JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s female football players are gearing up for a return to the pitch after months of lockdown.
The coronavirus curfew had a massive impact on the sports industry, from gym closures to teams stopped from group training. But the growth project in the Kingdom’s sports sector, women’s football clubs, have found generous support from the Saudi Football Federation that enabled teams to gain more knowledge until they were ready to return to action.
A financial analyst by day and coach and manager by afternoon, Maram Al-Butairi said that football had always been a special sport for women in the Kingdom. The Eastern Flames’ manager helped establish one of the Eastern Province’s top teams and found great interest from many women around her.
“I was surprised to hear my friend’s mother telling a story of how she and her friends and cousins used to play football in one of the fields and having a league,” she told Arab News. “I am not sure when exactly women’s football was established in the Kingdom, but definitely before the 1980s. Not knowing about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Women’s football clubs began emerging around 2012 and 2013, gaining momentum over time as well as the support of senior members in leadership and society.
“We started inviting teams to our league and tournaments. Before that, we used to only invite footballers from Bahrain because it’s closer to the Eastern Province. In 2012-2013, we decided to invite people from all over the country and we had two teams coming from Riyadh and staying in the province for three days.
“It was the first time seeing that football was becoming something you would travel for, because a normal team would usually have at least 12 players (including the coach), and we had eight teams. It was a huge event. All those women asked their families to go and be part of this tournament. I would say that was the emergence of women’s football for us.”
A growing number of female players have honed their skills, allowing them to not just get better at the game but being able to share their knowledge and more.
2020 was going to be the year for female football players to shine but the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hit the Kingdom and, as a precautionary measure, everything was put on hold. But the lockdown did not bring the sport to a standstill.
“The Kingdom has transformed massively in every way when it comes to female sports in general,” Al-Butairi said. “In football, during the lockdown, they realized that it was an opportunity to take advantage of since everyone was at home. They were eager to know more about football and they introduced many courses.”
One of the most highly anticipated virtual courses set to go live this week will be with former German player and Germany’s women’s national team assistant coach, Britta Carlson, who will be giving a lecture on the German methodology of physical fitness and technical preparation for women’s football.
“I’m very excited about Britta Carlson’s course. The US women’s football team is the best — they won the World Cup for years in a row — and Germany, Holland and France come pretty close. It is good to learn from the top teams and apply the knowledge to become like them or even better. Why not?”
Another course that was given during the lockdown was by UAE Women’s national team head coach Houriya Taheri.
“She taught us the introduction of coaching. It was a five-day intensive course during Ramadan. We learned all the basics and strategies, and for me, that was amazing because we need to grow the seeds. These are the people that will help women’s football evolve.”
Jeddah Eagle center forward Johara Al-Sudairi viewed the online courses given during lockdown as a “great step forward” as they helped to develop women’s football in the Kingdom.
“There is now more awareness and competition on a higher level,” she told Arab News. “The Jeddah Women’s League has changed things here in Jeddah, and the Women’s Football League will soon change things in the country. Overall things are moving forward in the right direction and the future for female football is bright. I think football was a secret passion for a lot of girls growing up in the past, and those girls paved the way for the next generation to be able to practice the sport we all love. We owe it all to them.”
Jeddah Eagles have resumed physical practice since the lifting of the lockdown and applied all the necessary health precautions, such as checking people’s temperature before they enter the training facility.
Saudi sports journalist Riyan Al-Jidani said the Saudi Football Federation was trying to set a strong foundation for women’s football, just like other Arab countries had done.
“Many people thought that because of the pandemic, everything would stop,” he said. “It was evident that this is wrong because the federation is working hard to develop women’s football despite the difficult circumstances such as COVID-19. These coaching courses are fundamental to develop coaches in the Kingdom. Britta Carlson to teach coaching skills is a wonderful step to establish a strong Saudi women’s teams in the future.
“We want to have uniquely skilled Saudi coaches that even make it abroad. Just like how we use the help of coaches from abroad, we hope to hear that European or American teams, for example, use the help of Saudi coaches in the future. This is