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A glorious summer of women’s football gives Arab nations something to dream about

DUBAI: For sports fans in the Arab world, Monday’s announcement of Saudi Arabia’s intention to bid for the 2026 Asian Football Confederation Women’s Asian Cup was the fitting conclusion to the one of the most exciting weeks in women’s football history.

A few days earlier, confetti fluttered in the sky at Wembley as the curtain fell on a triumphant UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 for hosts England. A 2-1 win after extra time saw the Lionesses claim their first-ever title and a first trophy for England since the infamous 1966 Men’s World Cup victory over West Germany at Wembley too.

It has been a glorious summer, if not a year, for women’s football around the world.

A day before England’s triumph, Brazil’s women’s team won the Copa America Femenina title after beating Colombia 1-0. And just two weeks ago, South Africa beat hosts Morocco to win the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations.

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Brazilian players celebrate after winning the final match of the Copa America de la Conmebol 2022 women’s soccer tournament against Colombia in Bucaramanga, Colombia, on July 30, 2022. (AFP)

n January, China were crowned AFC Women’s Asian Cup champions after beating South Korea 3-2 in Mumbai.

Women’s football continues to break down barriers.

Eyes are already on the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 which will take place in Australia and New Zealand from July 20 to August 20 next year. However, not everyone joined in on the fun and games. Not yet, at least.

As positivity sweeps across women’s football, these tournaments – even their qualifying stages – have shown the challenges Arab female footballers must overcome before they can join the party.

Only Morocco, courtesy of reaching the last four of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, have qualified for next year’s World Cup.

Moroccan team members pose for a photo after their defeat in the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations final soccer match against South Africa in Rabat on July 23, 2022. (AFP)

The reasons for the lack of Arab commitment at the highest level are numerous, whether political, sporting or cultural. The time to compare women’s football in this part of the world to Europe and the Americas has not yet come.

But there is room for cautious optimism as football federations, within their means, increasingly embrace women’s football.

In terms of participation and performance, African Arab nations stand apart from their Asian sisters. Hosts Morocco were joined by Tunisia in the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations, while no Arab nation participated in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in India last January.

The latest FIFA World Ranking confirms the trend. The best Arab nations in Africa are Tunisia with 72, Morocco (77), Algeria (79) and Egypt (94).

Meanwhile, in Asia, the top three women’s teams are Jordan at 65, Bahrain at 84 and the United Arab Emirates at 106.

Jordan women’s soccer team take part in training in Amman. (AFP file photo)

So far, results — and subsequently, rankings — have generally been correlated with longevity and history. But even there, the formal participation of African Arab nations preceded their Asian counterparts by a few years.

Morocco, Algeria and Egypt all played their first women’s international matches in 1998, while Tunisia only followed in 2006. In Asia, the Jordanians bowed out in 2005, as did those of Bahrain, while a UAE side made up mostly of expatriates played their first-ever international in 2010.

Considering that these matches all took place fairly recently, great credit goes to these trailblazing women for paving the way for those that followed.

Going forward, however, things are likely to change, with football history becoming less of a factor. Increased funding, program creation and accessible training facilities are the future.

QUICKFACTS

The Saudi Sports for All Federation launched the Women’s Football League in 2020.

SAFF officially established the Regional Football League in November 2021.

Al-Mamlaka became the first-ever winner of Saudi Arabia’s national football championship on January 8, 2022.

This is where non-FIFA members Saudi Arabia are looking to step up the women’s game. The Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) women’s football department was only established in 2019 but has since overseen an incredibly busy schedule.

Players of the first Saudi Women’s National Football Team attend training and show off their skills at Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulaziz Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2021. (AFP)

In 2020, as the world emerged from the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Saudi Sports for All Federation launched the Women’s Football League, involving several long-established women’s teams that had nevertheless not previously participated in no regular organized competition.

But it was in November 2021 that SAFF officially established the Regional Football League, a 16-team competition that would see the country’s top eight clubs – mainly from Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam – qualify for national knockout championships. early January.

The league was divided into three regions: a six-team Central Region, a six-team Western Region, and a four-team Eastern Region, with games played in a round-robin, home-and-away game.

