Arab nations cannot afford to ignore the rise of women’s football

Arab nations cannot afford to ignore the rise of women’s football
The women’s game in the region cannot afford to fall behind much longer. (FILE/AFP)
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Updated 29 July 2020

Arab nations cannot afford to ignore the rise of women’s football

Arab nations cannot afford to ignore the rise of women’s football
  • The 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is unlikely to see any teams from West Asia
  • The desire to accelerate the progress of women’s football can be seen across grass roots level

DUBAI: On Sept. 25, 2005, a football match that few people will remember or even have heard of, took place in Amman, with hosts Jordan comfortably thrashing an overwhelmed Bahrain 9-0.

But the result mattered little. This was a football match with a difference for the beaten team; it was the first time that Bahrain’s national women’s team - established in 2003 - had taken to a football field.

Women’s football had taken its first, small step in the GCC. It was only a matter of time before Gulf nations would follow other more established football neighbors like Jordan and Egypt in developing the women’s game.

But while Bahrain and UAE have followed in those footsteps, things haven’t exactly progressed elsewhere.

Fifteen years on, a revolution is taking place in women’s football. But it’s a revolution that seems to be going under the radar in the majority of the GCC, Arab countries and the Middle East at large.

On June 25, 2020, the announcement that Australia and New Zealand will co-host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was warmly welcomed across the globe. More than a month on, the news has barely made any waves in the region, especially considering one of the co-hosts, Australia, is a fellow Asian Football Federation (AFC) member state.

The 2023 World Cup will also see the number of participating nations expanded from 24 to 32, in line with the men’s competition, though the extra qualifying opportunities are unlikely to vastly improve the chances of Arab nations. 

Across Asia, teams like Japan and China, as well as North Korea and South Korea, have for long been powerhouses in the women’s game, and now Vietnam, Thailand and Uzbekistan are increasingly looking to close the gap on the heavyweights of Europe and the Americas as well. For now, the West Asian region is being left further behind.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the women’s game has not captured the imagination, or even mere attention, of the regional public. No Arab nation has ever taken part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1988, and only a few ever make the AFC Asian Cup. Women’s football, for long a traditional taboo, remains a novelty even in these days of cultural progress. That remains the case beyond this region.

At the same time, any criticism for lack of the progress of the women’s game must come with acknowledgement of the socio-political environment, and hardships, that prevail in many Arab and Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. In many cases, football and sports in general, for men as much as women, are fraught with political and cultural obstacles which render them of secondary concerns.

But perhaps that is as good a reason as any to ensure the current rise of women’s football does not become the latest wasted opportunity; it’s not just the sporting aspect of women’s game that female athletes would be missing out on.

In recent years, women’s football has become a driving force for equal rights in sports, and beyond, something many regional nations are striving to put right.

In particular, the 2019 World Cup in France was a revelation, a true game-changer for the women’s game at so many levels. There were record attendances and worldwide record television audiences and perhaps for the first time ever, the tournament was enjoyed without the usual, stereotypical caveats. 

Even the previous World Cup, in Canada in 2015, had seen major steps taken in the women’s game, with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) as ever, leading the way.

American captain and star of the last year’s World Cup, Megan Rapinoe, has for one transcended the sport to become a role model for aspiring female athletes and one of football’s most vocal advocates for women’s empowerment.

Ahead of winning the 2023 bid, Australia’s women’s team, the Westfield Matildas, took on Football Federation Australia and Fifa to achieve equal pay with their male counterparts. On Nov. 6, 2019 they won their case and the next World Cup will now stand as a beacon of gender equality and non-discrimination for female footballers.

It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect such giant steps to take place across nations were women’s football remains embryonic, and nor is there is a complete lack of interest by West Asian federations in promoting the game in countries like UAE, Jordan and Bahrain, and with Saudi Arabia indicating huge leaps in the coming years too.

Jordan remains the highest women’s FIFA-ranked Arab nation at 58, and thanks to the work of former FIFA Vice President Prince Ali bin Hussein and the Jordan Football Association, the team has won several regional tournaments and competed at continental level. And in captain Stephanie Al Naber, who had a spell playing at Danish club Fortuna Hjørring 10 years ago, they have a role model that young Jordanian footballers can aspire to emulate. 

