Football, often called the world’s most popular sport, has been a male-dominated industry for decades. However, there has been a significant rise in women playing football and making a name for themselves. Maria, the captain of Pakistan’s national women’s football team, is one such athlete who has broken barriers and has become a role model for women in her country. In this interview, we sit down with Maria Jamila Khan to discuss her journey as a female football player in Pakistan, her challenges, and her hopes for the future of women’s football in her country. Her story is inspiring and sheds light on the struggles and triumphs of women in a sport that is still striving for gender equality.

Interview with the Captain, Maria Jamila Khan:

During the Sports Redefined Show, the host, Dr. Huzaifa, greeted and introduced the guest, Miss Maria Jamila Khan, the present captain of the Pakistan national football team. Maria thanked Huzaifa for having her as a guest and said she was doing well but a little tired due to the training camp. Huzaifa expressed his honour to have Maria as a guest and asked about her journey in football, childhood, and love for the sport.

Maria shared that football has always held a very close and permanent place in her heart. She started playing during her school days with all the boys at lunchtime around the new field, and that’s when she fell in love with it because she was beating all the boys. When asked if that was bad, she didn’t realize it then, but now, looking back on it, she feels it was empowering. Playing on the pitch on the playground at lunchtime was one of the most challenging places to be, but she had the confidence to step out there as a six or seven-year-old, and she believes those moments were critical in developing her love for football. Maria continued playing football at the highest level for women in the United States at the University of Denver. In 2018, she learned about football in Pakistan and played in her first national championship. Since then, the team, the country, and the girls have had an extraordinary place in her heart, making her fall more in love with the game. According to Maria, Pakistan is unique, and amidst all the chaos and everything, there is lots of beauty.

Early Career:

During the interview, Maria’s impressive achievement was acknowledged of starting her football career at the age of six and playing with boys made her an inspiration to girls in Pakistan. He asked Maria for her thoughts on how more girls can be encouraged to pursue football in Pakistan despite the cultural barriers.

Maria thanked the host for the introduction and corrected him by stating that the girls playing football in Pakistan are the true inspiration for her, as they are achieving great things despite the limited resources and challenges they face. She acknowledged the talent and potential of the young female footballers in Pakistan and expressed her excitement about their future opportunities to represent their country. Maria also highlighted that the lack of consistent opportunities to play at the national level had hindered the growth and exposure of female football in Pakistan. 

She said, “There’s so much talent in this team. You know, there’s maybe only four or five for girls, three for girls, the in the team that is probably over the age of 21. Right. So we have a very young, yeah, very young, high-potential team, which is exciting. So again, for me, there are lots of stars in this team, they’re gonna they just need time to get experience and get opportunities to play for the country and to represent the country. Because, you know, we haven’t had the privilege to be playing consistently and regularly. So you know, these amazing girls and these amazing talents haven’t had the opportunity to showcase themselves yet. So excited.” 

Views on the Future of Women’s Football in Pakistan:

When told that a question had come in from Prophase related to the future of women’s football in the country, Maria responded by stating that currently, the Federation or the normalization committee is working to lay the foundation for what women’s football would look like in the future. She also mentioned that a critical driver would be offering a domestic league for women and girls. This league would be an exciting and positive step in the right direction.

Maria acknowledged that there would be ups and downs, like any sport in any country. It was essential for the government to understand that the goal was to revive football in the country and lay the foundation, which would take time, and patience would be necessary. She emphasized that the key to women’s football was to get local girls to play football regularly, especially 11-a-side football. She pointed out that football was accessible for men and women, but the challenge was getting 11 aside competitive football regularly.

Maria hoped that in the next five years, there would be a consistent domestic structure for women and young girls to compete in, which could lead to new heights for football in Pakistan.

Maria discussed the plan for former women’s and men’s football in Pakistan and the challenge of changing the perception that Pakistan is a cricket-dominant country. She believes that the key to changing this perception is for Pakistan to consistently compete internationally in football, at all levels, not just the senior teams. For example, the women’s team is going to play in the Olympic qualifiers in April, which will raise awareness of football activity in the country. Maria also emphasized the importance of raising awareness through platforms like Sports Shows and showcasing up-and-coming football talents in the country. She concluded that Pakistan must support football and other sports, not just cricket.

She stated: “Yeah, I think, you know, there’s being able to compete internationally, right and consistently, right, so constantly getting our men’s and women’s teams out there, not just the senior teams, right, the under eight teams, the under the 20s, the under 20, threes, right getting these teams in tournaments. So for example, you know, I think for the first time in women’s football history, we’re going to be playing in the Olympic qualifiers that are coming up in April. Right. So that in itself is going to raise awareness because the teams in our group Philippines, Tajikistan, and Hong Kong, they’re gonna be like, Oh, focus on focus on House football, right? So you know, and even the people that are in other groups and stuff, they’re, they’re going to see that draw.”