The top three teams from the Central and West regions, along with the top two from the East region, would progress to the national championships, with a $133,000 prize pool awaiting the eventual winners.

Al-Yamamah, Jeddah Eagles and Eastern Flames were crowned Central, West and East Division champions respectively, and were joined in the quarter-finals by Miraas, The Storm, Sama, Al-Mamlaka and Challenge.

The Jeddah Eagles celebrate winning the Western Division of the Saudi Arabian Regional Premier League. (Provided)

At around 11 p.m. on January 8, Al-Mamlaka became Saudi Arabia’s first-ever national football league winner after a 7-0 win over Challenge at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.

It was a landmark day for the nascent women’s football scene in the Kingdom. The competition was not without its challenges, but was an undeniable overall success.

Another important step taken by SAFF has been to hire 12 top Asian female referees to officiate at women’s soccer league matches, as well as train local women who wish to follow this path. There are now qualification courses for new female referees, with 63 SAFF-approved officials to date.

But perhaps the most significant appointment came when German coach Monika Staab was tasked with leading the new Saudi women’s international team (2021) and overseeing development of the game at all levels across the Kingdom.

Saudi women’s soccer coach Monika Staab (left) leads a training session in 2021 just a few years after the ban on women’s soccer was lifted. (AFP)

Staab had a successful career, which saw her play in France and England before returning to Germany and the Women’s Bundesliga. As a coach, she led 1. FFC Frankfurt (now Eintracht Frankfurt) to four German league titles, four German Cups and, in 2002, the UEFA Women’s Cup (now Eintracht Frankfurt). UEFA Women’s Champions League).

After a coaching journey that had seen her visit more than 80 countries over the past four decades – including Bahrain, Iran and Qatar – Staab was the perfect candidate for SAFF. So far it has proven to be a solid choice.

Staab oversaw the Saudi women’s national team’s first-ever international match, a 2-0 victory over Seychelles in a friendly match held at the Maldives National Stadium on February 20.

Players of the first Saudi Women’s National Football Team attend training and show off their skills at Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulaziz Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2021. (AFP)

The historic occasion drew recognition from footballing personalities around the world, including Brazilian legend Pele, who tweeted a congratulatory message for the women’s Falcons.

Encouragingly, nationwide training programs, set up by Staab and his team, seek to unearth female Saudi talent to compete in the regional football league and eventually the national team.

Additionally, 40 D-License coaching courses were delivered in schools across the Kingdom, awarding 857 teachers their coaching certificates, while 15 refereeing courses will enable 544 teachers to officiate at the Girls Schools League who is expected to launch in September 2022.

Players of the first Saudi women’s national football team attend training and show off their skills in Riyadh. (SPA)

Several players are already making a name for themselves. Al-Bandari Mubarak scored Saudi Arabia’s first-ever goal in the win over Seychelles and is considered an integral part of the national team, along with goalkeeper and captain Sara Khaled, who plays for Al-Mamlaka .

Another talent marked for stardom is Farah Jafri of the Jeddah Eagles. Meanwhile, Leen Mohammed emerged as the star of the Saudi Women’s National Futsal Team (established in 2019), which hosted and finished runners-up in the 2022 West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Women’s Futsal Championship.

There are others. Staab’s first goal is to get the Saudi national team into the FIFA World Rankings and then participate in official, regional and international competitions.

Players of the first Saudi women’s national football team attend training in Riyadh. (SPA)

And it looks like it could happen sooner than expected with SAFF announcing on Monday that it intends to bid, making Saudi Arabia one of four countries, including Jordan, that are planning to host the FIFA Cup. AFC Women’s Asia 2026.

A host is expected to be confirmed by the AFC next year.

“Saudi Arabia has embraced women’s football. When I talk to girls across the Kingdom, I see their enthusiasm for the game,” Staab said.

“The 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup is an unprecedented opportunity to inspire a generation of girls to pursue their footballing dreams.”

No doubt there is a lot of hard work to do in the years to come. But if Saudi Arabia succeeds in hosting the tournament, we could see the joyful scenes at Wembley repeated closer to home in three years.