When Mehwish Khan first put on her trainers to try out for the local girls’ football team, she faced opposition from her family, especially her two brothers.
Her parents, though supportive, were still reluctant about their daughter’s choice of sporting activity. After all, in Pakistan, women did not play football. That was four years ago — now, because of people like Mehwish, playing football for girls is not that difficult although much work is still to be done.
In 2005, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) staged the first National Women’s Championship in Islamabad in which a total of eight clubs participated. The number went up to 12 the next year while presently there are more than 56 registered clubs. Considering that eight years ago there was no football for women in Pakistan, this shows the potential for women’s football in the country if developed properly.
The women’s game is gaining more recognition globally; with World Cup matches being telecast live to wider audiences and players like Brazil’s Marta being the equivalent of Lionel Messi in women’s football, it is no surprise that women’s football in Pakistan is also booming. However, a lot is left to be desired.
In a way, women’s club football is thriving in Pakistan like never before; more and more clubs are being registered regularly, but there is a lack of infrastructure and hardly any competitions.
Mehwish, who plays as a right fullback for Wapda, rues the lack of tournaments at club level organised by the PFF, adding that just a national championship once a year does not help the game.
“There is not much activity in women’s club football, the PFF organises one national championship annually but that does not serve any purpose. There is no development,” she says.
Since September last year, there has been no official activity for the women’s football clubs across the country. Naila Rani, who also plays for the national team as a defender, laments PFF’s lack of interest in furthering the game for women.
“There is no scope for women’s football here. Very few people are aware that girls are actually actively involved in football and that is why it is difficult to find new talent,” Naila points out.
A general consensus among coaches, players and club owners is that in order for women’s football to gain popularity, there need to be more tournaments. The National Women’s Championship has been played in the same city since its inception and other cities are missing out on the hype created by such an event.
“Because of the national championship being played in Islamabad for the past eight years, women’s football has gained a lot of popularity and recognition in the city,” Naila says.
PFF’s Secretary General Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi explained that though the federation wants to host the national championship in Karachi and Lahore, Islamabad is better equipped to host it. The reason is that the Jinnah Stadium Sports Complex in Islamabad, where the national championship matches take place, also has accommodation facilities which stadiums in the other cities do not have, and that is why the PFF prefers to hold the annual event in Islamabad.
Apart from dealing with development issues, girls also face societal pressures and cultural barriers when it comes to playing football in Pakistan. In urban centres like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, it is still flourishing but there is no concept of women’s football in rural areas plus a lack of infrastructure also adds to the problems.
Mehwish, who scored Pakistan’s first international goal at the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Football Championship in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in December 2010, only gained the support of her family once they saw the potential she had. The women’s game needs more exposure so that families are comfortable, even proud, when their girls play football, she says.
“There is a dire need of special facilities, not just in the big cities but all across the country. There should be special training grounds where girls can go and train with ease,” the 22-year-old says.
A few inter-city tournaments have given ample proof to back up Mehwish’s suggestion. Organised in Karachi last year, the aftermath of the tournaments saw several girls sign up with clubs across the city to play football.
“Because of just a few tournaments, so many girls came to us wanting to play,” says Naila. “When they see security, scope and football, they want to get involved.”
And this is the need of the hour. In order for women’s football to get more exciting, attract audience and build a fan following, the PFF needs to increase the level of competition at the club level which will eventually lead to the benefit of the national team, too.
To organise competitions at club level, the PFF has to take into consideration the schedule of the various players, which is why it is tough to have more tournaments, although they are working on changing that.
“There is no competition at the club level or even at the national level. I feel bad sometimes that I am working so hard and there is no point to it,” Mehwish says. She adds that some of the girls are juggling jobs and studies along with football but since there is no competition in the sport, it feels like a waste.
“Sometimes the score lines during the national championship read 12-0 or 14-0. That is not football, this is not helping the sport in Pakistan,” Naila says.
The idea is to force the PFF to choose players from a talented pool for the national team and the only way that can happen is if there are regular training camps, tournaments, awareness programmes in schools, special programmes for juniors and scouting for talent across the country.
PFF has plans in the pipeline to start an under-16 development programme for girls across the country, according to Lodhi.
The programme will serve the need for grassroots development of the sport and in the long run, help women’s club and national football teams. While this is a step in the right direction, women’s football in Pakistan still has a long way to go.