In 2018, the Women’s Asian Cup was held at Amman International Stadium and King Abdullah II Stadium in the Jordanian capital, two years after the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup had been a success. Jordan, as hosts, were the only Arab representatives in either competition.

In the UAE, a program of training for talented young Emirati girls over the last decade has raised the profile of the women’s national team, with age group selections taking part in invitational tournaments in Asia and Europe. 

Having established a women’s team in 2004, a year after Bahrain, the UAE won the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF) Women’s Championship in 2010 and 2011, albeit with a team of mostly nationalised foreign players. Last year in Bahrain, fielding a team of Emirati players, the UAE finished fourth.

The desire to accelerate the progress of women’s football can be seen across grass roots level as well.

The UAE Football Association (UAE FA) has provided significant funding for the national team programs, as well as the seven-team domestic league, with Houriya Al Taheri - coach and technical director with the UAE FA - and Omar Al Duri, formerly a coach with Ghana’s World Cup squad, exerting a positive influence on a team now ranked 97 in the world, 13 behind Bahrain at 84.

In Saudi Arabia, Saja Kamal, a footballer with a massive online following has been leading a campaign to establish a senior national team in the Kingdom, and like Naber and Al Taheri, is a role model in her own right.

Women were only allowed into Saudi football stadiums as recently as 2017, but progress has accelerated in recent times. Earlier this year, an official women’s league was launched in the Kingdom that aims to encourage participation at grassroots and community level.

The 2023 World Cup may come too soon to see an Arab team taking part in Australia and New Zealand. But it should be seen as an unmissable opportunity to learn the lessons that other nations have taken on board, and plan ahead.

Perhaps regional countries could follow suit and co-host international tournaments. That would easily be within the capabilities of the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Staging such competitions would indicate a commitment to the women’s game and to gender equality. Above all, it will bring the game closer to young female football fans.

The women’s game in the region cannot afford to fall behind much longer.


Lankan experts highlight Saudi Arabia’s potential to build own cricket team

Lankan experts highlight Saudi Arabia’s potential to build own cricket team
Updated 14 May 2021

Lankan experts highlight Saudi Arabia’s potential to build own cricket team

Lankan experts highlight Saudi Arabia’s potential to build own cricket team
  • Saudi Arabia urged to liaise with international allies to promote the sport

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka, a World Cup cricket champion, has welcomed Saudi Arabia’s interest in the sport, with experts saying the Kingdom has the “full potential” to develop its cricketing skills and compete in the field.

To facilitate the process, Saudi Ambassador in Colombo Abdul Nasser Al-Harthy told Arab News on Monday that he would coordinate with the Kingdom’s Sports Ministry to discuss “how best Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia could cooperate in developing this sport.”

Earlier in March, Prince Saud bin Mishal Al-Saud, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF), announced a series of initiatives focused on promoting the game among Saudis and expatriate residents in
the Kingdom.

These included the launching of a corporate-level cricket tournament, a cricket league for expatriate workers, and a social cricket program across cities in the country to increase participation at the community, club, and international levels.

Several SACF initiatives have already been launched this year, among them the National Cricket Championship, played across 11 cities and part of four programs that the organization signed with the Saudi Sports for All Federation.

Launched in February, it is the largest cricket tournament ever held in the Kingdom.

Welcoming the initiative, cricket legend Roy Dias, who was the first Sri Lankan to score 1,000 test runs and 1,000 One-Day runs in 1984, told Arab News on Monday that the Kingdom has the “full potential to develop the sport at a competitive level.”

“I have watched Saudi cricketers playing alongside Pakistani sportsmen during friendly matches in the Middle East, and they performed very well,” Dias, 68, said, adding that he hoped that Saudi Arabia would form its indigenous cricket team soon.

Dias, who visited GCC countries between 2001 to 2010 as a national cricket coach for Nepal, said that Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain were “already active in the field of cricket.”

“Saudi Arabia is most welcome to this cluster,” Dias, a former cricket coach for the island nation and currently employed with the Sri Lanka Cricket Board, said, predicting that a Saudi team would bring in “new experiences coupled with resourceful skills.”

