FOOTBALL: GIRLS KICKING MOUNTAINS

Published May 12, 2024
A practice session in Hazara Town in Quetta: the Women’s Football Academy is one of only three such clubs for girls  | Photo by the writer
A practice session in Hazara Town in Quetta: the Women’s Football Academy is one of only three such clubs for girls | Photo by the writer

The ground faces the barren mountains of Quetta in Hazara Town — it feels like an otherworldly place, one where seeing girls in public is a common sight. The girls warm up for their football match under the infinite blue sky on a Sunday morning. 

Wearing black, beige and pink scarves and shorts with leggings, the players are enthusiastic and ready to play. 

As the match begins, the atmosphere charges up — someone kicks the football, another teammate shouts an instruction, there’s a cheer here and a sigh there — and soon there’s a goal to great celebration! 

These were scenes from the Women’s Football Academy when Eos visited — it is one of the only three football academies for women in Hazara Town, Quetta, according to Zahra Afzal, the founder. 

Zahra, 26, started playing football professionally five years ago. She has played football championships in Karachi and was also a part of the Under-18 team in the National Games. A sports aficionado and a bronze medalist in lawn tennis, Zahra also plays badminton, hockey and cricket. But football is her favourite.

Zahra Afzal runs the Women’s Football Academy in Hazara Town, Quetta. What made her get into such an apparently thankless job?

“Once you start playing football, you forget all other games,” she tells Eos.

Although her passion for football began in childhood, she couldn’t play professionally because of a lack of football academies for women in Hazara Town. After graduating from Sardar Bahadur Khan Womens’ University with a degree in media sciences, Zahra started working as a coordinator in the Aria Institute of Medical Science and decided to start her own academy. 

It has not been easy for Zahra to start an academy in Quetta, especially in Hazara Town. “There’s no government support, especially for the women’s team. There are no sponsors here, unlike in the big cities, such as Karachi and Lahore,” she shares, adding that, even after two years of starting out, they still have no sponsors.

With a lack of support, Zahra deals with the logistics of keeping the academy running on her own. “The ground rent is expensive — it costs 800 rupees per hour,” she points out. “We use the ground daily for two hours.” There’s a monthly fee of Rs500 charged from the players, but for those who cannot afford to pay, especially orphans, the fee is exempted.  

The day starts early for the players — they train for two hours every day from 6am to 8am. Sundays are match days. Almost 35 girls train at Zahra’s academy — most of them are studying in government schools and are children of Afghan immigrants.

When news of the government’s plans to deport Afghan refugees started circulating, many of the players stopped attending training. “Their families would ask them to not go, fearing that they’d be picked up and deported,” Zahra shares. She adds that two of her best players dropped out due to these fears.

Sakina Nazari, 17, wasn’t interested in football three months ago but now she dreams of pursuing a career in football. She was persuaded by a friend, who trains at the same academy, to start playing. 

“Football is like therapy and is also good for fitness,” Sakina tells Eos. “I get a nice feeling when I play — it feels as if I have some control over something. When I wasn’t playing football and stayed at home, I would have a general sense of lethargy, but since I started playing, I feel healthy.” 

Sakina’s comments about football being therapeutic resonate with many Hazara girls. In recent years, football has emerged as a game-changer for Hazara girls, as it offers solace to the persecuted-community.

For a long time, the Hazaras have been discriminated against, targeted by attacks and killed in bombings. In the last 14 years, more than 2,000 Hazaras have been reportedly killed, according to a report published by the National Commission of Human Rights Pakistan.

“As a Hazara I might not be able to make it far in football due to discrimination and lack of opportunities for our community, but I still want to give sports my best. We should be judged solely on the basis of our talent,” she adds.

While her family has been supportive, Sakina says society in general is very close-minded. “When we go out in our tracksuits, we get weird glares and are subjected to judgement.” Sometimes resistance comes from families too. In such cases, Zahra conducts meetings with the parents to convince them to allow their girls to play.

Zahra shares that her vision is to not only train the girls in football but also to “train them for life”, so that they’re ready to face any challenge. Players from her academy have travelled to different cities and out of town for tournaments — an experience that has added to their confidence. “More than the training, these events help them grow.”

The 34th National Games of Pakistan were hosted by Quetta last year and some six players from Zahra’s academy were selected to represent Balochistan.

Aliya Shuja, 19, said she wants the government to invest in football. “It’s an important sport that’s played internationally. We have so far only been focused on investing in and promoting cricket,” she points out.

“If the government would promote football, the youth would not go for drugs or bad deeds,” she says, adding that they just need support and facilities from the government and are willing to pay a fee to train on government-supported grounds that have world-class training facilities. 

Aliya has been playing football for a long time but has been training at the academy for a month now. Her favourite football team is FC Barcelona and she looks up to Alexia Putellas, a Spanish footballer. “I want to play in international leagues and make a career out of football,” she says.

Dua Zahra, 15, was inspired by her father, a football coach. “I want to be a keeper and my dad trained me at home,” shares Dua, who has been playing at the academy for a year now.

Although her father is supportive of her dreams to pursue football as a career, her paternal grandmother often tells her football is not for girls. “I just ignore what she says and continue playing,” says Dua giggling.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
X: @sommulbaloch

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 12th, 2024

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