RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has launched its third women’s national team — the Under-17 squad — with 28 players set for a training camp in Riyadh this weekend.
The formation of the team demonstrates the rapid progress of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia since the inception of a dedicated women’s department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in 2019.
The U-17 squad will hope to follow in the footsteps of their senior counterparts, who were recently victorious during their international friendly tournament debut and are well on their way to officially entering the FIFA Rankings List next month.
Today, there are two active professional leagues featuring 25 clubs and 523 players representing over 20 different nationalities. At amateur level, almost 50,000 schoolgirls took part in the inaugural schools’ league featuring 4,700 teams across Saudi Arabia. Off the pitch, 49 referees are officially registered and officiating league matches, with the first Saudi female referee — Anoud Al-Asmari — breaking into FIFA’s licensed list last month.
Over 1,000 licensed coaches are also nurturing young female talent across clubs, academies, schools and training centers across the country.
Marking a further milestone in the women’s game, Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the SAFF, said: “Saudi Arabia has become an ambitious supporter of sport to help inspire its young population to get active and to lead healthy lives. Our investments, which include grassroots facilities, partnerships and hosting global events, reflect the country’s rapid progress and transformation.
“Women and girls are central to everything we do in sport, and we are working to provide equal access to facilities, opportunities and careers, both on and off the pitch,” he said. “In football that means our national teams, regardless of male or female, get equal pay in terms of daily allowance while on national duty. They train on the same pitches, stay in the same type of accommodation, and use the same equipment.
“The establishment of the U-17 team today is yet another sign of our strong commitment to women’s sports, and football in specific,” Al-Misehal added. “Having been selected to host (the) AFC Asian Cup 2027 … our commitment now lies on our bid to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026. We invite everyone to visit our country to see for themselves how the country’s transformation is impacting daily lives and the role sport is playing across all areas of society.”
While many sectors have benefitted under Vision 2030 — the Kingdom’s economic and social reform program — sports for schoolgirls have seen a significant boost, with thousands grasping new opportunities that previously did not exist. As a result, today 37 sports federations have a women’s national team, with four female presidents leading them. There has also been a marked increase in sports participation at all levels, with over 200,000 girls playing sport every week.
Mirroring much of the transformation happening across all areas in Saudi Arabia, the strong women’s football movement stems from a long-term strategy and commitment by the SAFF to grow interest and inspire participation at all levels of the game, with unprecedented investments in grassroots, player development, coaching, refereeing and competitions.
The U-17 squad was chosen following try-outs across the country’s three regional training centers in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, that welcome girls as young as six years old three times a week in an effort to increase participation and develop skills at an early age. The centers saw more than 300 talented players try out for the U-17 national team selection. Some players were also chosen after being spotted playing in the inaugural Schools’ League launched at the end of last year.
In a boost to future development, five players from the 28 selected are already honing their skills in front of crowds every weekend in the Women’s Premier League. The U-17 national team’s first training camp has just been completed, with the second confirm from Feb. 9-11, 2023.
Lamia Bahaian, supervisor of the Women’s Football Department and board member at the SAFF, said: “We are fortunate to see such a big turnout for the try-outs and it really shows the passion these girls have for football. They want to play, watch and participate in any way — and while that certainly makes our job easier, it also adds an additional responsibility to give the women’s game the platform it deserves.
“We’ve been working towards the establishment of the U-17 team for a couple of years now as it’s a very important element in our mission to offer a 360 degrees women’s football ecosystem. It’s great to see that five of the players are already earning minutes in the Women’s Premier League, and is indicative of how the creation of the league has benefited the all-round growth of the women’s game.”