LONDON: Saudi Arabia can qualify for a sixth World Cup next month and in 2023 go to China in an attempt to win a fourth Asian Cup. The Green Falcons have a long and successful history and could end the year with games against the likes of Brazil, Argentina or France.
The journey of the country’s new women’s team, however, starts against Seychelles on Sunday in their first-ever international game. The second comes against Maldives four days later, and a competitive debut may not be far away once FIFA certification is achieved.
The opposition may not be the most glamorous, but these are historic fixtures. Perhaps when the female Falcons appear at future World Cups and Asian Cups — the plan is to qualify within the next decade — they will look back on these games as hugely significant, even if the results may not live so long in the memory.
Monika Staab is a respected women’s coach who led FFC Frankfurt to the 2002 UEFA Women’s Champions League title. Now 63, the former midfielder was appointed to take control of Saudi Arabia last August. Despite a resume that includes spells in Qatar and Bahrain, this job and games are a new experience for the coach as well as the players, and she had a message for them on Friday.
“Enjoy every single minute, every second that you will experience in that historic moment,” Staab said. “Be proud of being part of the squad of 25. Try your best and give everything for Saudi Arabia. It is an honor for you to be there. Take this opportunity, as this is one of the most historic moments in women’s football in Saudi Arabia.”
It is moments like these that led to Staab accepting the job.
“In November last year, my phone rang, and I saw that it was a 966 country code and had no idea who it was,” Staab said. “I thought to myself: ‘Come on, what have you got to lose?’ And then the person said: ‘This is the Saudi Arabian Football Association. We’d like to bring you over for our first C-license coaching course for women.’ I thought: ‘Sorry, what? Saudi Arabia?’ I thought that nothing could ever surprise me, and then this came along. They asked if I could give the coaching course in December, and I said: ‘Count me in.’”
The international games are not happening in isolation. Saudi Arabia’s first Department of Women’s Football Development was set up in 2019 and in that year, as well as 2020, there were domestic competitions set up. In November last year, the new Regional Football League kicked off, which involved 16 teams split across three regions: Central, Western and Eastern, with six teams based in the first two and four in the east.
The 16-team tournament has made a big difference. As well as giving the players somewhere to train, play and develop, it gave Staab a great chance to look at the talent on offer before holding a training camp earlier this month. “The establishment of the first official Saudi league through the regional league and then the Kingdom's championship had a major role in the selection process,” Staab said. “We want to be fully prepared when we take part in our first official competition.
“We started searching for players last September as we are looking to start the national team’s journey and compete in official and international competitions,” said Staab. “Through this camp, we want to find the consistency we are looking for before playing against Seychelles and Maldives.”
The coach has been impressed with what she has seen. One of those players was Seba Rabea Tawfiq, a star of the Jeddah Eagles who reached the semifinals in the first regional league season. “I hope that women’s football will move forward in Saudi Arabia in general and that women will be able to play football abroad, just like the men’s teams,” she said. “If God wishes, we will make progress as female players and represent our home country like women elsewhere. Then, football will become ordinary for girls as it is for boys.”
And it may become ordinary for the women, like the men, to take on the best in Asia and the world in the big tournaments. Lamia Bahian, head of women’s football at the SAFF, had a message for girls who play football or aspire to: “Dream big, play with passion and put your heart on the field and into training,” she said. “There will be a lot of challenges along the way, but football is one of the greatest things that will ever happen to a girl or to a woman. Growing up playing football, I believe, added so much to me, personality-wise, character-wise, on-field, off-field. So, just go out there and take the ball.”