Meet Joyann Thomas, Pakistan's first Christian football player
The player's mother quit sports because of discrimination, despite being a gold medalist in the 1,500 meter event
Joyann Geraldine Thomas, a 17-year-old thin and humble girl who became the first Catholic Christian to play football for Pakistan.
She lives in a compound in Karachi where most of the Christian families live - the oldest part of Karachi.
She liked the game of football from the very young age and at just seven, after seeing a video of the legend Brazilian player, Pele, she decided she wanted to become a footballer.
“I started playing football with boys and some other girls in the nearby compound, and with each passing day my interest in the game of football continued to grow further,” she said. “My aim was high and nothing could stop me from achieving the goal of playing for a Pakistan side. But yet there was a fear of being minority,” she added.
Joyann’s fear wasn’t superficial - but based on reality. Her mother, Joyce Christina, quit sports because of discrimination, despite being a gold medalist in the 1,500 meter event.
Unfortunately the persecution of minorities in Pakistan is still present - 45 people from the Ismaili [minority] community had been gunned-down indiscriminately in Karachi, where Joyann lives. According to the official statistics, Pakistani Christians account for less than two percent of the country’s total population.
“I knew all these facts. But the good thing is I never come across facing such situation at any level,” said Joyann. “I must say, Muslim fellows helped me a lot throughout my career and we are just like a single unit,” she added.
But she did get some threatening messages on her phone which she shared with coach, Ahmed Jan.
“She is a wonderful player. I spotted talent in the very first look,” said Jan. “I encouraged her to continue playing and not pay any attention to such threats.”
Jan said she was a brave girl and added: “There was a time when people would prefer to stay within their premises because of the fear of terrorism but Joyann didn’t lose courage and continued her struggle.”
Joyann manages her studies - including her annual and mid-term school exams, which sometimes clashed with her game. Eventually she had to miss the sport to continue her studies.
“But even during the exams, I used to practice in whatever little time I could spare for the game,” she said. “I couldn’t forget the moment when I was told I had been selected for the Pakistan football team,” she said adding that, “it was a longing wish and not less than touching the moon,” she exclaimed. “I immediately called my mother whose joy was equally matchless.”
It was the happiest moment, which can’t be explained effectively in words, she said.
“The journey wasn’t that easy. I was so thin that my coach, Jan, would called me ‘matchstick’,” Joyann said chuckling to herself, before adding that other people would laugh at her passion, when she shared her dreams about becoming a footballer in the future.
At the age of 13, while she was practicing in the ground, Senator Rubina Irfan, Pakistan Football Federation women Wing Chairperson, saw her and inquired from Niaz Balouch (coach), “Who is this young and thin girl, kicking every ball neatly?”
Since then, she has played in defense and as a mid-fielder for national champions Balochistan United Football Club (BUFC), that are owned by Senator Irfan.
“She has a lot of talent and that’s why she covered a long distance step by step - from ordinary level, to club, national, and finally international. We gave her a lot of confidence and support,” said Senator Irfan.
Her club is focusing on children without any discrimination and for Ms Irfan color, caste, religion, and creed have no meaning. “Sports are beyond any religion, and my vision is very different,” adding that Joyann is one of the future players of Pakistan.
Her fellow players want to see her more active. “She is a good player, but needs much more training to maintain her fitness level,” said Mehwish Khan, player of the national team and captain Pakistan WAPDA. Khan joined Pakistan National team five years ago.
“Joyann has a craze to wear the blazer of the Pakistan national team,” said Khan adding that, “we were a direct source of inspiration for her and by working hard she managed it.
“We doesn’t care about her religion but it’s really encouraging someone in a minority group becoming part of the national team, which itself is a big achievement.”
“It is a great honor for herself, her family and community to be placed in the final 11,” said Jan.
Now, she has offers from Maldives and Sri Lanka, adding that, her future seems bright. “It was such a big honor for the Christian community all over Pakistan that a Christian girl was selected to represent the country at an international level, but they didn’t arrange even a minor function to honor her because she belongs to a poor family,” said Jan.
In the female category Joyann likes Alex Morgan of the USA team. In the men she’s a fan of Neymar and Messi. “I watched the whole football World Cup 2014. I supported Argentina because of Messi but unfortunately they failed to win.”
Joyann doesn’t want the tag of religion as her identity. “I don’t want to be highlighted because of my religion but because of my game.” She said she wants to play for Pakistan, and later to become a FIFA referee as no women from Pakistan are represented at FIFA.