The football season is upon us-with the Euros 2020 kicking off later today, June 11 - so it seemed only appropriate to pay young football stars in Peterborough a visit ahead of it.
Iqra Academy, an all-girls school based in North Bretton, became the Association of Muslim Schools National U15 Girls Football Champions for the fourth year in a row at Harborough Town FC on March 11, 2020.
The team sponsored by the Royal Air Force, has also been lifting trophies in other inter-school tournaments - both locally within Peterborough as well as nationally. But if we rewind five years ago; football was unheard of in this school.
You can’t help but come back even more impressed with the girls, every time you visit them.
“When I joined five years ago, the girls were introduced to football and I saw they were playing in their uniforms, which is a maxi dress. I decided we need to work on this, I presented them with an opportunity but it was not been an easy journey,” said Michael Wright, the school principal, who says he has had to deal with a fair share of struggles, to get the team to where it is now.
“We had to face a lot of challenges. It was an uphill battle. There was no football here. We weren't allowed to play out, play after school. There were boys around so that was not allowed. Racial abuse was another factor.
“But now, the girls don’t blink an eyelid- it has been a remarkable journey. Since playing their first competitive match in September 2016, the School Football team have now played in over 150 competitive matches and have won eleven trophies.
“We don’t even have appropriate facilities here- but we work in partnership with other schools. We use the grounds at Thomas Deacon Academy.
“We have the POSH ladies coming to coach us. We are a sister school for Arsenal Football Club”.
I caught up with some of the Year 7 girls who are being trained for the school team.
Sharing their experiences, Amina Hafiz said: “I started playing football when I was eight years old - I played in my primary school.
One of the reasons I joined Iqra Academy was because of their amazing football team and I wanted to be part of it. We are Muslim girls and we wear the headscarf even on the pitch.
“I would get comments for playing football. But you have to overcome it. They do it because they want to play mind games with you, they are intimidated by you so you just have to remember that you are stronger than them and just carry on.”
While another budding star added: “We have one of the best sports teams in the country. We are proving to the world; we Muslim girls are capable of doing everything they can. We are looked down because of our religion and our headscarf but we are proving we are stronger than that.”
They added: “Mr Wright is a big support and he motivates us all, even if we had a bad day on the field.”
The girls say playing football is a “stress buster” and helps them with their mental health.
With big aspirations going forward, the girls are looking ahead to taking part in competitive sport soon, post-lockdown.
Mr Wright, who has taken the school on this journey says he “is very impressed with the girls” and wants to “continue offering opportunities to them”.
He said: “I am impressed with the girl- at year 7, you can see how vocal and confident they are to speak to someone new.
“The school as a whole is in good hands. I think my view is and I tell my staff that-– that we are here to facilitate and offer girls as many opportunities as we can.
“When I came, it was very closed, there was no sports. The school wasn’t involved outside with any activities. I feel all I am doing is presenting them with those activities. Whether its sports, dramas or music- it's about giving them the opportunity to come out and shine.
"The first time, I had one third of the team. But then parents started to watch, started to buy boots, and started looking into kits. And now they have their proper kit, their development is remarkable.
“Look at our exams results for example- they are one of the best in the country and not just Peterborough.
“We have now also started a cricket academy and offered to other schools as well. We have won football tournaments with Muslim schools. But I knew we had to keep developing and started entered with English schools, and we started winning those matches.
“I ran football academies in the past - so I realised momentum is important.
“Our Year 11 were great, but they will soon be gone. So, we are already working with our budding stars from Year 7 to represent our school.
“There are quite a lot barriers that the girls have faced. Physical aspects, what they wear. But I remember the first time we played., I saw the girls showed the attitude -’we are not going to be intimidated’, One girl in particular stood up for the team, which surprised me. So they are pretty strong and confident that they will not be intimidated on the pitch, never mind off it.
“So, the first time, I had one third of the team. But then parents started to watch, started to buy boots, start looking into kits. Now they have their property kit; their development is remarkable.
“All I can say is I am impressed and inspired by these girls every day and we are here to offer them the best platforms we can.”