For this purpose, he added, Saudi Arabia could start by introducing school-level cricket for under-15 students, “which would kindle children’s and parental interest, which are sine qua non to develop good cricket.”

He also advised the Kingdom to coordinate with its international allies for expertise in the field.

“Sri Lanka can assist Saudi Arabian cricket in coaching through the Asian Cricket Council so that Sri Lanka could cooperate with the Kingdom in developing the cricket skills of its nationals by participating in council’s tournaments,” he said.

Shums Fahim, a senior editor of the Thinakaran Tamil daily and an expert on the game, agrees: “Saudi team is one of the active players in the Soccer World Cup and I sincerely wish that its cricketers could show better skills to reach the World Cup level in cricket too.”

According to data from 2017-2018, more than 30 percent of the Saudi

population are expats, with the total number of non-Saudis estimated to be 10,736,293.

In the early 1970s, cricket was played mainly by expatriates in the soccer-crazy country. This remains the case even today, with most players in its cricket team hailing from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

In 2001, under the royal patronage of Princess Ghada Bint Hamoud Bin Abdulaziz, Saudi attained legal status to organize cricket in the Kingdom.

In 2003, it became an affiliate of the International Cricket Council (ICC).


Djokovic sweeps into quarters in front of ‘great’ Rome crowd

Djokovic sweeps into quarters in front of ‘great’ Rome crowd
Updated 14 May 2021

Djokovic sweeps into quarters in front of ‘great’ Rome crowd

Djokovic sweeps into quarters in front of ‘great’ Rome crowd
  • Fifth seed Tsitsipas ended the run of home hope Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 in one hour and 36 minutes

ROME: World No. 1 Novak Djokovic swept into the Italian Open quarterfinals on Thursday with a straight-sets win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in front of spectators at the Foro Italico.

The five-time Rome champion won 6-2, 6-1 in 70 minutes against the 48th-ranked Spaniard, with the venue filled to 25 percent of capacity for the first time amid the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

“It was not good, it was great. I missed the crowd,” said the 33-year-old, who next plays Stefanos Tsitsipas in a rematch of last year’s French Open semifinal which the Serbian won.

Fifth seed Tsitsipas ended the run of home hope Matteo Berrettini 7-6 (7/3), 6-2 in one hour and 36 minutes.

“It always feels like home coming back to Rome,” said Djokovic, who has never failed to reach the quarterfinals in his 15 appearances in the clay court event.

“Honestly, with the amount of love and appreciation that I get and respect from people here, not just on the court, but outside in the organization here, from the drivers, the restaurant, people in hotel, everyone is really super kind to me.

“Maybe it helps that I speak Italian. Probably does. I love Italy. Who doesn’t?

“Each year the love affair grows even more because the bond is stronger and stronger.

“Hopefully I can feel a little bit of that love more tomorrow so I can keep on progressing in the tournament.”

After losing his opening service game, Djokovic powered back with five breaks of serve, outclassing his rival, despite a late fightback, to seal the win on his sixth match point.

“He started well, but I managed to break back straight away and establish the control and consistency,” said the 18-time Grand Slam winner.

Djokovic has a 4-2 winning head-to-head record against Monte Carlo champion Tsitsipas who knocked out Madrid Open runner-up Berrettini.

“I hope to do better this time,” said Tsitsipas, who lost a five-set marathon to Djokovic at Roland Garros last year.

Djokovic has won his past seven quarter-finals in Rome, with an 11-3 record in the last eight. Tsitsipas reached the semi-finals in Rome in 2019.

American Reilly Opelka also advanced to his second Masters 1000 quarter-final with a 7-6 (8/6), 6-4 victory against in-form Russian Aslan Karatsev.

The 23-year-old hit 18 aces and saved two set points at 4/6 in the first-set tie-break to set up a meeting with either Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime or Argentinian Federico Delbonis in the last eight.


UEFA Champions League final moved from Istanbul to Porto due to UK-Turkey travel restrictions

The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 13 May 2021

UEFA Champions League final moved from Istanbul to Porto due to UK-Turkey travel restrictions

The match has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao, home of FC Porto, to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The match on May 29 has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao to allow English spectators to attend

PARIS: UEFA announced on Thursday that the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea had been moved from Istanbul to Porto.

