Aston Villa footballer Maz Pacheco talks about her career journey and personal goals, the importance of encouraging young girls into football and being a role model.
The act of being a role model can feel like a heavy weight to carry. Inspiring others and setting a path for people to follow often requires a great deal of conscientiousness, but it’s something that Maz Pacheco has in spades.
Having adored football since she was a child, it wasn’t long before Maz began playing for her hometown club of Liverpool at just 16 years old as a full back. Although she always had her eyes set on a career in the beautiful game, Maz had made a promise to her mum that she would go to university and get a degree. Embarking on an undergrad law course at Sheffield University, Maz impressively juggled her studies whilst playing for Reading. The graft and sheer determination learned during that time transferred into her football career, and Maz was soon snapped up by West Ham after her Reading contract ended.
Now a law graduate, Maz is playing for Aston Villa and running her own coaching company, M3 Football, which encourages young girls to play the game through school session and girls-only camps, hopefully inspiring another generation to follow a path they might not have thought possible before.
Notion sat down with Maz Pacheco to hear more about her journey so far, always striving for more, the shifting attitudes towards women’s football, and the responsibility of being a role model, which needless to say, Maz is tackling head-on.
Let’s start at the beginning of your story. What drew you to football?
Well, I’ve got two older brothers, so in terms of getting started, I had no choice. It was, ‘You stand here and be in goal and we’ll kick footballs at you’. That’s where it grew. On a Saturday or Sunday, my mum would take me to their games, and I’d be kicking the football about on the side and she kind of got sick of it. She was like, ‘Right, I’m getting you to a team’. I joined the boys’ team it kind of grew from there.
You currently play for Aston Villa after having played for West Ham, but you are also a law graduate. Both disciplines must have taken such a high level of dedication. How did you balance studying with playing football?
It was hard at the time. Graduating was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done it, finally’. It was a deal with my mum that I had to make, obviously being Asian and Asian culture – I’m half Filipino. In that upbringing, education is very much important. It was a deal where if I wanted to go pro, I still had to get a degree and it just so happened to be law. Trying to balance it was very hard. I was at Reading [F.C.] at the time when I was studying for my degree. It was a three-hour drive there and a three-and-a-half-hour drive back so I’d only do it on my days off, but the University of Sheffield were very much supportive of me and Reading were supportive of me as well. They kind of moved the whole year group around mine and Reading’s schedule, which is crazy. I’ve not heard of a uni to do that. All my classes would be on two full days – so it’d be a normal 9-5 on a Monday, normal 9-5 on a Friday instead of spread out. Lectures I got away with because everything’s online for us, even before COVID hit. So it was perfect. I could do my lectures and then it would be seminars Monday and Friday. I was pretty lucky, but definitely the graft and the determination are something that I can transfer into football.
Nowadays, are you careful to retain a good work-life balance?
After I graduated as a bit like, ‘Wow, there’s so much free time in the day’. I was like, ‘Girls, what do you do, what has everyone been up to?’ But since I’ve been at [Aston] Villa, I’ve started my own coaching company called M3 Football. The aim is to impact as many young girls into sport as possible, mainly, obviously, girls’ football. So I’ve been going on school visits, delivering coaching sessions for all ages, and doing girls only camps. It was something that I didn’t have a chance to do when I was younger, so that’s what I’m focusing on at the minute and that keeps it balanced, I would say.
I love that; it’s so important that young girls are encouraged to get into football. There just isn’t that support and encouragement at school. When I was at school, girls were only allowed to play netball, hockey and rounders, and we weren’t allowed to play what was seen as ‘boys’ sports’ like football, rugby or cricket, which all felt very unfair.
There’s like a stigma that surrounds it [football]. Netball and dance – don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it – but those were the only options we could do. So I’m breaking those barriers down.
What have been some of your career highlights to date?
I’d say definitely breaking into the Liverpool first team. I was at the time the youngest to ever play for Liverpool at the age I did. So that holds close to my heart being Red, as well. Another thing would be playing at the end of the 2020 World Cup in France and coming home with a medal. That’s definitely up there. And just playing at the clubs I’ve played at. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people along the way but I’m proud of my journey. And I think still being part of the England setup is definitely something to be proud of, but I’d like to make it into the seniors.
I read that one of your other biggest goals is to own your own law firm one day. As your football career evolves, is that still something that you see happening in the future? Or are you just really happy with where you are now?
The trouble with me is I’m never happy. I always want more. You’ve actually just caught me – I’ve just received my book, The Secret Barrister. I still try and keep up with the law books. But in terms of my own law firm, I’m thinking it’s more down the line, maybe 15 years towards the end of my career. But for the seniors, there’s never a timeline, people have their own paths. Some of the girls I used to play with are already in the seniors, there’s players that made their debut when they were 28. You can’t write your own path. I’ve still got a focus on me and how far can I push myself especially here in England. The goal one day is also to play abroad, get out your comfort zone. You never know with the future.
