Riyadh: The launch of Saudi Arabia’s first women’s soccer league on Monday will pave the way for girls who dream of becoming professionals – and perhaps even play in the World Cup.
Strict sanctions on women have long been condemned, with Saudi Arabia lifting decades-old restrictions on women footballers a few years ago, and now aiming to build a strong national team to compete in major tournaments. Coins
The ultra-conservative Muslim nation has come under fire for its poor human rights record and its use of sports competitions to send women activists to prison.
Her latest step in the reform campaign came this month when the Saudi Football Federation announced the formation of a women’s football league in which 16 teams will take part in sports in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Enthusiastic about the move was Farah Jaffery, who said she hoped to play in England’s top division as well as represent her country on the biggest stage of the World Cup.
“At the beginning of my football journey, I had some difficulties which not everyone accepted,” he told AFP.
“But my family and friends were very encouraging to me,” said the 18-year-old Ponytail, dressed in a jersey.
Like many other girls who loved football but were unable to compete, Jaffrey played with relatives or friends at school.
He said his only other outlet was watching games on television.
The state adheres to a strict interpretation of Islam, and women’s participation in sports is still ignored in some quarters.
But since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to power in 2017, some restrictions on women have been lifted because the country has been exposed to the world through major reforms.
This change has enabled women to get behind the wheel and participate in mixed gender settings, even as crackdowns continue to crack down on dissent.
According to officials, Jafari is one of 30 players selected from the 400 candidates to be part of the Saudi women’s national squad.
“I dream of the day when I can represent my country in the Women’s World Cup,” she said, adding that she hopes to play for English side Manchester City 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 the training session in Riyadh, the women in the national team enthusiastically took to the field at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium, some of them unveiled but wearing long track suits under their shorts.
Authorities have not yet announced a ban on sportswear for Saudi women, who in the past have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny by religious police enforcing strict dress codes.
Goalkeeper Lama Al-Anizi said he was happy to be part of the team.
“I fulfilled my dream and even my parents’ dream because they were the ones who inspired me so much on this journey,” the 25-year-old told AFP.
Saudi Arabia has so far set up three training centers across the country for girls between the ages of 13 and 17, with plans to expand to nine by 2025.
It was announced this week that Germany’s Monica Stubb has been named head coach of the women’s national team, dubbed the “Green Eagles”.
“Everything is new, just like a baby starts to walk, stands up,” said Stubb, who won the inaugural UEFA Women’s Cup in 2002 as manager of Eintracht Frankfurt.
The Saudi women’s national team is currently preparing for its first friendly match in February.
Staab, who has previously coached national women’s teams for Bahrain and Qatar, said she was optimistic.
“In five to eight years, they will be number one in the Gulf and that will be a great achievement,” he said.