KARACHI: When FIFA appointed the Normalisation Committee for the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) last September, the global football body said it was committed to “bringing Pakistani football back on track and see it thriving in the country”.

They might have just found their lady.

The PFF Normalisation Commitee last month broke new ground by appointing Manizeh Zainli as its first female general secretary and in an interview with Dawn on Tuesday, she said she wanted to put the PFF secretariat, first, and then Pakistan football back in order.

Manizeh’s appointment resonates with FIFA’s appointment of Fatma Samoura as its first-ever female general secretary four years ago and the world’s football governing body welcomed the development.

“FIFA welcomes the appointment of Ms Manizeh Zainli as secretary general of the Pakistan Football Federation,” a FIFA spokesperson told Dawn on Tuesday. “We believe this is an encouraging development, which is in line with FIFA’s continuous efforts to increase female participation in football.”

Back home though, her appointment has led to unfair criticism on sexist lines. There has also been critique that Manizeh does not having a “football background”, discounting the wide-ranging, multi-faceted portfolio she has.

“This position is about merit and not gender,” said a defiant Manizeh. “I will let my achievements and dedication speak for itself and will be grateful for the resistance I will face which will only keep pushing me to do my best.”

Resistance, she will face till the PFF Normalisation Committee completes its tenure in June this year by holding fresh elections of the PFF.

“As the only sister to seven brothers, I was trained to be stronger,” said Manizeh.

“My late father always advised me to stay away from politics,” she added, referring to the much-politicised world of Pakistan football. “But if you want to correct something, you have to get into it. That’s what I want to do with football in Pakistan.

“Fear is just one challenge. You have to embrace it. It’s a tough road ahead but I’m willing to go the distance.”

Manizeh took up sports from her childhood, learning horse-riding, boxing and then football. “My brothers were all interested in football and by playing with them, I learnt about the game,” she informed.

She has been working as an educationist for the last 15 years but that hasn’t meant Manizeh has left her passion for football. She played for two years — albeit not professionally — with Diya FC, the country’s first women’s football club.

“My eldest daughter was very much into football,” informed Manizeh. “That took me to Diya where I played with her. Despite a lot of encouragement from Diya’s founder Sadia Sheikh, I couldn’t play for them in tournaments as I was busy with my professional commitments.”

Her daughters, three of them, still play football but now Manizeh’s focus is to not only “promote equality, stability and create opportunities” for them but for thousands of other aspiring women footballers in the country.

Earlier this year, the PFF Normalisation Committee, in a landmark move, gave the same amount of prize money to the winners of the National Women’s Championship to the one handed over to the Pakistan Premier Football League (PPFL) champions.

“Women, statistically, make half of the population of Pakistan,” said Manizeh. “… and I want to give women an equal chance as men to compete in sports. Thankfully, I have an opportunity to make sure of that.”

But it isn’t just women’s football that Manizeh has to focus on.

“After I was appointed, a colleague of mine from Balochistan called and implored me to do something about football in the province,” she informed. “I have this belief that if you can change one child’s future, you can change the society.”

That belief is seeing Manizeh, who has studied communication design, media and Islamic studies, pursue law from the University of London’s external programme.

“I’ve always wanted to give back to the world which is why I’m pursuing law,” she said.

For now, she’s giving her expertise to Pakistan football, hoping to help take it out of the crisis that it has found itself during the last several years.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2020