Washington – A group of 10 Pakistani girls and young women managed to convince their parents that it would be a good idea to come to the United States to play football. The team members, between the ages of 12 and 21, are in Washington with three coaches through a State Department programme, to hone their football skills – training for a sport that has a scanty audience and little support back home.
All members of the Young Rising Stars Female Football Club (YRS), they battle with ease the deep ambivalence in conservative Muslim society about girls playing sport.
“I started playing late – when I was 17 and initially thought I was too old to be called a ‘young rising star.’ Now I just love it – so inspiring,” said team captain Sana Mahmood, 19, who studies social sciences at Bahria University in Islamabad.
“American girls start playing at 3 to 5 years and have such an advantage over us,” Mahmood told dpa, the German news agency. “We lack technical skills, have no professional facilities – that is very disappointing about my country.”
YRS has a lot to be proud of, winning the first All-Pakistan Inter-Club Women’s Football Tournament in August 2008.
“The sports infrastructure (in the United States) is fantastic. Boys support girls playing football. In Pakistan, no one comes to watch our matches, and if the men come, they only stare,” Mahmood said.
Football is seen as a men’s game in Pakistan, but things are slowly changing, according to Ghiasuddin Baloch, the team’s manager and former national footballer. Cricket and field hockey are more popular, and Pakistan’s men’s national team is ranked 177th in the latest FIFA world rankings.
“I was very keen to bring young girls into the sport, to change their lives. Sports is empowering. But there was lots of resistance from parents and school principals,” Baloch said.
“I was criticized for encouraging girls to come out and play. Principals said they didn’t want girls running around in half-sleeved shirts and shorts. Some parents were worried their daughters wouldn’t get married as they would be considered too masculine.”
Experiencing football in the United States is a big step forward for the girls, Baloch said. In September 2005, when Pakistani women played their first-ever football championship, they had to wear long- sleeved jerseys and baggy trousers. The only men allowed into the stadium were the male coaches.
Until 2004, there was no women’s football in Pakistan, but despite the late start and cultural and social barriers, FIFA cited as a major achievement that the 2005 women’s national finals were aired live on national TV.
Bushra Jamali, 17, said nonchalantly that she barged onto the field at 5 years old, much before her other teammates started.
“I was a tomboy in school and pushed my way into the team, even though I was the only girl,” she said. “My father encourages me, but not my mother. I’m slowly convincing her with my hard work.”
To prove that she can do it all, Jamali gets up before 5 am each day, studies until 9 am and then leaves for school. From 3 pm onward she’s at football practice.
While football is her first love, she also plays cricket and basketball and dreams of participating in other sports not accepted in Pakistan.
“It is fascinating to watch figure skating and gymnastics. The opportunities are not present in Pakistan for girls to indulge in these sports,” said Jamali.
In a country where many girls don’t go to school and get married young, the footballers dream of playing internationally.
“I am passionate about it, and I’ll fly with it was much as I can. There is so much to learn in the US,” Mahmood said.
She is captain and big sister combined.
“We are like a big family who have ventured across the Atlantic alone,” Mahmood said. “Some girls have never stepped outside Pakistan and feel a little uncomfortable, but on the field everything is forgotten.”
The youngest player, Sahar Zaman, 12, said she’s the only girl among six brothers and names David Beckham and Roberto Carlos as her heroes.
While most of the girls appreciate the world’s top male footballers, their all-time favourite is Marta – Brazilian football star Marta Vieira da Silva, best known by a single name as are Brazil’s male greats Ronaldo and Ronaldinho.
“Marta was born to play football,” Mahmood said. “I want to be like her.” (dpa)