The match on May 29 has been switched to the Estadio do Dragao to allow English spectators to attend as travel between the UK and Turkey is suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier, European football’s governing body announced up to 6,000 supporters from each club will be able to attend.

“We accept that the decision of the British Government to place Turkey on the red list for travel was taken in good faith and in the best interests of protecting its citizens from the spread of the virus but it also presented us with a major challenge in staging a final featuring two English teams,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in a statement.

“After the year that fans have endured, it is not right that they don’t have the chance to watch their teams in the biggest game of the season,” he added.

UK citizens returning from red list countries are required to quarantine at a government-approved hotel for 10 days.

Earlier this week, newspaper reports claimed the match would be played at Wembley Stadium.

Supporters groups from the Blues and City had requested the game be moved to England.

The UK’s Transport secretary Grant Shapps said he would have welcomed the fixture being played in London.

“The difficulties of moving the final are great and the FA and the authorities made every effort to try to stage the match in England and I would like to thank them for their work in trying to make it happen,” Ceferin said.

UEFA said coronavirus rules in the UK made it difficult to hold the fixture in the English capital.

“UEFA discussed moving the match to England but, despite exhaustive efforts on the part of the Football Association and the authorities, it was not possible to achieve the necessary exemptions from UK quarantine arrangements,” it said.

The final capacity at the ground in northern Portugal is still to be set.

Last season’s final as well as a ‘Final 8’ tournament for the quarter-finals were also held in Portugal, but in the capital Lisbon.

“Once again we have turned to our friends in Portugal to help both UEFA and the Champions League and I am, as always, very grateful to the FPF (Portuguese Football Association) and the Portuguese Government for agreeing to stage the match at such short notice,” Ceferin said.

The last round of the country’s top-flight Primeira Liga will see spectators return to stadia on May 19, with a limited number of people permitted, the league said on Wednesday.


Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region
Updated 13 May 2021

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region

Al-Jazira’s winning recipe of sustainable success a lesson for other clubs in region
  • The Abu Dhabi side won the Arabian Gulf League with a policy of promoting young players instead of big-money signings

DUBAI: When Al-Jazira announced the signing of the UAE’s most high-profile player Omar Abdulrahman in August of 2019, all talk within the Arabian Gulf League fan bases was of the capital club spending their way to glory.

After all, Al-Jazira were unveiling a player who just three years earlier had been crowned Asia’s best and linked to European moves summer after summer. Lined up alongside him was another stellar signing, albeit less flashy; fellow UAE international midfielder Amer Abdulrahman.

The two would be joining a star-studded squad including the nation’s all-time top scorer Ali Mabkhout, Brazilian winger Kenno and South African international midfielder Thulani Serero.

The arrival of big-name signings was a familiar sight at a club that had over the previous 20 years been home to the likes of George Weah, Phillip Cocu, Mirko Vucinic and Ricardo Oliveira.

Twenty-one months, a global pandemic and a canceled season later, the title did indeed arrive to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, but Al-Jazira’s path to glory could not have been any different to the expectations of two years earlier.

For starters, both Abdulrahmans have left the club. After failing to establish himself at Al-Jazira, Amer headed to Bani Yas, where he rediscovered his best form, becoming a key cog in a side that pushed his former employers until the last day of a two-horse title race. Omar fared slightly better at Al-Jazira, but a succession of injuries led to his contract termination and he went on to join Shabab Al-Ahli where he is yet to make an appearance in four months.

On the title-deciding night, it was another Omar who stole the headlines with a brace against Khorfakkan. The difference between the two Omars embodied the change of direction over the past 24 months, which culminated with a third league title for the Pride of Abu Dhabi. Omar Traore was scouted and recruited from Stade Malien aged 18. The little-known prospect from West Africa was registered under the “resident player” category, which allows Emirati clubs to register foreign players under the age of 20 outside the standard four-player quota applicable in domestic competitions.

Traore’s Man of the Match performance was just part of a bigger picture as Al-Jazira reaped the rewards of a strategy that saw them switch focus to youth and intelligent recruitment. Of the 11 players who started against Khorfakkan on Tuesday, four were under the age of 23. In fact, Al-Jazira were able to win the league with the youngest squad average age in the entire competition at just 25.2, including nine players under 23 in their squad.

