Pakistan, which has a majority Muslim population, has recruited 17-year-old Joyann Geraldine Thomas for its women's soccer team. She is the first Catholic Christian to play football in that country.
In an exclusive report by Nazar Islam of Al Arabiya News, Thomas decided she wanted to become a footballer at age 7 after she watched a video featuring legendary Brazilian soccer player Pele. She hails from the oldest section of the city of Karachi, where most of the Christian families live.
"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."
According to Al Arabiya, Thomas cited the "fear of being minority." That's because her mother, Joyce Christina, quit sports because of discrimination directed at Christians in Pakistan, despite the fact she won a gold medal in the 1,500 meter event.
"I knew all these facts. But the good thing is I never come across facing such situation at any level," Thomas said. "I must say, Muslim fellows helped me a lot throughout my career and we are just like a single unit."
Al Arabiya reported that Pakistani Christians account for less than 2 percent of the country's total population, according to official statistics. However, 45 people from the Ismaili minority community have been killed indiscriminately in Karachi, where Thomas lived; she herself has received threating messages.
"She is a wonderful player. I spotted talent in the very first look," Ahmed Jan, her coach, said. "I encouraged her to continue playing and not pay any attention to such threats."
Jan commented on her bravery to continue playing in the sport.
"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," Jan said.
However, Al Arabiya reported that Thomas had to miss out on the sport in order to continue her studies at school; her exams occasionally clashed with game times.
"Even during the exams, I used to practice in whatever little time I could spare for the game," Thomas said. "I couldn't forget the moment when I was told I had been selected for the Pakistan football team."
Thomas added that "it was a longing wish" to join Pakistan's football team.
"I immediately called my mother whose joy was equally matchless," Thomas quipped.
She reflected on her rise to the top to Al Arabiya, noting that some people laughed at her ambition to become a footballer.
"The journey wasn't that easy," Thomas said. "I was so thin that my coach, Jan, would [call] me 'matchstick.'"
According to Al Arabiya, Thomas' talent for the world's most popular sport first received attention when she was 13 years old from Senator Rubina Irfan, the chair for the Pakistan Football Federation and owner of the award-winning Balochistan United Football Club. Since then, Thomas has played in defense and as a midfielder for the national champions.
"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," Irfan said of Thomas. "We gave her a lot of confidence and support."
Irfan added that her football club accepts anyone without any discrimination regardless of religious background.
"Sports are beyond any religion, and my vision is very different," Irfan quipped.
Al Arabiya reported that her teammates have taken notice of her performance on the field. Although one of the players of the national team, Mehwish Khan, thought that Thomas "needs much more training to maintain her fitness level," she thought it was encouraging for a Christian to join the roster.
"We [don't] care about her religion," Khan said. "It's really encouraging someone in a minority group becoming part of the national team, which itself is a big achievement."
Coach Jan reflected on the rise of Thomas within Pakistan's football team.
"It is a great honor for herself, her family and community to be placed in the final 11," Jan said. "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."
Despite the challenges of being a Christian in Pakistan, Thomas hoped that people would pay more attention to her performance on the field.
"I don't want to be highlighted because of my religion but because of my game," Thomas said.