“I showed them that we can do this. So what if we are girls?” said Mishal Akram spiritedly as she talked about what it finally means to be playing for Pakistan since it has been a long wait for her since 2015.
Pakistan women’s team are in Nepal for the South Asian Football Federation (Saff) Women’s Championship and Mishal has emerged as the brighter, shining star for the team which is playing their first international tournament after eight years.
Mishal is a striking individual. She is 21, but has the innocence of a preteen and the wisdom way beyond her years.
She stands tall in the field and draws attention with sheer effort and hard work that she puts into the game, even when things are not going according to the plan.
Mishal is seen in the defence for Pakistan, with steel determination. Pakistan lost to the defending champions India 3-0 in their first match on September 7, then 6-0 to Bangladesh on September 10 and then the third fixture of the Group A against Maldives saw them win 7-0 to sign off in style.
Mishal has been a solid fixture in all three of Pakistan’s matches at the championship, proving her mettle.
Move like Ramos
For her performance against India where the team was expected to take a thrashing, she received praise from all three of the coaches that are with the national team, along with her friends and family.
But she feels she has done herself proud when she finally managed to defend like Sergio Ramos.
Mishal has been a successful striker for her teams throughout her football journey and her career, which started when she was in grade 5 at the Noor-e-Islam Girls School.
But she feels that her favourite players have been helpful because she likes to emulate their performances in hers too.
“I played as a striker before, so I really liked Cristiano Ronaldo, but now when I play as a defender, I really like Sergio Ramos’ game,” Mishal told The Express Tribune after her match against India.
In her international debut for the national seniors' team Mishal took a page out of Ramos’s book.
“I also tackled just like him against India. When I came back and saw the video, I was amazed because I saw what I did and I could not believe it.
“I used to think that I want to tackle like him. I would keep wondering how I would do it, but then against India I did it. It was at the start of the match, I slid and took the ball while defending just like Ramos does.”
Mishal has represented Pakistan in the U18 Saff Championship back in 2018. She was also a part of the U19 team that competed in the 2019 Asian Football Confederation U19 Women’s Championship.
But a debut with the seniors’ side has been a different story for her.
“When I played for Pakistan in the U18 event, I had no confidence in me, but when I played the first match in Saff Championship I had the faith in me. I was much more confident,” she recalled, adding that there has been a great deal of change for the better when it comes to coaching and facilities and the treatment of players this time around.
While playing against India and at the championship Mishal says the only thing that has been going in her mind is prayers for success, while being on the field during the match.
“It was a bit emotional. I said the colours that we are wearing. I could not let my flag go down. I was just praying when we played against India,” she said.
In Nepal, she added that she found the local fans to be truly kind and welcoming to the team. Also, the players and the weather suited Pakistan team as well.
Beating nature just to play football
Mishal’s selection in the national squad is the story of a legend.
After a wait of more than seven years, she received a call that said she has been selected to come to the try-outs for the national women’s camp for the South Asian Championship.
While getting the call was great, it upset her too. “This was a gut-wrenching situation. It made me cry,” Mishal revealed.
“I reached Quetta that day to play a futsal match. I reached in the morning and I found out that I’ve been named in trials for the national camp. I cried because I was not among the first list of girls who were directly selected. The trials were the day after, so I left for Karachi the very same evening.
“But when I came to Karachi, I found out that the trials have been postponed.”
It is fascinating to see the passion for football and dedication for the country in Mishal because it torrential rains had taken over Karachi in the last 10 days of July, when she has travelled back and forth from Karachi to Quetta as the route to the two cities can become very risky during the monsoons.
“I left for Quetta again, and when I reached Quetta again, I scored eight goals that day, then the trials were on 29th, so I left Quetta on 28, went directly to the ground where the trials were being held and got selected for the national camp.”
At the end of the day Mishal got her place in the camp and was the top scorer as well in the futsal event despite the stress and pressures of these day.
Resilience is thy name
It takes great character to overcome hurdles and rise above the rest.
Mishal shows kindness and a sense of brining her fellow footballers together, while she is playing for Pakistani now, she has played a part in her community too to encourage other girls to play.
Mishal has been doing so since the very beginning, when she first heard about football training when she was in grade 5.
“I was in the fifth grade when the British council people came, but the prefect at the time did not even include me she said I they don’t take girls as tall as me, so that opportunity went away and I waited but then after a while when I became the opportunity came to me again, this time I was the monitor I got and I also took that girl the name of that girl too who had left me out earlier.” she recalled.
Mishal began by playing for Diya FC in 2015, when Pakistan Football Federation’s crisis came to surface and the never-ending saga among the officials breaking into factions began, leading two bans from FIFA since with the last one lasting for almost 15 months and ending in June 2022. Since 2014 Pakistan women's team were isolated and did not participate in the international football because of the turbulence in the PFF. The National Championship also got affected and there has never been a proper league for girls to play.
