Pakistan’s Kayla ‘Baji Banana’ Siddiqi dreams about playing FIFA World Cup [Geo Super]

Pakistan’s Kayla ‘Baji Banana’ Siddiqi dreams about playing FIFA World Cup [Geo Super]

by Faizan Lakhani

KARACHI: Pakistan women’s team’s defender Kayla Siddiqi believes that playing international football continuously and constantly is essential for the growth of women’s football in Pakistan.

She is also eager to see Pakistan women’s team qualify for the FIFA World Cup in the future.

US-based Kayla made her debut for Pakistan women’s team during the national team’s international friendly against Singapore last month. Although Pakistan lost the match 0-1, Kayla’s performance got everyone’s attention as she was easily the best player on the pitch for the Green Shirts.

Kayla is one of several diaspora players who are currently playing for Pakistan. She became eligible to play for the country as her grandfather was a Pakistani national – who had moved to the USA in the 1960s.

However, it wasn’t an easy journey for Kayla to tick all boxes before she could don Pakistan’s green jersey.

“Maria, the captain, sent me a message on Instagram back in July of 2022. I was a bit skeptical of her message. I’ve never really considered like playing for the Pakistan national team or any other of my family’s backgrounds national team but it definitely intrigued me in a way. She explained to me the whole situation, whole process, she made me feel very comfortable,” she recalled during an interview to Geo via Zoom.

Kayla explained that due to procedural delays, her documentation took time and she couldn’t join the team in Olympic Qualifiers.

She added that the wait for documents to be completed and seeing the process taking more than a year kept her on edge but after all the process, when she stepped on the field with her teammates and sang the national anthem ahead of the game against Singapore, the feeling was surreal.

“Honestly, the moment when I was sitting on the tunnel and about to walk out, I think that was where it finally hit me in realization,” she said.

“Since the process of getting my whole passport took more than almost a year. So, it always was keeping me on edge, and making me have a lot of doubts like if this will this ever really happen, will this really follow through, even when I did touchdown in Pakistan for the training camp for the week, about a week that I was there, and just being with the girls, I don’t think it’s still really hit me that I am part of the Pakistani women’s national football team but just hearing that anthem and singing along to it with the girls, I think that was just like a surreal moment, a moment that you can’t really describe because it is just so genuine, and just an amazing feeling that it won’t ever feel that way again,” Kayla said.

“It makes you want to keep going back and makes you want to keep playing for those girls and the girls specifically that are on the team they’re just so caring and supporting and that’s just a huge aspect that makes me want to even go back and play with them even more and just be part of their team and help Pakistan get as many wins as we can,” the Pakistani defender added.

“For my grandpa, specifically, who is based in the US, the comment that he made that just it touched my heart, just because he is, most specifically, the man that I am doing it for. He said that it has completed his life and I was able to give that for him, and just make him proud. You know, that’s something as a granddaughter, it’s another feeling that you can’t really describe,” she said when asked how his grandfather reacted when she decided to play for Pakistan.

Kayla grew up in the USA and the training camp in Karachi was her first ever visit to ancestral country and she experienced traditional Pakistani culture for the very first time. Talking about her experience in Pakistan, Kayla said that her teammates were very welcoming and it wasn’t difficult for her to adjust within the setup.

“I am the only one on the team who does not know any Urdu or much of the Pakistani culture. But the communication there wasn’t really an issue. I’m very grateful and thankful that the girls didn’t give me a hard time for that. And they supported me and my transition from that cultural change. And not only that, but also going out of their way to teach me you know, basic mannerisms or basic Urdu words to speak,”

Kayla also spoke about how the teammates in Pakistan team nicknamed her “Baji Banana” as her name “Kayla” sounds like the Urdu word for Banana.

“Nicknames are a big thing in our team, we like to call other players and different things. And I think that’s a huge part of our team, the girls just been such a family, we all care for each other, we all tease each other, but in the best way possible, it’s very, very close and supportive,” she said about the team environment.

Talking about the potential of Pakistani women footballers, Kayla agreed that lack of training facilities puts them at a disadvantage from being able to improve but added that some girls have best technical abilities.

“What really stood out to me is the technical ability that these girls do have, someone like Aliza, is so very technical on the ball. I think what these girls lack is just like strength and physical ability. And that that goes into having access to these types of like gyms, or physical strength training to be able to improve, even with that they do as much as they can, that’s where you can really tell that these girls, they do have the technical ability, they’re very shifty, they’re very agile and I think that can be a huge advantage.”

“These girls have heart, and these girls have drive, and they care so much about the game. And that’s I think the most important thing when it comes to playing this game of football and if you keep going with that, you know, the potential is indefinite,” Kayla said.

When asked if Pakistan women’s team can make a name among top Asian countries, Kayla said “100%” saying the girls really do have so much potential.

“If people really watched the Singapore game and saw what we brought in, despite the unfortunate goal that we had in the 80th minute, I feel like that says a lot, especially against the Singapore team who has a lot of access and a lot of money,” she said.

“The more camps we do, the more trainings you have, the more these girls work on themselves outside of the FIFA windows, then we’re only going to get better as a collective as a team. And I believe, the World Cup qualifiers, it’s like a few years, and I believe, in a few years can change a lot. Not only can the girls who are on currently on the team, or currently do get invited to the camp will get significantly better but it also opens up many opportunities,” she added.

Replying to a question, Kayla said that if someone is a good player, has Pakistani blood, and can help Pakistan women football, then there shouldn’t be any issue where one is based at.

The top defender revealed that she will most likely not be available for Pakistan women’s team for September window in which PFF NC is planning to play a multinational tournament in Saudi Arabia due to her academic and division one team commitment.

“Unfortunately, with my position at my team, at my university, at the division one level, I do have loyalties and not only that, but I also have academic responsibilities, academics has always been a priority. So unfortunately, I don’t know how that will work out to the best for me,” she said.

“But I do know there is an October window and in November to December window. So, the those type of decisions, they’re hard, especially when I’m in full season, full grind mode for my university and the team that I’ve committed to but my experience that I did have with the team in the Pakistani camp and Karachi and going to Singapore it was an experience that I’ll never forget and definitely remember for the rest of my life and having that type of experience it just makes me want to keep going back for the girls, coaches, and, of course for Pakistan. So, inshallah I’ll be able to make another camp very soon,” she aimed.

Kayla said she wants to see Pakistan among 32 countries playing in FIFA World Cup and according to her, taking small steps at a time will make the bigger goal a possibility.

“I’d love to see us in World Cup, that’s for sure. I’d love to see as part of the 32 teams. I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, but as a football footballer I think it’s every girl’s dream to play in the World Cup. So, I wouldn’t say it’s a far-fetched goal, but rather, I’d like to take smaller steps rather than bigger steps. So, it’s just a matter of what can we do right now as a Pakistan football team and right now, as a collective, it’s focusing on this window, this September window. More specifically playing the tournament in Saudi Arabia and getting as many wins as we can, because at the end of the day, more wins to our name only makes us more dangerous, more competitive to other opposing teams. And, if we just keep sticking to a window by window by window, it’s only a matter of time of when that big goal like I’ve said earlier can come in and be a possibility,” she concluded.

Published in Geo Super, 10 August 2023