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LAHORE:They live in Morgah, a suburban area of Rawalpindi. Imama Qureshi and her younger sister Meeral Qureshi are budding athletes involved in the world's most popular sport, football. Wearing sportswear and going for football practice every day was never acceptable to the locals before - this is an area where few women work outside their homes. The two sisters, however, are undaunted.

Both are good friends and sometimes both play as defenders in the same football team. They are defenders in real life too - of feminism and gender equality. They are hard at work, on and off the field, breaking stereotypes that girls have nothing to do with football.

There is no football ground there where they live. They play in a Government High School's playground, just yards away from their home. In the same ground boys play too. At peak game time, the rough field becomes engulfed in clouds of dust. Imama and Meeral Qureshi are the first in this area to play the beautiful game, but many other young girls are now following their steps - some going all the way to play at the national level.

Imama Qureshi imparts fitness training to boys at the academy

How their journey began

Back in 2007, M. Arif Qureshi found himself greatly inspired by Bollywood sports film Chak De India, a movie on a girls' hockey team and how a hockey team coach (played by Shahrukh Khan) guides them on their way to earning a world title. Hockey, though, was not M. Arif Qureshi's own forte: he was a famous footballer of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. He had some experience with coaching, and so he established the Shaheen Youth Academy for the young people of Morgah. To involve girls in football he began his initiative from his own home, with his own daughters in 2010. Later his better half Jamila Arif joined him. And so they became a family of footballers. Arif Qureshi set an example for parents and his first pupils inspired other young girls of Morgah to play football.

Arif Qureshi finds inspiration also from real-life characters. He emulates Mahavir Singh Phogat, an Indian coach and wrestler who trained his daughters, the Phogat Sisters, to become champions at wrestling. Arif Qureshi is just as focused and strict with his daughters as a football coach.

The Family - M Arif Qureshi, Jamila Arif and their daughters Imama Qureshi,

Meeral Qureshi and Qantah Qureshi

Morgah, a suburban area on the outskirts of Rawalpindi city, had high rates of crime and the youth were mired in drug problems. Arif Qureshi, through football, engaged local youth in healthy activity to provide healthy alternatives to a drug-fuelled lifestyle. Now former addicts play football and overall addiction statistics have decreased dramatically in Morgah.

Emerging footballer Imama Qureshi, 19, was part of the Pakistan National Football team that went to play in Australia last year.

She says, "In football, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is my favourite player. I try to develop shooting skills like his. My sister is also a big fan of his. When you play a team sport, you learn how to work together. It prepares you for leadership roles and helps you in professional life too."

Imama Qureshi got her motivation from yet another movie, based on the story of a Punjabi girl who wants to play football. "Bend it like Beckham (2002) is my favourite movie on football. That movie is an inspiration for me. The story revolves around an Indian girl whose family does not allow her to play football. The culture depicted in the movie is the same as ours. I watched this movie back in 2010 when I commenced playing football. I play as main defender. I learnt many techniques from my father's style of playing .Even today when my father plays matches, we go along to watch his game and to support him. When we play football with boys, it helps. You learn how to stop a ball and how to pass. In school I played many games - tennis, hockey and even gymnastics. At a young age, I went along with my father to every match that he played. I was in the 7th grade and I decided to play football. There was no concept of female athletes in Morgah. In fact, there was no concept even of girls going for a morning walk! Then we made our own girls' football team. That was not quite so easy. My father had to go to the home of each girl to convince the families because people were reluctant about girls' football. My father told the girls' parents 'Your daughters play well. This game has good scope.' It was not an easy conversation to have. My father was stung by the mockery of the locals, who would ask, 'Hun kuriyan football khaid saan?" (Now the girls will play football?)"

The girls of Morgah and their parents have come a long way since then.

Posing with medals after the All-Pakistan 8th National Women's Championship

in Lahore, 2014

"I want to opt for sports as my career. I will next study health and physical education up to the Masters level!" Imama declares confidently.

The challenges are not just about overcoming traditional attitudes about women and sports. Resources, as in so many other communities, are not easily available.

Arif Qureshi says:

"Many bigwigs contacted us and never fulfilled their promises. It was all just lofty claims and talk. We need separate playing grounds to train girls. We in Pakistan are far behind the world in football. FIFA has introduced four new rules and technological developments in the game recently - and they have not even been adopted in Pakistan yet."

