“That feeling of listening to the national anthem when it plays before we start playing the match, that is what we play for,” Pakistan’s premier midfielder Sahar Zaman explains why she would want to play again for the country at the South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Women’s Championship, starting August 29 in Nepal.
She has waited for Pakistan women’s team to start playing international matches again for eight and a half years.
But to her and players like goalkeeper Syeda Mahpara, defender Malika-e-Noor and striker Hajra Khan among others who represented the country in their last international outing in Saff Championship 2014, these years have been the worst the fate could offer them.
It was nothing short of a prison for the talented players who did not play in the international events, or had decent leagues at home just because the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials fought for the office and got the country banned twice in last two years, first in 2017 and then again in 2021 for the third-party interference.
Now, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) has finally announced that the women’s team will compete at an international event, the first since 2014.
The PFF, now being run by the FIFA-appointed Normalisation Committee (NC) headed by Haroon Malik, confirmed in a press conference in Lahore that they will make all the efforts to prepare the team in a rather short period of time.
“It is a pretty good initiative. Finally they are giving us an opening after two very long years,” Sahar told The Express Tribune, as she was in the women’s football camp that took place in 2020, which was organised by the NC, then headed by Humza Khan, albeit that the training was for just conditioning only and not for any particular tournament ahead.
“This is a good initiative but it is important to give a chance to all the players and not just select few. In the last five to six years, many players have been working hard despite the bans, so it is important for the camp to be inclusive and meritocracy should be paramount.”
According to the NC member Shahid Niaz Khokhar, women’s camp will most likely be in Lahore in the Punjab Stadium near the PFF headquarters, but there are considerations for other venues too.
“The Saff championship is happening and we are also thinking about Abbottabad because of the altitude, since Nepal has a similar climate. We will be looking to make sure that the players who were a part of the national camp and the 35 selected by the panel of coaches earlier will be called back.
“We do not have the time for open trials. But, apart from the 35 players, we will add any other talented footballer who can have a recommendation from any of the licensed coaches. We are open to more players and this will give us a good pool to choose from. The coach can then pick three, four or five players they feel are good to join the initial list of 35 players, so that is one way to make sure that no one is left behind,” said Khokhar.
He further added that one of the highlights will be to make sure that the players get paid handsomely.
“Malik is really trying his best and at the end of the day we want to pay our players well as a way to show them the respect that they deserve. That is one of our targets to make sure the players feel motivated and respected for the international assignment,” said Khokhar, emphasising that there is a bigger budget for the women’s team.
He also clarified that overseas players are welcome but there is very short time till the championship next month and they would need to take care of the expenses of their trip to Pakistan on their own, according to the PFF policy.
While the PFF can have their choices, they must be clear to empathise with the players born and bred in Pakistan.
In the light of the struggles that the Pakistani women have faced and still persisted in the times of the ban and forced isolation with opportunities stolen from them, it does feel rather unfair for the overseas players to be given a priority. Many of them may not even understand the nuisances that the players born and bred in Pakistan do, and for once, maybe what an international event would mean to them will not mean the same for athletes coming from abroad,
Local players haven’t been fortunate since they have lived in Pakistan, a country ranked second by the World Economic Forum in the list of worst places in the world for women when it comes to rights and freedom.
Playing against the odds
It is women’s football that had paid the biggest price due to PFF’s incompetence when it comes to running the organisation as a professional body.
PFF’s political drama had only cascaded into further fury for players. Khan was by Malik and under the latter’s tenure, PFF organised the National Women’s Championship which was disrupted by the other group of PFF officials led by Syed Ashfaq Hussain Shah. Ashfaq was elected as the PFF president through Supreme Court-ordered elections in 2018, and he threw out Malik illegally taking over the PFF headquarters and consequently forcing FIFA to ban Pakistan due to third-party interference.
Sahar feels that this is the high time for PFF to make amends and be serious about the lives of the players.
Sahar wants to make sure that the newer players have it better, while also getting the opportunities to serve their country through football.
“I have a request for the NC,” said Sahar. “I request them that it is high time that people who have been playing but don’t have the means should get the opportunities. The newer players should not suffer like we did, but also this should not mean that they can ignore the players who have waited and sacrificed their careers throughout these troubling times.”
Sahar like others continued to train and play while pursuing education and job opportunities, while watching many of her colleagues and fellow footballers succumb to the societal pressure of girls marrying off at a certain age, and most families looking at the ban as a way to get their daughters out of football for good.
Sahar rued that many girls have quit football and sports in the last seven years.
“They should utilise our talents and resources left in us. I, Mahpara, Malika, Hajra, we are all closer to the retiring age, but we have got the game and we should be given the opportunities to play. We can also coach younger teams, assist them, mentor them. The national team should have a balance of experience and youth. We can teach them to heal and be a part of the way forward,” said Sahar.
For Sahar and other women footballers, the journey has been a traumatic one, but she remembers what the Saff 2014 championship felt like.
“Back in 2014, we were really coming into our own. We prepared well, we had a friendly tour to Bahrain where we played three matches, and we were improving, because by the third match we started to score.
“The 2014 Saff Championship saw us lose with lesser margins, instead of 10-20 goal hauls against us we lost to India and Nepal marginally and more gracefully. We defeated Bhutan and scored against Sri Lanka too, so we were improving. But then everything came to a halt and we never played again internationally,” said Sahar.
Lighten the baggage with support
Sahar added that even in the 2022 Championship Pakistan will need a lot of support from the people.
“It is important for everyone to understand that we are playing against a lot of odds,” she pointed out. “If we lose badly, they’ll only look at how badly we lost, and not the reasons why we have suffered so much and lagged behind.
“India and Nepal are strong teams, we can give all the opponents a hard fight, but we need support of the people, we need them to be more understanding.
“However, I know winning will mean something more.”
PFF to clean up the mess
Khokhar added that the press conference was to give a good idea where the NC’s plan of action lies.
He said that the preparation for the fresh elections will start from August, while FIFA Connect ID will run more efficiently which will help in registering the clubs and the players and will help in the election process and club scrutiny.
He said the case about the PPF’s accounts being held hostage by Shah’s group is still being litigated and five decisions have been taken in the legal course that are encouraging for the NC. Meanwhile, the funding is coming from FIFA now.
The PFF house had been vandalised therefore to get it back into the previous shape the NC will require about Rs30 million since there are no basic amenities such as electricity, gas or even fixtures in the restrooms along with the lack of furniture.