Champions in 2010-11 and 2016-17, this latest Arabian Gulf League success will feel special for many Al-Jazira faithful, with six academy graduates at the core of it. Defenders Mohammed Al-Attas and Khalifa Al-Hammadi have played side by side since the age of 11 and both made their debuts as 17-year-olds. The pair became inseparable, earning their international call-ups and establishing themselves as mainstays for club and country before turning 24.

Then there is Abdullah Ramadan. Born in the UAE to Egyptian parents, the mercurial midfielder shone at every level. After being granted citizenship, he was called up to the national team and excelled for the UAE in the 2020 AFC U23 Championship as the young Whites reached the quarter-finals. That January in Thailand, it was a fellow Al-Jazira academy product who walked away with the Golden Boot; Zayed Al-Ameri has been hailed as the heir to Mabkhout’s throne as the club’s future goal machine.

This shift of direction and subsequent success at Al-Jazira was no coincidence. Sporting Director Mads Davidsen was recruited from Chinese side Shanghai SIPG last year. Earlier this season, he outlined the club’s vision.

“We have described our style of play as a club, that will never change. Even if the coach does change, the style of play, the football philosophy will never change. That is the core of our strategy,” said the Dane.

“A club-defined style of play, club-defined methodology, club-defined recruitment strategy. We look at recruitment differently. We look internally first where most people look externally. Every time you buy a player, it delays someone’s development.”

With the playing style clearly defined, Dutch tactician Marcel Keizer was brought back for a second spell at the club after winning a domestic double with Sporting Lisbon. The 52-year-old built on a legacy of Dutch success at the club, becoming the second Dutchman to win the league title at Al-Jazira after Ten Cate in 2016-17.

The margins might have been fine at the end, with Al-Jazira ending the season just three points ahead of their nearest chasers Bani Yas. But in proving their sustainable success philosophy can deliver results, the Pride of Abu Dhabi have shown other clubs the way forward in a region where short-termism and spending on star names is often perceived as the only sure way to success.


New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities
Updated 13 May 2021

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities

New protocols for public entry to stadiums, sports facilities
  • People recorded in the Tawakkalna as "immune" from COVID-19 can now be admitted in sports arenas

JEDDAH: The Saudi Ministry of Sports on Wednesday issued new guidance for mass entry to stadiums and sports facilities, which included a number of important precautionary measures.

The protocols included social distancing and the wearing of masks, in addition to the mechanism for crowd entry and preventing gatherings inside the stands or at the doors.

The new guidance specified the categories of people that will be allowed to attend sports matches, according to what appears in the Tawakkalna app. 

People can be admitted if they are “immune” (having completed both doses of the vaccine), “immune after infection” (having recovered from the virus within the last six months), or “immune by the first dose” (having received the first dose of the vaccine).

Entry will also be permitted for people over seven and under 18, provided that their condition on Tawakkalna app is not “infected.” 

The new list of protocols follows an announcement on March 20, which limited sports match crowds to 40 percent of their total capacity from May 17.

The ministry said it had taken the necessary measures with sports federations and clubs to implement the protocols to ensure the health and safety of everyone. 

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 13 more COVID-19-related deaths on Wednesday. The death toll now stands at 7,111.

The Ministry of Health reported 1,020 new cases, meaning that 429,389 people have now contracted the disease. There are 9,268 active cases, 1,352 of which are in critical condition.

According to the ministry, 342 of the newly recorded cases were in Riyadh, 276 in Makkah, 133 in the Eastern Province and 56 in Madinah.

In addition, 908 patients had recovered from the disease, bringing the total to 413,010 recoveries.

Saudi Arabia has so far conducted 17,740,919 PCR tests, with 71,040 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Saudi health clinics set up by the ministry as testing hubs or treatment centers have helped hundreds of thousands of people around the Kingdom since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Among those testing hubs are Taakad (make sure) centers and Tetamman (rest assured) clinics.

Taakad centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual, while the Tetamman clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms, such as fever, loss of taste and smell and breathing difficulties.

Appointments to either service can also be made through the ministry’s Sehhaty app.

Saudis and expats in the Kingdom continue to receive their COVID-19 jabs, with 11,075,209 people inoculated so far.