That’s really great advice, it sounds like you’re really grounded. What advice you would give to other women who are looking to become professional footballers?
I would say it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. And if you’re talking about young women, it’s definitely don’t give into the stigma. Don’t give into the peer pressure, just do it for you. For younger girls, it’s very much about parents being willing to make that sacrifice because at the end of the day, that’s something that they [their daughters] enjoy and you never know it can where it can take them. Football’s made me see places in the world that I wouldn’t visit. So to be in a position like that is very fortunate.
There have been adverts running around the UEFA Women’s Euros that are attempting to battle sexism. Do you think these will have a realistic impact?
I think with the generation now – Generation Z – everything’s on social media, everything’s on TV. So to have it shown to them to see it is, for me, having an impact. Of course, there’s more to be done. And there’s only so much an advert or promotional network can do. So I think this is a start and it’s going to be a building block into what what people can do. I know the FA are working a lot on diversifying opportunities. I was just with them last weekend to speak about cultural differences, Asians in sport. So I think that there are companies out there that helped with it, especially with PFA, FA, clubs are doing a lot these days. So it’s definitely something that’s getting better.
As a woman, it does feel like something is shifting in the attitudes towards women’s football and support for the Lionesses.
I do think it’s amazing. I think [in the adverts] it’s important to show the male counterparts to it getting involved in the philosophy, you would say. It’s important that the young lads growing up and the dads out there, uncles, brothers, are seeing those role models speak up on our part as well. It’s a very important message. And in terms of how I feel about it, it’s just amazing to see how far it’s come. You speak about a turning point – for me, the turning point was the World Cup, I think it was 2015. In Canada, the Lionesses came home with a bronze medal. And that was the first time I noticed a shift in the TV rights, what’s shown in the newspaper, social media. So if you work yourself back from then to now, you can see really a rapid growth. For [UEFA Women’s Championship Quarter Finals] England versus Spain, like 7.9 million tuned into the BBC to watch the game, which is unbelievable numbers. So if you put those numbers on the adverts that are shown on the network, [the impact] it’s just massive.
I hope that it just continues to grow and grow. You touched on representation earlier and one thing that you have spoken quite a lot about is representation and being a role model. You’re an inspiration to a lot of young women who are getting into football who love football, but does being a role model feel a kind of welcome responsibility? Is that something you embrace? Or does it feel like something has been put on you?
I think I can only speak for the teams I’ve been in, but in the female footballing world, we very much take it on, I think that’s the personalities that we have. We know it’s an important role, we know it’s a responsibility, so we’ll never do anything to damage that. And I think we just take it in our stride. To have a little girl run up and want your signature, it’s a humbling experience. And for me, we always know that we were them one day, back in the past. They’re in exactly the same position as I was 10 years ago, 10/15, 20 years ago. It keeps keeps you grounded.
Who have been some of your biggest inspirations in football over the years? What have they taught you?
My role model from the start has always been Fara Williams, she is the most capped England’s women’s player. I got the chance to play with her at Liverpool, and then two years at Reading as well, so I’m very lucky to have been able to share a pitch with her, and she’s also now my England Under 23 coach so she’s had a massive impact on me and my career. The barriers she had to overcome with her story and everything she’s doing for the community is just amazing. To have role models like that is important. Steven Gerrard growing up, Red fan, Liverpool fan, he was very much the captain of the team, carried the team and I just like the way he played.
Do you have any pre or post-match rituals when you’re playing?
The girls will laugh when I say this, but my pre-match ritual, I’m literally the last one to get ready. I’m cutting it fine with timings and my captains used to get so agitated with it, or nervous that I was going to be late, but I was never late, I just like to chill out, get ready. Everyone gets ready and just kind of sits there and chills out but I’m like, nah, just go out and pitch, walk around, get a cup of tea, get a drink, whatever. Dance to the music. So I’d say that’s my pre much ritual. Always pray before a game. And then post-match, I’d say eat as much food as I can.
Any particular favourites? I know that the Aston Villa team really love having banana bread at halftime, right?
Yes! Love banana bread. It’s such a good snack to have. Even after the match or just in everyday life. I feel like it’s just an elite dessert.
Our chefs at Villa make it for us on a game day. It’s really nice of them, they’re they’re really cool. They take good care of us. But we’ve got a few bakers [in the team] to be fair, they can whip something up. They haven’t so far, might have to tell them this year.
Outside of work and outside of law, what inspires you? And how do you love to spend your time when you’re off the pitch?
That’s a good question. I’m very much into the media side of the game at the minute. So co-hosting e-FIFA tournaments, love doing photoshoots, going to events. I think the girls know that’s very much my time. Those are my days off. I never want to be sat still. like playing my guitar as well, that kill’s some time. Going for food, going for brunch.