LAYLA BANARAS: WHEN LEARNING A SPORT BRINGS NEW IDEAS TO THE PITCH
How one British and Muslim teenager found a way to bridge the gap between her ambitions in soccer and her culture.
Growing up in Birmingham, England, Layla Banaras, 15, found herself at a crossroads of cultures. Her British mother and Pakistani father encouraged her to embrace each of her cultural influences, including her Muslim faith. But balancing the traditions of her culture with her interest in soccer became a challenge at an early age.
“I would go to my brothers’ games and keep getting closer and closer to the pitch, and eventually the coach asked me to join in,” said Layla.
Her enthusiasm for soccer grew, and at age eight, Layla joined the youth team league for girls run by the Birmingham City Football Club. That step was a new one for girls her age, as most youth soccer programs in Britain had historically focused on developing boys. Her parents faced the challenges shared by many – like how to balance practice time and find transportation.
“When we started, there weren’t that many grassroots girls’ teams in our area,” Layla said. “We had to drive half an hour to play.”
Layla’s skills and interest blossomed with the city teams, but she ran into a new barrier four years later.
Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, holds a special place for Muslims, who mark it by fasting from food or drink between sunrise and sundown. In 2019, when Layla first fasted, Ramadan occurred in June – prime training and playing season for soccer, but also the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In Birmingham, that can mean nearly 19 hours of fasting during the summer solstice.
When first presented with the challenge of training, competing and fasting at age 12, Layla simply carried on as she always had –and quickly found herself struggling to meet the nutritional demands of an elite athlete.
“There wasn’t a lot of support I could find about how and whether you could keep training while fasting,” Layla said. “I tried to get information online, but it wasn’t specific enough to what I needed, and there were no other Muslim teammates I could ask. I thought for a while that I would have to stop playing.”
Instead, Layla came up with her own Ramadan planner. It’s a combination of meal guides, nutritional advice and tracking systems to ensure that when breaking fast, she had the right combination of fluids and calories to support her training.
“For example, when you close your fast, you have to make sure you’re taking loads of fluids because it needs to last the whole day,” Layla said.
The guide worked; over the past few years, she’s been able to maintain her training and playing schedule without losing momentum. And it didn’t just help her – when other Muslim players in her league and even outside of Birmingham heard about what Layla had created, they asked to use it as well.
Today, Layla is the captain of her youth team and, despite being just 15, regularly practices with the Birmingham City Women’s Football Club under-21s squad. She’s in the first generation of British girls who’ve benefitted from the kind of youth soccer development that builds world-championship caliber players, and she aspires to test historical boundaries and play professionally.
Beyond that, Layla hopes that more girls who share her mix of cultures and influences can have an impact on those who are coming up next.
“When I started playing soccer, I didn’t see a lot of Muslim or South Asian girls playing and I didn’t see any players that looked like me on TV, especially in the women’s game,” Layla said. “And since then, the numbers have started to really take off, and now there’s loads of girls who are Muslim playing in those leagues.”
Layla can be seen flying down the field in Under Armour’s newest creative to support its recently announced commitment to breaking down barriers for those who strive for more by creating opportunities for millions of youth to engage in sport by 2030. To see Layla in action, click HERE and check out the UA Newsroom for more information on how Under Armour is tackling the barriers that keep young athletes from participating in sport.