Comparison between Cricket and Football in Pakistan:

When Maria was inquired about the investment in cricket and neglect of other sports, whether there is a plan for domestic leagues for women if it is similar to the Pakistan Super League or different, and whether there might be international stars involved.

Maria replied that she believed the plan for domestic leagues for women was still in its early stages, and that she was not very involved in it, so she could not speak to the specifics. However, she emphasized that the most important thing for her as a player was the fact that a league was being established, and that was what mattered to her.

Playing in America:

She was asked about her experience playing football in America and how the opportunities and facilities there compare to those in Pakistan, given the current state of Pakistani football. Maria acknowledged the talent in Pakistan but emphasized the need for a proper platform to develop it. She noted the challenge of developing a sport in a country with a large population and diverse provinces and cities. However, she also highlighted the potential pool of talent within the country, which is much larger than that of neighboring Gulf countries.

Maria stressed the importance of consistency and a clear pathway for players to follow. She stated that identifying this pathway is crucial, as parents who invest in their children’s training need to know what the future holds for them. She also suggested that the pathway could lead to the national team or Inter-University level, but it needs to be clearly defined.

Route for Betterment of Women Football in Pakistan:

Maria also discussed the future of football in Pakistan. Dr. Huzaifa asked her how much time it would take for both men’s and women’s football to return to the right path. Maria replied that she believed they were already getting back on track. The men’s football team was scheduled to play against the Maldives at the end of the month, and the women’s team would be participating in the Olympic qualifier next month. The men’s team also had staff games coming up in the summertime. Maria emphasized that the key was to stay on track, and she did not have an answer to that question. She stated that the team played every game as if it was their last, and that was their mindset. She also mentioned that being a fan of football was an emotional roller coaster, and it meant a lot to a lot of people.

The goal against Saudi Arabia:

Huzaifa asked Maria to share how she scored the goal against Saudi Arabia. Maria responded that it was a commonly asked question and she was still moved by it, even after watching it multiple times. She explained that it was a set piece and something she regularly practiced during training sessions. Maria Jamila Khan highlighted the importance of set pieces in games and how they could be the difference between winning or losing a game. She mentioned that during the game against Saudi Arabia, they were down 1-0 and it was the second half. The free-kick was on the side where Pakistani fans were seated, and the tremendous support from the fans was a really good feeling. Maria shared that she knew this was her favorite shot and took advantage of it, and her practice paid off. Finally, Maria added that being a left-footed player, the shot looked even better to the fans.

 Her reaction to it was like this: 

“Even now, I got goosebumps, you know, I saw that a lot of times. Yeah, so it’s funny this, I wish there was much of a tale, the story would be much cooler. But to be like, I’m left-footed, I love that shot, I love you know, being able to open up my hip, swing the ball in, it’s a set piece, it’s, it’s something that that’s something I practice very regularly. I, you know, lots of training sessions, I’ll stay after all come early, just to be able to practice set pieces. Because set pieces are so important in games.”

Huzaifa asked Maria about her recent trip to Saudi Arabia and her visit to a Pakistani school to meet with the students. He expressed his regret at not being able to meet her and asked about her experience in Saudi Arabia, suggesting that someone from Saudi Arabia may have some questions for her.

In response, Maria thanked Huzaifa and explained that she and her team had the opportunity to visit a Pakistani school and share their stories with the students. She noted that it was not just her, but other players as well who were able to engage with the students. Maria also mentioned her love for GCC countries and her mother-in-law’s connection to Saudi Arabia, which she said will always hold a special place in her heart. She praised the hospitality and treatment they received from the Federation and the national team, which she described as an amazing experience overall.

Departmental system for Football:

Another Question asked by Dr. Huzaifa from Maria was if she thought that having a system of departmental club level or a franchise system could lead to a better football situation in the country in 2023. Maria responded by saying that she would leave this question to the strategist because it was not her area of expertise yet. She added that she will be able to answer this question when she is done with her playing career and moves to the management and strategy side of football in the country. She said: “So when I’m done with my playing career, and Inshallah when I move to the management and the strategy side of football in the country, I will answer this question. I’m going to leave this question to the strategist because it’s not my area of expertise yet.”

Saudi Tour Impact on Team’s Performance:

She was asked another question regarding the impact that the Saudi Arabia journey had on the team, and how it made them feel knowing that they had gained many fans in Pakistan. Maria responded by saying that one of the main reasons why people play football is to inspire others, which is also why she plays. She talked about how she wants to inspire others through her work effort, skill, and communication with her teammates. She also emphasized the importance of having true fans who supported the team through both good and bad times and challenged the community not to be seasonal but instead to support the team unconditionally. Maria acknowledged that the fans had been part of the team’s emotional roller coaster and even those who do not watch football watch the match in Pakistan.

