05 - 11 Mar, 2016

A maroon baseball cap atop streaked hair appears from behind a mesh of net. As the girl in a green and white jersey approaches near, number 7 is what comes to sight – Shahlyla Baloch, is the one donning the national football team’s outfit. In between soft thuds and gentle marching, many Neymar Jr’s, Cristiano Ronaldo’s and Lionel Messi’s are out in the ground to train.
A striker is what she is, at a game that is mostly restricted to the dominant gender. I catch her when she’s out to train for the day. The sui generis name of this 19-year-old is what instantly catches attention. “It’s a Balochi-Farsi name: ‘Shah’ means king and ‘lyla’ stands for night’s beauty,” Shahlyla spells it out.
A rich childhood experience is what she holds dear. “I was born in Karachi, but grew up in Quetta,” she recalls. Her hometown being Kalat, holds some fond memories. “My sisters were elder to me, whereas my brother was a year younger, so I was alone and explored on my own. I used to wander around and climbed mountains that’s how I became tough – by climbing roofs and trees,” she speaks about the heyday of youth.
When did the world of the inflated oval become a part of who and what she is now? “I was about seven years old when my mother got an opportunity to make the Women’s Wing for the football federation; the first three girls playing in it were my sisters and I,” she talks about how women’s football was introduced in Pakistan.
With no football stadiums, Shahlyla along with the others used to train at a hockey stadium: “We trained there for about seven years for the nationals,” and it was during that time that she racked up an accolade – “the youngest Asian player award by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)”.
Encouragement and inspiration was always blooming at home for this striker. “My father used to play for Baloch clubs and my mother was in the hockey team. They realised that I had good footwork,” she tells me. What stands out for her is her skill to play with the right and left foot. Does that mean she’s ambidextrous? “No, I can’t write with both,” she makes it known.
In a society which optimistically holds near the fact that the age-old stereotypes are things of the past, Shahlyla has a version of her own. The attire that the game requires must bring a lot of attention to those playing, and the attacker of the field, doesn’t disagree. “To be honest, it brings a lot of attention and we’ve always been criticised for wearing shorts, but it, being a sport we have to wear what we’re comfortable in,” she speaks with dissent about the mindset that the nation’s populace is shrouded in.
Not every player in the team hails from a household like Shahlyla’s. “Yes, we are breaking stereotypes and for those who are uneasy with the attire, they do wear tights – internationally we’re allowed to wear skin-coloured or ones that match the colour of the sleeves/shorts.” As the pace of the training continues in different parts of the stadium, Shahlyla talks about the excitement of representing the nation. “I always get butterflies because when you’re out on the field playing for Pakistan, that is the time when you have to give it all and the feeling of nervousness lasts through,” a patriotic tone echoes.
With practice and leagues, a hitch that results is a disturbed academic routine. “I have done my A levels and will be going for my Bachelor’s at New Castle University,” says the pianist. Yes, you read that spot on. “I love to play the piano. My mother always wanted one of us (the siblings) to learn a musical instrument but none of them were interested, except me.”
The shooting spree intensifies after the warm-up session as a team of 5-year-olds lingers by debating over who the captain would be. While the toss around continues, a young boy donning a blue-white striped jersey with a 10 blatantly clear, approaches and asserts his captaincy.
It was in 2010 that the national women’s team came into existence. “We’ve been to three South Asian Football Federation Cups (SAFF) with the last one played in Islamabad in 2014. Apart from that I have been invited to play for the Sun football team in Maldives,” Shahlyla makes it known that this year too she’ll be travelling to play for them – there too at the same position.
She recollects the experience to be categorical. “Pakistan faced Maldives twice and both times we beat them 3-0. The difference was that we weren’t playing on grass, but on artificial turf,” tying her hair in a ponytail, she talks about her experience to play on a different field.
However, not much football is being played of late. “The last match was against Bahrain in 2014 and in 2015 we were off-season the whole year,” she talks about the grim realities the sport faces in the country. “Because of political issues, the federation has been closed since April 2015 when about 100 men barged into the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) house; once a safe house for us, that too came under attack,” she dismally sheds light on the bleak future of the game.
A firm believer of following one’s heart, Shahlyla voices: “You need to go for what you want to do, and others will start following you”. The passion for the game labours her point, for she comes out with, “I’ve convinced other parents since the time I was seven. I used to go with my mom and sisters to about 60 houses in the mountains preaching them how clean a game it was. And my mother used to tell them that her daughters are in the team and football is a game for all,” with her elder sister Raheela Zarmeen, the manager of the national team and the other one being the captain of Balochistan United (BU).
A game that requires constant training, Shahlyla has divided her days: “I play football three days and gym the remaining four,” for she states, “you have to train every day or you’ll feel unfit.”
