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)
Short Url
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.


Saudi rower Husein Alireza takes to the Sea Forest Waterway for final flourish at Tokyo 2020

Saudi rower Husein Alireza takes to the Sea Forest Waterway for final flourish at Tokyo 2020
Updated 28 July 2021

Saudi rower Husein Alireza takes to the Sea Forest Waterway for final flourish at Tokyo 2020

Saudi rower Husein Alireza takes to the Sea Forest Waterway for final flourish at Tokyo 2020
  • The 27-year-old has been racing at the Olympics with a damaged lung sustained in the weeks leading up to the competition

TOKYO: Saudi rower Husein Alireza continues his Olympic journey on Thursday morning when he takes part in the Men’s Single Scull Semifinal C/D on the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo.

The race offers him the chance to raise his ranking at Tokyo 2020 despite not being in medal contention.

On Sunday, Alireza who has been competing with a damaged lung, revealed to Arab News the strategy devised by his team at Tokyo 2020 that has allowed him to manage an injury-hit games. With the 27-year-old unable to perform at full capacity in all his races, a deliberately cautious Men’s Single Sculls Semifinal A/B meant he could focus of the Semifinal C/D and a chance to improve his overall ranking.

“It’s an exciting but tough line-up so we’ll evaluate how the body is feeling closer to the race,” Alireza said yesterday.

A serious rib injury in May had left Alireza with a punctured lung that stopped him training for weeks, and three races in three days in the high heat and humidity of Tokyo — which left three other competitors suffering with heat stroke — were always going to take a physical toll on Alireza, who has had trouble with his breathing in the conditions.

After only training for a few weeks before the start of the tournament, and with his lung capacity still down 10 percent his technical team decided on a path that would give him his highest possible finish.


Painful end for Saudi weightlifter at 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Painful end for Saudi weightlifter at 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Updated 28 July 2021

Painful end for Saudi weightlifter at 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Painful end for Saudi weightlifter at 2020 Tokyo Olympics
  • Mahmoud Al-Ahmeed was injured during his third attempt at clean and jerk in the men’s 73-kilogram weightlifting competition
  • The 28-year-old Saudi finished 12th overall among 14 competitors in the event

TOKYO: Mahmoud Al-Ahmeed’s Olympic campaign came to a painful end when he was injured during Group B action of the men’s 73-kilogram weightlifting competition on Wednesday morning at the Tokyo International Forum.

The 28-year-old Saudi had a strong start with a score of 141 kg from his three attempts at snatch, which put him in second place in the early standing of the five-competitor group.

Al-Ahmeed followed that up with a lift of 165 kg in his first attempt of clean and jerk, giving him a total of 306 for the competition.

He was injured during his second attempt at 175 kg and held the back of his thigh in pain. It proved to be his last action of the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Saudi finished 12th overall among 14 competitors in the ​​men’s 73-kilogram weightlifting competition.

When the competition resumed on Wednesday afternoon, Shi Zhiyong of China won the gold medal by setting an Olympic and world record score of 364. Julio Reben Mayora Pernia of Venezuela (346) took silver, followed by Indonesia’s Rahmat Erwin Abdullah (342) with the bronze.

It was a disappointing end for Al-Ahmeed, whose Olympic journey started during a chance meeting in 2008 while with a weightlifter friend at a gym session. Al-Ahmeed caught the attention of a coach, who asked him to lift some weights.

After Al-Ahmeed was impressive with his handling of 40 kg weights, the then 15-year-old began training every day as his Olympic dreams became a reality 13 years later when he earned his qualification for Tokyo.

Along the way, Al-Ahmeed became the Gulf champion in 2013, Arab champion in 2015, and secured gold at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.

He qualified for Tokyo 2020 by topping the International Weightlifting Federation rankings for Asian athletes in his category.


Saudi U-23 football team ends disappointing Tokyo 2020 with a loss to reigning champions Brazil

Saudi U-23 football team ends disappointing Tokyo 2020 with a loss to reigning champions Brazil
Updated 28 July 2021

Saudi U-23 football team ends disappointing Tokyo 2020 with a loss to reigning champions Brazil

Saudi U-23 football team ends disappointing Tokyo 2020 with a loss to reigning champions Brazil
  • Despite playing well in all three of their matches, the Young Falcons failed to win a single point at the Olympics

Saudi Arabia’s U-23 team bowed out of the Olympic football completion after losing 3-1 to Rio 2016 champions Brazil at Saitama Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

The Saudis put in another commendable performance but defensive mistakes cost them the chance of claiming a single point from the three Group D clashes.

The match was watched by the President of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC), Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal.

Having lost its first two group matches against Ivory Coast (2-1) and Germany (3-2), Saudi Arabia came into this fixture with nothing to play for except pride, while Brazil needed to avoid defeat to confirm progress to the quarterfinals.

Coach Saad Al-Shehri sent out a team that seemed focused on defending, but it took Brazil only 14 minutes to take the lead when Matheus Cunha headed past Amin Al-Bukhairi, the Saudi goalkeeper, who only managed to get a hand to the ball in his first start at Tokyo 2020.

On 20 minutes Brazil almost doubled its lead when Antony Santos headed against the bar from a precise Diego Carlos cross, and the pressure was maintained for several minutes as the Saudis struggled to hold the champions off.

