JEDDAH: “This is just the start of something very special.”
Those were the words of Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) president and FIFA council member Yasser Al-Misehal after the Saudi women’s national team were officially recognized by FIFA in their world rankings for the first time.
With 188 nations now included in the list of FIFA’s women’s world rankings, Saudi Arabia have made their debut at 171; a respectable placement considering their relative lack of experience, highlighting the significant development that has taken place in women’s football in the Kingdom since 2019 when the SAFF first developed the Women’s Football Department, headed by Lamia Bahaian.
“Our national team made history when it was established 18 months ago and since then their journey has inspired millions across Saudi Arabia and the region,” said Bahaian, the supervisor of the Women’s Football Department and SAFF board member.
“Entering the FIFA rankings (is what) we’ve been building towards, and signals just the beginning of what we want to achieve with these girls. They can write their own history now.
“We are also already in active collaborations with many global bodies and federations and invite the world to join in our women’s football movement as we strive to give it the platform it truly deserves.”
The official recognition continues the rapid development of the women’s game within the Kingdom, which has seen unprecedented growth in the past two years. It also means the team can now enter both FIFA- and AFC-sanctioned events.
“What these girls achieved in just a year and a half has been nothing short of incredible,” said a very proud Al-Misehal. “Since 2019 we have managed to successfully establish a national team, a premier league, a first division, a school league — with 50,000 girls signing up, and an under-17 national team.
“In just two years, we have nearly doubled the number of registered players, clubs, referees and staff and seen an 800 percent growth in the number of coaches. (These are) statistics all of football can be proud of and it just shows what is possible when you love the game.”
Most significantly, at a time when many national associations are at war with their players over equal pay and treatment, including a number that will compete at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Al-Misehal says the SAFF is determined to ensure their female players are treated the same as their male counterparts.
“We are fully committed to offering equal opportunities for boys and girls, in sport and beyond,” he said.
“For instance, our national teams get equal daily allowances while representing their country, regardless of gender. They share the same training pitches, stay in the same quality accommodation, and have access to the same equipment and resources.”
To get to this point, it has been an 18-month journey that began with the formation of the team in September 2021, after more than 700 players took part in nationwide tryouts in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Assessing each of those players was Monika Staab, the veteran German manager and ex-player, who took on the Herculean task of starting the national team from scratch, ultimately giving 28 players the honor of being the first to be selected for the national team’s first training camp in Riyadh in November of that year.
It wasn’t until a few months later that they played their first official matches in a three-team tournament with the Maldives and Seychelles, winning both of their fixtures 2-0.
Since then there have been a further seven official matches and Saudi Arabia also hosted (and won) its inaugural women’s football tournament against Pakistan, Comoros and Mauritius earlier this year. Staab has now moved into the technical director’s role with Finland’s Rosa Lappi-Seppälä becoming coach.
“Each player has their own story, but what we all share is a love of football and a desire to compete,” national team captain Sarah Khalid said.
“To be FIFA ranked makes us part of world football and that means everything. We recognize that we have a huge responsibility to inspire the youth and pave the way for the future generations who will represent Saudi Arabia.”
Having achieved official recognition, the focus now turns to the future and building a sustainable women’s football program.
To that end, the under-17 national team was recently formed, playing their first matches earlier this month against Kuwait. The next fixtures for the senior team are currently being arranged as they look to improve on their inaugural ranking.
The focus remains on Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, aiming to become just the second West Asian nation to host the tournament and fast-tracking the growth of women’s football within the Kingdom.