As we head towards the sports diva’s house, a furry welcome is what awaits her. With an endless wagging of the tail, Burj, a Belgian Shepherd comes barging at the sight of his favourite as a meow hails from the porch. “That’s Ice,” Shahlyla tells me about her cat as she calls out to Alpha, the wolf. Yes, a pet and a wildlife fanatic is what she thoroughly is!
A shopaholic by and large, “London is where I enjoy engulfing in retail therapy and mostly end up with excess baggage,” the shopper in her speaks.
The athlete idolizes the Argentinian giant, Diego Maradona and is a huge buff of the Little Magician – Lionel Messi. Has she ever met him? “I would love to,” she speaks as a rosy tint appears on her façade. “I’ve met Cristiano Ronaldo when the final was played between Real Madrid and Inter Milan and the feeling was unreal!”
Does she follow suit their techniques? “I absolutely do!” and she shows me her hands which have marks on them, making it known that this jock likes perfecting her skills. “When I’m home, I keep practicing till I get them right,” the little Ms. Perfect shares.
Shahlyla, has faced the South Asian best. “Outside Pakistan the level of the game is better. India counts amongst the top followed by Nepal. We played Nepal but unfortunately lost to them,” she parleys. “They are the toughest in the region with a coach from Japan,” she talks about the Nepalese team. With no importance given to the infrastructure here, Shahlyla verbalizes how our neighbour in the east has women playing the game while they are working and financially supporting their households.
“The Indian team players are so fit, they are working while playing and the game is on-going there.” She recalls an incident off the field when during a match she talked to an Indian teammate. “A player from the opponent’s side asked me since how long was I into the sport. For me it was about five years and when I reverted the question to her, she had been playing for the past 17 years,” she says bringing to light the amount of experience which didn’t even match this jock’s age at the time.
Not many out there are as lucky to follow their dreams and then live to enjoy them. However, Shahlyla’s tale is a far cry from that. “I have suffered injuries like ligament sprain and I couldn’t play for three months, but there hasn’t ever been a point in my life where I have felt that football isn’t for me,” she stamps her infatuation for the game.
Another badge of pride that Shahlyla holds amongst her chamber of trophies, is one she puts forth with joy. “At the time I scored, I didn’t know I was the first Pakistani to bag that honour,” the sportswoman talks about the time when she scored a hat-trick in an international league. “After I got done with the match, a reporter called, congratulating me and that was when I figured that I had made news.”
She shares a dream of hers that she has been aiming for since the past 7-8 years, a vision that will land her in the Spanish giant club’s premises. “I want to play for Barcelona’s women’s team and have already spoken to them,” the young athlete shares. Not only that, she also went for trials at the Arsenal football school two years earlier, but as she puts it, “that was bad timing as I had to return to Pakistan to play for the national team”.
The sports diva for whom the stadium’s a stage, the social media is a medium which has done much to promote the game. We recall the incident of Murtaza Ahmadi, a young boy in Afghanistan whose video went viral and it was the power of this new medium alone that got the young tot a signed jersey of his favourite star. Of course, when it’s Shahlyla talking, it has to be none other than the charming Lio!
Talk about pressure and expectations on the day of matches and her memory puts forth a narration. “Players on our side are very unpredictable. They can play well like Neymar Jr. during the training sessions, but on the day of the match…” she snaps making a sign of the skills being put to rest before the game concludes. “But then that’s not only for our side. In the changing rooms we try to keep things cool and easy but not every player can handle the surmounting pressure.” And that makes her share a mantra off the field. “We try hustling each other and there’s one in particular which we, at BU follow. It goes like, ‘hustle up, whose gonna be the champion – BU, what team – BU, BU for the win’,” she talks about ways of boosting the morale of team players.
For someone who likes white “because everyone goes for black”, sports in Pakistan isn’t everything in black and white. “There’s lack of exposure, with not the right kind of coaches and then the federation isn’t helping either. How can one invest time in something when they know that nothing fruitful can come out from it?” She makes it known that many team players are forced to opt for other options for they aren’t paid and to keep the bread and butter rolling they have to take up other professions.
The striker who loves the classic Biryani, is strict about her eating routines. “I follow a diet plan that is given to me by my trainer.” As for her favourite entrée, she gets to have it on days of victory. “I haven’t had rice in two months, but we treat ourselves when we win,” says the beauty, who has a sweet tooth too.
With a prim and proper nail colour, followed by streaks, this jock wants to try her hands in music as well as acting. “Let’s see when I get the right connections.” But does she have a character in mind? And she lays it out in the open. “I wanted to do a role that my friend is working on currently, a tomboyish character who grows up to fall in love, but I wouldn’t want to fall in love with anyone. I won’t mind being the bad guy for the normal me is pretty crazy.” The conversation would have gone a bit longer had Burj’s eyes not melted, for it was her time to brace the grass queen. •

Umer Mushtaq
Hair & Make-up:
Wahaj Alley

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