Her career trajectory is inspiring as she saw the local clubs, she joined not giving the due respect and training to the players, but she persevered.
“Played for Diya 2015, when the PFF started to see problems and there was no football for us, I got selected for Pakistan camp too, but no football took place, then I joined Mohsin Gillani FC, they did not give us any training, nothing ever happened there.
“After that I gave try-outs for Karachi Kickers when the national championship was to take place, and I got selected, I also got selected for the national team in 2018, after this I played for Jafa Football Academy, during this period I also got selected for the one-week camp held by the PFF in 2020 and now, I am playing for Pakistan Army and locally I play for Karachi United,” explained Mishal.
“All three coaches said that I was particularly good at the game, all my friends and other people too told me I performed well.
“But starting from school most of the friends that Mishal played with have left, in these eight years that the women's game has been stalled due to institutional instability and neglect.
“I only had one best friend from school she messaged me that I played well, all the friends and girls who started with me in school have all quit football, today only I am alone, playing football,” said Mishal, as she told us about how the reaction of her school fellows after her performance in Nepal has been.
She adds that while most have quit the game, she never felt dejected.
“I never got demotivated or discouraged I used to say, no this is my passion, I want to play, even if everyone told me that there is no future,” said Mishal.
Family, father support makes difference
Mishal said that she was into sports because of her father who was also a footballer for his village in Khanewal and today he is a proud man because of Mishal’s persistence for paving her way to the national team.
“My father was a footballer, he used to play for his village, Khanewal, he used to be a hero, and the captain for his team. He played volleyball too. He gets incredibly happy when he sees me.
“He was telling me that when he wakes up in the morning the first thing, he does is he says a prayer, ‘Oh Allah give success to my daughter’.
“I got a lot of support from my family, baba, ammi (mother), in the beginning my brothers wouldn’t be too happy but then they saw me play and they really trust me, now they ask all the time when I am going for the tournament, why my name wasn't there, they really take interest,” said Mishal.
She is the youngest of the seven children, and she said that it was her older sister who first started playing football and then she followed. But her sister quit the sport after a while.
“My school was the first exposure, I did have the aptitude for sports and football, I got so much into football that it took my attention away from studies too,” said Mishal, and remembering her first coach, Majid Khan who invested his time and effort in the players.
“I used to have a coach, Sir Majid, one day we were running, all the girls stopped but I kept on going, he told me that he saw me on another level. I saw many coaches who just were interested in sponsors and other things and not looking out for us or football. Now Sir Adeel (Rizki, who is the head coach of the national team) is the same kind of person, I have seen. SO, I am happy with the environment in the team as well, our seniors have been good too, and it felt like we are all a big family,” added Mishal.
“Let the girls play”
Mishal has been overcoming societal pressures and prejudices as well, with the help of her family.
She shed light on how it has been difficult to change the perception of the people around women's football.
“A lot of my relatives and acquaintances they said, this is a girl, she wears shorts and plays, people who were close to me said to my father, why are you letting her play, she is a girl, she is your daughter, not a son.
“But my father would reply to them, no this is my daughter, and now I have showed them with my actions. I showed them that we can do this, so what if we are girls? Girls can do everything better than boys and my friend’s mother used to say no to football and playing. She would say that football gives nothing and doing job would help with getting the salary, her mother didn’t agree. If she continued playing, she would have been here with us in Nepal. She used to play with me in Diya FC,” said Mishal.
She shared that she would often get scolded and told off by the parents of her fellows when she would visit them at their home, but in the end, she chose to continue, and football remained her best friend during tough times.
“I never felt alone, I used to go to my friends’ home an used to get scolded by their mothers but even they did not want to continue, so I would let them be, I said that no I want to do this, so I will do this but I always wanted to play and I was proactive, I would call my coaches to ask them when should I come for training. So, I continued. By Allah’s Grace I am here that I am playing for my country,” gushed Mishal.
Women that inspire all
Mishal said that one of the inspirations came from her mother. “I always wanted to do this. My mother would sit among my family and cousins an discuss what their children are doing, so I wanted my mother to feel proud too that she would say look my daughter is doing this playing international.”
Meanwhile, she looked up to the national team players, and dreamt of playing like them from a younger age.
“I also got a lot of inspiration from the footballers like Mahpara Shahid, Malik-e-Noor, Hajra Khan, Shahlyla Baloch, I use to see them and wonder if I can play like them. They were playing when I started out, I never knew that this dream would become reality so soon. Even though Shahlyla is no more with us. But they inspired me,” she said.
On her own plans for the future, Mishal says that she wants to play football as long as she can.
“I’ll play till the last once of strength left in my bones, I’ll keep playing football till then,” said Mishal, but she left with a message for the Pakistanis especially for the women’s football.
“Trust us, give us a chance to play, don’t create hurdles and issues for us, the girls who do not play should play, playing sports is also good for us physically, we stay fit.”