MANAMA: It’s Wednesday evening, and Ravens - a Bahraini women’s football team known as the Teal Army - are in training for a pre-season tournament being held on Saturday at Al-Najma Stadium, close to Bahrain’s lively Juffair district.
Kicking off in the early evening and hosted by Super Soccer Academy, who will also field a team, the event sees two Saudi Arabian women’s squads - Qatif and Eagles - crossing the border in what could be the beginning of an ongoing partnership with the nascent Saudi Women’s League.
Leading the way is Ravens captain Rama Salem, who along with her team mates and other teams in Bahrain, not to mention the visitors from the Kingdom, are part of a generation that is changing the way women’s football is being perceived in the Gulf and the Middle East.
Raven's team captain Rama Salem. (Abdullah Aboody)
The recent establishment of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia has seen a predictably huge upsurge in participation, even for an already football crazy country.
And with their championship entering its second season after its Covid-delayed 2020 beginnings, Saudi women’s teams may look to emulate the achievements of their Bahraini neighbours, especially in nurturing young talent for the future.
In Bahrain, youth football standards have been boosted by the arrival of academies linked to top-tier clubs, such as Juventus, allowing local women’s teams access to elite-level coaching. In tandem with a growing league, this guidance has led to rapid development for teams like Ravens.
The success of Ravens hasn’t been about winning titles. Instead it’s their pedigree in developing players, many of whom go on to bigger things abroad, that catches the eye.
The team will be without two of their best players this season, not because of injury or suspension, but because both have recently jetted off on football scholarships in two of the powerhouse nations of women’s football: America and Germany.
Salem attributes this developmental success to Ravens’ club mentality.
“We’re a team of inclusivity. Everyone gets a chance to play, no matter what their ability is, where they come from, their age,” she said.
“We want to give these girls a platform and a stage that was never really made available to me at their age.”
Charlotte Pilgrim, an 18-year-old from Middlesbrough in the UK, is one of Raven’s success stories. After playing for the club for nearly four years, she is now on a full football scholarship at Rio Grande College in the US.
Charlotte Pilgrim taking part in a Ravens raining session. (Sameer Alsaeed)
Charlotte’s family moved to Bahrain from England when she was four, but initially finding a football team was difficult.
“I always played with boys,” says Charlotte.
“I was in what was supposed to be a mixed team, but I was the only girl. I held a lot back because of that, stayed quiet. When I started playing in women’s teams I became a lot more confident and vocal.”
Charlotte played for some of the other local women’s teams, but never quite found what she was looking for until trying out for Ravens.
“Straight away I could see the atmosphere was so happy and supportive, like a family,” explains Charlotte.
“The older players and coach were always encouraging us. In fact, it was because of Rama that I ended up going to a trial and getting noticed.”
Charlotte’s successful trial in Bahrain led to her being selected for a training camp at the England national team’s training facility, St. George’s Park.
She was the only player not based in the UK to be invited.
Videos of her playing at England’s training ground were seen by her American college and she was offered a place starting this year.
Charlotte feels her experience in the Middle East has enabled her to quickly settle in her new team.
“I think the Bahraini style of play has helped me,” she says. “It’s more about possession rather than speed and power, and I tend to keep the ball better.”
Charlotte isn’t the only recent success for the Teal Army. The 13-year-old Jordanian-Bulgarian prodigy Yasmeen Al-Zurikat has recently headed off to Germany, where she will play at VfR Warbeyen's influential Kämpferherzen academy.
A great future is expected for 13-year-old prodigy Yasmeen Al-Zurikat. (Abdullah Aboody)
Raven’s captain believes she has a bright future ahead of her. “She’s a phenomenal player,” she says. “Even at 13, she’s the most composed player on the pitch.”
Salem is relishing the opportunity to play against teams from Saudi Arabia tonight, but it also excited about the wider implications of events like this.
“It’s great for the country and the region, and especially great to see a lot of Arab woman getting involved with the sport and breaking old stigmas.”
The event starts at 5pm and entry (to vaccinated individuals only) is free.
Organizers predict a carnival atmosphere as the tournament has been planned to coincide with the Saudi National Day celebration.
A 4-team round robin tournament with 30 minute matches will be the highlight, but there’ll also be tennis football, mini-matches and penalty competitions, in addition to food stalls on the beach nearby.