Also Read: UEFA Champions League Quarter Finals Preview

Tour of Maldives:

Huzaifa expressed that he might be a seasonal fan of sports such as hockey, squash, or football. However, he stated that when it comes to supporting Pakistan, it is something that he is fully committed to, regardless of the situation. He also mentioned that he had enjoyed Pakistan’s success in the Maldives, particularly the historic seven-nil victory. Huzaifa asked Maria about her thought process regarding that match.

Maria responded by saying that regardless of the opponent, a seven-nil victory is always a statement in international football. She also believed that the victory gave the team the necessary momentum and confidence to move forward. She did not think that the team’s performance in Saudi Arabia had necessarily put women’s football and Pakistan on the map, but it had certainly helped to raise awareness. Maria emphasized that it was important for the team to leave the space better than they found it, and that was the mentality they were working towards.

Maria’s Role Model:

Huzaifa said that the question was interesting and he started talking about the role model. He asked the person he was talking to if he had a favorite player and guessed that it might be Messi, but the person corrected him and said that one of his favorite players is an old-school player who is no longer playing. The person explained that he admires players for their leadership styles and mentioned Vincent Kompany as someone who did that very well. Huzaifa then commented that Kompany was not a superstar player and that most fans were probably not expecting that answer. Huzaifa then asked the person to make it clear to the fans that Lionel Messi is the greatest player on Earth, but the person disagreed and said that he would go with Brazilian Ronaldo.

Maria responded to a question about discrediting Messi or Ronaldi as role models by saying  that for her, being a true fan of the game and appreciating the game meant acknowledging that many players had contributed to Messi and Ronaldo’s success. She added that as a teammate who had played with superstars, she knew that these players probably did their best and tried to get the best out of their teammates. She mentioned the example of Ronaldo encouraging his teammates to take a penalty in one of the major tournaments, which made his teammates believe that he believed in them. Maria also emphasized the importance of being a good teammate in football, and how team support was necessary for success, whether it was from the coach or the team itself. She compared Argentina and Portugal, stating that while Argentina was a strong team, Portugal relied more on Ronaldo, which made the scenario different.

Huzaifa asked if the person was a Ronaldo fan based on the way they were talking, to which Maria replied that he was talking small about the FIFA World Cup last year and that she was more of a Messi fan.

Being a fan girl of Arsenal:

Huzaifa asked Maria why she liked Arsenal and what was the reason for her support towards them. Maria responded that she had married into an Arsenal family, and it had become her own family. She further added that if she had to choose an English club, Arsenal would be up there because of their heritage and deeply rooted story and history. She also mentioned that Arsene Wenger, who she thought was ahead of his time, changed the game and his role at FIFA now, and with the work, he’s doing within FIFA and the talent development, she thinks he is continuing to grow and enhance the game. Maria believed that witnessing what Arsene Wenger had done for football in general and how much Arsenal meant to him and how much he meant to Arsenal, she had to respect the loyalty that the club showed to him for over 20 years.

Also read: Can Pakistan Women’s Football Team Make History in AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers?

Manchester United’s Struggles:

Huzaifa asked Maria about her opinion on Manchester United and their recent struggles. Maria declined to answer the question, stating that she is an Arsenal fan and cannot speak positively about United. Instead, she shifted the focus to Arsenal and their recent performances, mentioning that they have been playing well and are getting back on track. Maria also mentioned that her husband is a die-hard Arsenal fan who has supported the club since childhood.

She was asked about sports injuries specifically for football players and wanted to know why and how players like Neymar Jr. twisted their ankles multiple times and had to go into rehab for extended periods. Maria responded by saying that it depends on the athlete and some athletes are more injury prone than others. She mentioned that she focuses on preventative work rather than waiting for something to happen and then having to go through rehab. She emphasized the importance of staying hydrated and getting enough sleep and stated that recovery mainly depends on these two things. She also mentioned that massages, ice baths, cupping, and dry needle are extra, but the basics of drinking water and sleeping are essential.

Injury Scares and Fitness Plans of Maria Jamila Khan:

Huzaifa commented that the question asked by the doctor was pretty dire to be prescribed to patients. He asked about the fitness plans and how they change during on and off training. He wanted to know the training tactics that are used. Maria replied that when they are in training camp, the time before the competition is not the right time to try to lose weight, gain weight, and get stronger, or faster. She suggested that they need a specifically tailored program for 8 to 12 weeks to work on those things. She emphasized that during training camp, the focus is on maintaining fitness levels, keeping muscle mass, and maintaining high levels of energy and performance. She added that the intensity of training sessions tailors off as the competition approaches, and high-intensity activities are reduced about 10 days before the competition. Maria also suggested dropping fat, getting faster, getting more robust, and becoming more physical should happen in the offseason or 8 to 12 weeks away from a major competition.

This was the discussion with the Queen of Pakistan Women’s Football team. Maria was asked some important and trending questions regarding Pakistan Football. She was kind enough to answer all of these. Maria Jamila Khan is a pioneer for women’s football in Pakistan and a role model for young girls to follow in her footsteps and become successful.

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