The USA scholarship system has long been a huge draw for promising women’s footballers in this country – but West Ham defender Maz Pacheco did things her own way.
Eleven days after signing for the club in the summer, the left-back graduated from Sheffield University with a law degree.
That was the culmination of three years of incredibly hard work.
A law degree is no easy feat anyway – as Pacheco says, you can’t exactly wing it – but it was made much harder by the fact she was playing professionally for Reading in the WSL during those last two years.
There’s no glossing over it, that’s a tough thing to do when you have to juggle your training with hours of lectures, seminars and assignments.
But at the heart of that dedication, other than obviously wanting it for herself and her family, was to prove to other players that you didn’t have to go the States to get an education and play football.
Pacheco herself even turned down a scholarship at Harvard in order to pursue her career at home.
Ultimately that decision also shows the pull power the WSL has in this country – not only is the league attracting players from abroad now, but it is also keeping players here.
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“My first year I would say was easy because I was on campus and then my two-year contract at Reading made it very hard,” explained the 22-year-old defender on her course.
“It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive away and having to do 9-5 on my only two days off a week was hard.
“It felt like I couldn’t really socialise with the girls and I couldn’t really switch off because we’d train – on double days we’d have gym – and then I’d have to go back, sit at my desk and do the day that I’ve just missed.
“All the lectures and all the seminars that were on for that day, I would have to sit and watch and do the work and obviously submit the work that was due in as well.
“With law you can’t skip anything really. You can’t wing it.
“It was hard, but it was something that I wanted, and I wanted to do my family proud – especially my mum.
“She always said for my education to come first, and I turned down a scholarship at Harvard, so I wanted to show her that I can get a degree and play football here in England and I needed to do it at a high level.”
“I wanted to show them that you can study and play here as well”
That opportunity at Harvard would undoubtedly have been a great opportunity for Pacheco – but it was by no means the only path for her.
And in gaining her degree she has proved that it is perfectly possible for players to get an education along with progressing their footballing careers in England.
“Harvard would have been an unreal opportunity for me,” she said.
“I couldn’t quite get to grips with it when I was speaking to them, sorting out my scholarship, sorting out where I’d live and being on campus over in the States.
“But it was during the time we were prepping for the Under-20 World Cup – we were two-three years into our programme – and that was a top priority for me.
“My mum was pushing towards the education – ‘you need both’.
“It’s not the same as the men’s, you do need both, and it’s not quite sustainable just yet but I knew I could study and play here.
“So, I pursued it here and it’s also to show the other generation that you can stay because a lot of them are choosing to fly out just because of the access you get over there in terms of the facilities and the professional side of things.
“It’s very much a higher standard than it is over here for those ages, but I wanted to show them that you can study and play here as well.”
That decision also sums up just how much of a draw the WSL is now.
A vast majority of the talk is currently centred on the players the league draws in from abroad – Alex Morgan at Tottenham and Sam Mewis at Manchester City are just two recent examples – but it’s also keeping homegrown players here.
Combining those two aspects should help the league grow even further.
“I would 100% have suited the lifestyle over there in America and I would have loved it,” Pacheco continued.
“I think a lot of people would have expected me to take the Harvard scholarship and to go.
“But I knew I wanted to stay in England, and make my way here, first because it was the league I want to play in.
“Well, one of the leagues I want to play in in the world.”
“There would be days where I just couldn’t train to 100% because I was so tired”
Obviously with the level of work Pacheco has to take on for the last three years there were times where it undoubtedly had an impact.
“It probably did hinder my football at some points because there would be days where I just couldn’t train to 100% because I was so tired,” she said.
“Or I’d be staying up the night before because I’d have an exam in a week or two weeks.
“I’d be staying up until 2pm studying, reading, and that’s just the student that I am.
“I’m very much a night worker and a crammer.
“Of course, I found it hard but, when I look back at it now, I wouldn’t change anything because it just made it worth it.”
Not only was it worth it but it also sets the defender up to fulfil a promise she made to her mum when she was younger – and also obsessed with certain crime TV shows.
“I used to watch Law and Order when I was really young – which is kind of weird,” she explained.
“My mum would put it on, and I loved it. CSI and all the crime programmes – I’ve always been drawn towards it.
“I think my mum knew from a young age that was the path I would probably take.
“The likes of Law and Order – you wouldn’t expect a nine-year-old girl to happily watch. It’s quite intense.”
She added: “I promised my mum I would own a law firm one day. It’s a big promise to make isn’t it?
“I’m not sure, now that I’ve made it, but it’s definitely on the cards for me and something that I’ve always dreamed of.
“It’ll take some time – I know it will – but hopefully I can get there.”
Don’t for one moment think that Pacheco will be taking a lengthy break either from her studies.
After a short break she is already targeting a Masters course – and very soon she might just have started up that law firm she promised her mum all those years ago.
Interview: Alasdair Hooper
Words: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Forte Sports Management
All music in this episode is courtesy of Dan Henig
Extended thanks go to Forte Sports Management for organising this interview