids.

So that ticked all the boxes for Kayla’s capability and eligibility. Now it was all about getting her Pakistani citizenship documents sorted. That process took a while but by end of Spring 2023, Kayla now possessed a valid Pakistani passport and national ID card and was ready to debut in the mid-July FIFA international window against eventual opponents Singapore.   

Kayla, who in the meantime had been following Pakistan’s performances at the 2022 SAFF Women’s Championship, the Saudi 4-Nations Women’s Cup, and the Olympics women’s qualifiers in Tajikistan, finally joined the WNT camp in Karachi in early July. This was her first time ever visiting a country she only heard about from her nonagenarian grandpa and the less-than-flattering mentions of Pakistan in the media. “I like to travel and visit places, usually on my own, so visiting Pakistan for the first time I went with an open mind and took it as an adventure.”

It was an adventure all right! Had it not been for WNT officials spotting her as soon as she came out of airport arrivals, Kayla could have gotten lost in a large crowd of returning Hajj pilgrims being congratulated by a huge number friends and families on the outside.

After getting used to the warmer climate of Pakistan’s largest city over the coming few days, she showed just how good she is in training much to the amazement and delight of her newfound friends in the WNT squad, “I honestly got along so well with all the girls, despite not knowing any Urdu and being only able to speak in English. They made me feel part of a big family and were always eager to help me understand and adapt to the local culture. It felt like home!”

Pakistan WNT training in Karachi

“They even made me practice the Pakistani national anthem by heart. We all sang it before every training session, and as a big music fan I was able to learn quickly and sing most of it on cue with time,” said Kayla when asked how was she able to sing the national anthem with her teammates before kickoff.

Of course, like any sports dressing room, the banter always follows and for Kayla it became obvious why. “They started calling me Sister Kayla or Baji Banana … because the Urdu word for banana is pronounced the same way as Kayla,” she laughed after being asked about the hilarious comments from the squad on her Instagram post remembering her debut.

“I’ve been in many dressing rooms before, where different teammates usually hang out with their own little groups. But in the Pakistan dressing room, everyone was friends with everyone and that was such a joy for me to experience. I honestly loved the girls so much and would give everything I can for this team in any way I can. I already miss not being around them ever since I flew back,” she added.

During her camp stay in Karachi, she also met some extended members of the Siddiqi clan in the city – the families of Grandpa Siddiqi’s nephews and nieces – who practically showered her with gifts and hugs in a joyful meetup. “All of them were so happy to see me for the first time in their lives and were so proud of me choosing to represent Pakistan in the sport.”

After the Singapore game, the amount of praise Kayla got from family, friends and newfound fans reinvigorated her. Even Grandpa saw the highlights with Kayla always alert in defence. “This is precisely why I love this game and why I want to continue at all levels. I want to keep playing for Pakistan whenever presented the opportunity in the future.”

Now back Stateside, she aims to become a first team regular at FAU this Fall and is also willing to consider turning professional post-graduation if given the right opportunities.

With the Pakistan WNT now playing much more international matches wherever opportunities arise, they are eagerly looking to tap in the diaspora playing good collegiate soccer in North America or professionally in Europe/UK to add that necessary quality with the best domestic talent in the squad.

Everyone who saw Kayla Siddiqi play against Singapore was unanimous in saying the WNT has finally found a rock-solid defender of great quality that can be a mainstay for years to come. Long may this continue!