Soccer. Saudi Arabia launches a women’s championship, a first. Sport

The creation of the first women’s football championship in Saudi Arabia, a conservative kingdom, awakens the hopes of Saudi women, who have long been banned from practicing the sport. They can finally dream of a professional career, or even one day playing the World Cup.

The wealthy Gulf country announced in mid-November the launch on Monday of a women’s football championship, in which 16 teams will compete against each other in three regional leagues.

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Riyadh, criticized for its relentless repression of civil society, is trying to soften its image internationally under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salman, de facto ruler of the kingdom since 2017. He has notably reduced the powers of the police nun, allowed Saudi women to drive and, in January 2018, to go to the stadium to watch a football match.

Saudi Arabia now wants to strengthen its women’s team in the hope of participating in international competitions, while the men’s team, the Green Falcons, have already played five World Cups.

Long condemned to play in the street or at school

Farah Jafri, 18, hopes to become a professional player. She is one of 30 footballers selected from 400 candidates to form the national team, according to Saudi officials.

“At the start of my football career, I encountered difficulties […] but my family and friends encouraged me a lot ”, tells AFP the young woman, who dreams of playing for English club Manchester City and representing her country at the World Cup.

Like many other football-loving young girls long banned from participating in competitions, Farah only played in the streets or at school. As for the matches, she just watched them on TV, she said, pulling on a jersey during practice.

Everything is new, like a baby that starts to walk

Three training centers for teenage girls aged 13 to 17 have already been opened in Saudi Arabia, which plans to open up to nine by 2025.

On the lawn of the Prince Fayçal ben Fahd stadium in Riyadh, the lucky ones selected are training. With Saudi Arabia yet to announce dress restrictions, some play without a veil while others are dressed in long tracksuits under their shorts.

Goalkeeper Lama al-Oneizi said she was delighted to be part of the team.

I realized my dream and even that of my parents, because they are the ones who encouraged me the most in this way., she told AFP.

Germany’s Monika Staab was appointed this week to head the squad, which is due to play its first friendly in February.

Everything is new, like a baby who starts to walk and stand, says the one who won in 2002 with Frankfurt the first UEFA Women’s Cup, since renamed the Champions League.

Monika Staab, who previously coached two other women’s teams in the region, Bahrain and Qatar, is optimistic.

In five to eight years, they can be number 1 in the Gulf and that would be a great accomplishment!

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