Living Colours: ‘David Beckham was always the player I imitated as a kid’

Along with her two sisters, Raheela Zarmeen grew up playing football in a remote town in Balochistan. There being no women’s football fields in Quetta, she began playing football on a hockey field at the Girls College in Quetta.

Currently Ms Zarmeen is serving as manager of the National Women’s Football Team and a brand ambassador for Leisure League.

Ms Zarmeen is the first woman in South Asia to coach a professional men’s team, for Karachi Electric. Dawn caught up with her in Islamabad to discuss her career.

Q: Who inspired you to play football?

A: Well, it was not so much inspiration as motivation from my parents to select sports as a profession. There were a lot of players that inspired me when I was still growing up, but one name stands tall: David Beckham. Playground rules dictate that kids pretend to be footballers when participating in a kick-around, and David Beckham was always the player I imitated. Not because of his diverse hairstyles or the elaborate tattoos, but merely the fact that he was a truly fantastic player.

Q: Who has been your main support in choosing football as a career?

A: What I have attained and struggled for is all because of my parents. Obviously without their support and motivation, I wouldn’t have overcome all the obstacles and stand so firmly. My parents fully supported me and my sisters in choosing football as a career, not merely a hobby.

Q: Have you faced any criticism or obstacles in attaining your dream?

A: As a Pakistani from the tribal province of Balochistan, I was bound to face various obstacles, and that was exactly the case with me. One of the worst hindrances was to have to play football for five years (2001-2009) on a hockey field. We got no support from the provincial government. The government did not even recognize our efforts and contribution.

In 2012, we brought back home to Balochistan a bronze medal. In 2013 and 2014, we were awarded silver and gold medals. Despite these achievements, we received no recognition from the government.

My late sister, Shayla Baloch, was declared the youngest player by FIFA. And she was the first Pakistani footballer to do a hat-trick in a foreign league, but neither the provincial nor the federal government honoured her contribution.

Some criticize us because our mom, Senator Rubina Irfan, was the president of the Balochistan women’s football team, [and claim that] as the reason we came so far and made a name. But they forget that it was our struggle and our passion for football that gave us a name in Pakistan and internationally.

I remember a piece published in Dawn on 22 Nov 2014 accused my mom of advancing us. The piece, written by Umaid Wasim, also slammed us while ignoring our achievements. Despite facing unfair criticism, our mom has been the greatest support and never let us think negatively.

Obstacles are part of the journey to success and I still feel I will be facing a lot of them in the future as well, but my aim is very clear and I’m focused on what I have to do and how I am going to cross all barriers in my path.

Q: Have you taken any initiative to promote football in Balochistan, specifically in the rural areas?

A: The day I started playing football on a hockey field in Quetta with my sisters Shayla and Sohaila was the day we began promoting football and sending out the message that women can also select football as a profession.

We sisters were the first to lead the girls when it comes to playing football because it was us who first initiated this idea of practicing football on a hockey field. We used to reach the field as early as we could. We also followed the football code of conduct involving wearing skirts and other rules that were seen as taboo in Balochistan. When we followed them, the other female players were motivated to wear skirts.

At the moment, I am also brand ambassador for Leisure League. Through Leisure League, we have started constructing fields in some cities in Balochistan in order to encourage women to play football part time. The field in Gwadar is ready, so I will be visiting there to promote football. I will visit other cities as well, once the fields are ready.

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2017