On August 21, 2020, Pir Faraz Ali, a travelling photographer from Pakistan manifested to football fans around the world a series of images from Gulmit, Hunza, capturing an unprecedented sight in the valley. The images showed young girls from Northern Areas of the country battling it out in the first-ever Mountain Girls Premier League (MGPL), an exclusive football tournament for women.
The league, the first of its kind, was organized by Gulmit Young Stars Club & Students Welfare Organization in collaboration with Gilgit Baltistan Tourism Department.
Faraz Ali had a favour to ask from his followers on social media– to get the word out.
“Throughout the tournament, I saw immense talent & passion for football amongst the girls… Playing a sport which requires a lot of stamina at an altitude of around 2500m is very challenging due to lack of oxygen. Unfortunately, there’s not much encouragement and support for women in the field of sports, hence, I decided to make this post so that these talented girls get global recognition and get opportunities to pursue their passion for football professionally. I would like to request everyone who reads this to share this post on your stories and help them get recognition. I really hope some national or international organisation gets in touch with them and help/sponsor them to pursue their careers in football.” he wrote on Instagram.
Thanks to Faraz Ali’s post, the league caught the attention of FIFA Women’s Football World Cup and was retweeted wildly among the admirers of the game around the globe.
The tournament hosted 10 teams of young women from Hunza Valley in Northern Pakistan, and 19th August 2020, Gulmit Young Stars faced off Shah Talib FC in the finals of the tournament with the former winning by a score of 2-0.
The following is an excerpt from the interview our correspondent Aajma Manoj had with Neha Aly and Asdaf Aziz who played as the centre midfielder and goalkeeper respectively for champions Gulmit in the league.
Aajma Manoj (AM), Footy Times: How were you introduced to football?
Neha Aly (NA): We used to play as kids when I was 13 years old, there was like a mini-tournament that happened in our area called Mini-GPL. And That was the first time most of us were introduced to the sport.
AM: What kind of training did you receive before the tournament?
Asdaf Aziz (AA): Our club organized a training camp for us so that we’d be able to prepare for the tournament.
AM: Do you think the Mountain Girls Premier League has helped girls gain confidence and given them an opportunity to express their passion for the game?
NA: Yes, of course, I think MGPL is a new beginning for many girls among us. It was truly a life-changing experience and the confidence we gained from it has been immense. I hope we’ll be able to keep up with and continue with our passion for the game.
AM: Are you looking forward to next year’s tournament?
AA: Yes, we’re even more passionate about football since MGPL began. Right now, we’re training, specifically to improve our skills to come back stronger next year.
AM: What kind of support did you receive from everyone? Were there any difficulties, for you personally or for other girls to be a part of the tournament/to play football in general?
NA: We got an incredible amount of support from our families, friends and society. There were huge turnouts at the games and there was a constant appreciation of our game. Personally, I feel this was a perfect environment for girls our age to explore our skills, and the support we received added to our courage. So, I think on behalf of the girls who participated, I am grateful to thank everyone who’s helped us remain motivated throughout.
AM: Did you face any gender bias before, during or after the tournament while playing football?
AA: Not at all! There’s so much equality where I come from. A son and a daughter are the same to our families and most of the girls’ parents have expressed to us how proud we’ve made them through this league.
AM: How would you describe the passion you witnessed among the girls who played in the league? Do you think this has opened up opportunities for younger girls who love the game as you do?
NA: There is so much talent in our younger girls. In fact, the passion they have for the game exceeds ours. If given the right training and opportunity, I can confidently say they are going to crush it!
AM: What was your favourite moment/experience from the league?
AA: The moment when our youngest player, our ‘lil champ, scored in the finals and then seeing a smile on the face of our coach as our captain held the winning trophy in her hands. It was an inexplicable feeling.
AM: Do you have a message to other girls your age who share a similar passion for football as you do?
NA: I’d like to say, if you’re really passionate about something and you really want to do that, go ahead, and be confident and do what you love.
AM: What does the success of Mountain Girls Premier League mean to you and the other girls?
AA: I think this tournament was a huge success for us. And I don’t mean this personally or just for my team. I feel the success of this tournament represents a success for our society. It reinforced the ideas of equality and passion in the minds of everyone who participated in the league or witnessed it. And at the end of the day, that’s a huge win for both women and football.
Both Neha and Asdaf, still a part of Gulmit Young Stars, train with their team regularly and hope to take their team to victory again in the second season of MGPL which is scheduled to happen in 2021.
The success of MGPL is a huge leap forward in how women’s football in South Asia is perceived by the world. The league itself is representative of the change that ignites a passion for the game at a young age– creating opportunities, and breaking barriers– one game at a time.
This article is second in the series ‘Women in Football’ by Footy Times. If you are a woman in football or know a woman whose footballing story holds the power to inspire, write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.