The Young Falcons were getting plenty of possession of their own but were not able to threaten Brazil.

They finally scored the equalizer on 27 minutes when Salman Al-Faraj’s curling freekick was headed firmly by Abdulelah Al-Amri past Santos in the Brazil goal.

As against Germany in the second match, the Saudis were not awed by their more celebrated opponents and the goal gave them even more confidence to attack.

With three minutes left of the first half Cunha’s cross was almost turned in from close range by Antony but Al-Bukhairi saved superbly, injuring himself as the Brazilian attacker seemed to unintentionally step on his hand.

The early stages of the second half saw few chances at either end. Brazil should have taken the lead on 65 minutes after Richarlison’s shot was saved by Al-Bukhairi and Cunha struck the rebound against the post when it would have been easier to score.

Ten minutes later Brazil retook the lead after a Dani Alves freekick was cleared by the Saudi defence, but only to Bruno Guimaraes. He headed the ball back across the penalty area for Richarlison to finish with clinical header for this fourth goal of the tournament.

In the last seconds of normal time Richarlison scored again but the goal was ruled out for offside.

With seven minutes added on, there was still time for Richarlison to tap in Reinier’s cross for Brazil’s third in the 93rd minute.

Their win put Brazil at the top of Group D with seven points and they now progress to the quarterfinals, along with Ivory Coast. They managed a 1-1 draw with Germany, who depart Tokyo with Saudi Arabia.


UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation teams up with I-Friends to produce Arabic TV series promoting the sport and its values

UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation teams up with I-Friends to produce Arabic TV series promoting the sport and its values
Updated 28 July 2021

UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation teams up with I-Friends to produce Arabic TV series promoting the sport and its values

UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation teams up with I-Friends to produce Arabic TV series promoting the sport and its values
  • TV series will fuse drama and sport and serve as a vehicle to highlight the popularity and benefit of the sport in the Arab world

ABU DHABI: The UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation (UAEJJF) and I-Friends Sport, a subsidiary of the television production firm I-Friends Culture and Media, are partnering to produce an Arabic drama series that will highlight the sport of jiu-jitsu and the benefits its values have on society.

The signing of the partnership by the sport’s governing body in the emirates and the media firm took place at the federation’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi in the presence of UAEJJF General Secretary Fahad Al Shamsi and I-Friends Culture and Media General Manager Amr Mostafa Kamel.

“The media have always been a key vehicle to promote the sport of jiu-jitsu in the community through both sporting events and wider initiatives,” Al-Shamsi, said. “Today’s MoU signing elevates our efforts in embracing technology to raise awareness of the values of our beloved sport. This drama series will offer viewers a new experience and a different view of jiu-jitsu and the role it plays beyond the mat. Our partnership with I-Friends Culture and Media is a result of a common vision and goals in promoting positive values and healthy living.

“We look forward to working with the I-Friends team on this project and engaging jiu-jitsu coaches and players to reflect the true nature of the sport,” he added.

Commenting on the feature format of the show, Kamel said: “Drama plays an important role in promoting values and ideas, and the popularity of Arabic drama series has grown, reaching viewers from all the Arab world. The partnership with the UAEJJF will allow us to use our expertise in the field of drama production and present the sport of jiu-jitsu and its values.”

“Sports drama has always been a great success around the world, whether dealing with the lives of athletes or the history of sports,” he added. “We are confident that our cooperation with the UAEJJF will help project the jiu-jitsu sport forward and engage new audiences.”

Further details on the name of the series, where it will be streamed and how viewers can access the content will be revealed in the coming weeks, and the show will be broadcast primarily in UAE and Egypt, to reflect the growth of the sport among athletes from different countries.


Egyptian handball team beats host Japan for 2nd win at Tokyo 2020

Egyptian handball team beats host Japan for 2nd win at Tokyo 2020
Updated 28 July 2021

Egyptian handball team beats host Japan for 2nd win at Tokyo 2020

Egyptian handball team beats host Japan for 2nd win at Tokyo 2020
  • Sweden will be Egypt’s next Group B opponent before match against Bahrain

IYADH: Egypt on Wednesday beat Olympics host Japan 33-29 in the third preliminary round Group B match of the Games’ handball competition at Yoyogi National Stadium to record the team’s second win of the tournament.

The Egyptians had defeated Portugal 37-31 in their opening match of Tokyo 2020, but on Monday lost 32-27 to Denmark.

The win against Japan will reinvigorate the nation’s hopes of qualifying for next week’s quarterfinals.

In what was a more comfortable victory than the final score suggested, Egypt took an early first half lead and never relinquished it, with the halftime score standing at 18-11.

The Egyptians maintained their superiority throughout the second half with 37-year-old veteran Ahmed El-Ahmar, and Yehia El-Deraa among the team’s standout players.

Japan piled on some late pressure when it looked like the game was already up, but Egypt remained dangerous on the break and kept the hosts at arm’s length. A last-ditch Japanese flurry, that cut the margin of the win to four points by the final buzzer, never looked to have Egypt in trouble.

Egypt’s next match in Group B will be against Sweden on Friday, before the team faces Bahrain on Sunday.