Qureshi himself started playing football in 1987. "I used to play for my school's football team. Then I joined a local football club named Khan Football Club - though it was not registered at that time. I spent years and years in football. At last in 1995 I earned the title of the best football player of Rawalpindi - beating almost 32 football clubs. That helped me to secure a job at PTV. In 2007 I did a coaching course from German coach Holger Habermann. After that I did a Futsal coaching course."

Member of the House of Commons in the UK, Tasmeena Shaikh,

presenting a shield to Imama Qureshi

At that point, he was ready to start sharing what he learned and training a new generation of footballers, especially young women.

"I opened a football academy in Morgah in 2007. Shaheen Youth Football Academy started out with 40 young children. In 2010, I formed a women's football team of 20 to 25 young girls. Most of those girls are today playing for the Pakistan Army and getting salaries. I feel really happy about how far we've come. Sport transcends religion, country and race. Sports has its own language. I want to engage the youth in positive and healthy activities. In our area, many young people who were caught up in drugs now play football. That, for us, is our revolution. It was a major problem in this area!"

The younger of the Qureshi sisters, Meeral, says, "I grew up watching my father playing football since my childhood. I played my first match in 2010 when I was in the 5th grade. My father is my favourite player. Then in that list come Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Ronaldo. Playing for Keeps is my favourite football movie - about a father who is a coach and his son, a football player. I played as goalkeeper in the junior team and now I'm a right mid-fielder."

She further says:

"Sports teach you to be consistent - which is important in studies too. We started from Soccer Queen Club. My mother was coach of that club. Then we played a qualifying round . I feel more confident as a player under my coach mom .Now I am preparing the Royal FC U-15 boys' football team as the U-15 national championship is coming up ahead."

Jamila Arif, her mother, recalls her husband Arif's craze for football. "On our Walima day (wedding feast), my husband said, 'Let's go for an outing!' without letting me know earlier what it was about. We reached Jinnah Stadium. I sat down and watched my husband's game against the Nigerian Embassy on the night of my Walima!"

Her career as a football coach soon kicked off. She says:

"I did various courses and started coaching for badminton, table tennis, volley-ball and athletics. My husband preferred working with me rather than anyone else, and got me to do coaching courses to join him in football. I did a 'D' license and then a 'C' license course of football. I wanted to continue to do international-level courses, 'B' and 'A' level, from Malaysia. But we did not have enough resources."

"I worked in schools as a coach and there I led their teams at district and provincial levels. I recently formed the girls' football team of St. Mary's Academy. We reached out to the parents of the students, asking them to allow the young girls to play football. When we started our own football club named Soccer Queen, all the 25 to 30 girls of our locality were aged between 10 and 20 years."

The couple and their daughters are optimistic about their prospects. They believe they could bring a medal for Pakistan.

Arif Qureshi believes that is quite possible, but he believes they need support to ensure international-standard football grounds in each divisional headquarter. His work has been solitary at most times. He has been working for the promotion of football with very limited resources. He and his family have struggled to gain acceptance for girls playing football in their community and beyond.

They have a long way to go. The country which manufactures the footballs used in the FIFA World Cup is yet to qualify for that tournament of tournaments.

The writer tweets at @Ammad_Alee

The Qureshi Sisters' achievements

Imama Qureshi played in the national football team last year in Australia

She played 2 national qualifying rounds. She got bronze medals in the 9th women's national championship

Both sisters got Bronze Medals in the 10th women's national championship.

Both got Silver Medals in the 1st Under-16 Pakistan Youth League and in this tournament Imama Qureshi was declared the 'Best Player in Pakistan'.

In the 2nd Under-16 Pakistan Youth League, Meeral Qureshi got a gold medal and was declared 'Best Goalkeeper in Pakistan'.

Both got gold medals in the KKAWF Cup.

Both got gold medals in the World Health Orgaisation (WHO) No Smoking Football Tournament.

Meeral Qureshi got a silver medal in the Futsal Champions League Islamabad.

Both got gold medals in the Futsal Cup.
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Jul 14, 2018
Words:1785
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