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Saudi Arabian girls ‘dream’ big with launch of premier football league

Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female footballers just a few years ago, and they are now aiming to develop a national team strong enough to play in major tournaments.

Players of Saudi Arabia’s first national football team, led by veteran Germany Monika Staab, attend a training session at Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulaziz Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2021. AFP file

Long condemned for harsh restrictions on women, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-old ban on female footballers just a few years ago, and it is now aiming to develop a national team strong enough to compete in major tournaments.

The ultra-conservative Muslim nation has been criticized for using sporting events to cover up its poor human rights record and the imprisonment of activists.

Its latest step in the reform campaign came this month when the Saudi Arabian Football Association announced the formation of a women’s football league in which 16 teams will participate with matches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.

Among those excited about the move is Farah Jafri, who has said she hopes to turn pro and play in the English Premier League as well as represent her country on the biggest World Cup stage.

“At the start of my football career, I encountered some difficulties as not everyone accepted it,” she told AFP.

“But my family and friends were really cheering me on,” said the 18-year-old in a ponytail in a swimsuit.

Like many other girls who were passionate about football but unable to compete, Jafri played in the streets with relatives or at school with friends.

Her only other selling point was watching games on TV, she said.

The kingdom adheres to a rigid interpretation of Islam, and the involvement of women in sport is still frowned upon in some quarters.

But since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted as the country opens up to the world through sweeping reforms.

The change has allowed women to get behind the wheel and participate in mixed environments, although a rigorous crackdown on dissent remains in place.

‘Number one’

Jafri is one of some 30 players selected from 400 candidates to be part of the Saudi Arabian women’s national team, officials said.

“I dream of the day when I can represent my country in the Women’s World Cup,” she said, adding that she also hopes to play for England’s Manchester City team at club level.

There are no women’s teams affiliated with sports clubs in Saudi Arabia, whose men’s team has qualified for the World Cup five times.

During a training session in Riyadh, the women of the national team enthusiastically entered the field of Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium, some without veils but wearing long tracksuits under their shorts.

Authorities have yet to announce restrictions on sportswear for Saudi women, which in the past have come under close scrutiny by religious police enforcing a strict dress code.

Team goalkeeper Lama al-Oneizi said she was thrilled to be a part of the team.

“I realized my dream and even my parents’ dream because they are the ones who encouraged me a lot on this trip,” the 25-year-old told AFP.

Saudi Arabia has so far established three training centers for girls aged 13 to 17 across the country, and plans to establish up to nine by 2025.

He announced this week that Germany’s Monika Staab has been appointed head coach of the national women’s team, which has been dubbed the “Green Eagles”.

“Everything is new, like a baby starts to walk, to stand up,” said Staab, who won the first UEFA Women’s Cup in 2002 as manager of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The Saudi Women’s National Team is currently preparing for its first friendly in February.

Staab, who has previously coached the women’s national teams of Bahrain and Qatar, said he was optimistic.

“In five to eight years they would be number one in the Gulf and that would be a great achievement,” she said.


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