KUALA LUMPUR: Soon after Soleen Al-Zoubi took over the Malaysian women’s national team, she made it her mission to make the Tigresses pounce again — and fight their way to world football.
Al-Zoubi has spent 15 years playing for the Jordanian national team and later managed women’s football for the Jordan Football Association.
In December 2022, she was appointed head coach of the Malayan Tigress, which she believes have both the potential and talent to make their mark on the international stage.
“The World Cup is not impossible … The opportunity now is higher to reach the World Cup if we invest more and develop and give more attention to women’s football,” Al-Zoubi told Arab News.
The Malaysian women’s football team played their first international game at the Asian Women’s Football Championship in 1975, and their performance would fluctuate over the decades. Currently, they stand 89th in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking.
For the Malaysian women’s team to play the World Cup will take the right strategy, investment, and support from all sides, Al-Zoubi said, including from the government, parents and football clubs.
“This goal will take years (to achieve) because it is not an easy goal,” she said. “Everyone needs to support this goal. I cannot achieve it on my own. But there is a possibility.”
Indeed, the possibility for Southeast Asian teams to join the World Cup became evident earlier this year when Vietnam and the Philippines made their debuts at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, a first for players from the region and a feat Al-Zoubi said was unexpected.
“In women’s football, there is no consistently strong team that no one can compete (against),” she said. “I’ve been around many countries in Asia and North Africa, and I’d say the talent is the same; the difference is how you grow this talent.”
She reflected on her own journey in becoming the only professional footballer in her family, sharing how interest in the sport was first sparked during playtime with her brothers.
“I didn’t have any sisters. I only have brothers, so I developed much passion for boys’ games. We used to play in the neighborhood together,” Al-Zoubi said.
Her football pursuit was not without its struggles, as she faced pushback from her family and community in the early days of her career.
“It was not easy, to be honest. We all know the women’s football struggle especially coming from cultures like Arab or Muslim countries, but I kept going,” she said. “They don’t see a bright future or career in football, but thankfully I proved everyone wrong … The secret, in my opinion, is passion.”
Al-Zoubi eventually became one of the few women developing women’s football in Jordan, and after eight years with the Jordan Football Association, she decided she wanted a new challenge.
When she was offered a job with the Malaysian team, she asked herself: “Why not?”
Al-Zoubi said: “In Malaysia, we have the same culture and challenges as in Jordan. I thought it would be a good challenge for me to repeat everything I have done in Jordan and help the girls to shine, to follow their passion and to give them more opportunity to play.”
She sees her appointment as coach as the first step to improving women’s football in Malaysia, which she says must attract talents from places beyond the capital Kuala Lumpur.
“The surge of global interest in women’s football has also impacted Malaysia; now they are saying they want to be serious,” she said, highlighting how the Football Association of Malaysia has been very supportive and keen to invest in the team.
“We need to increase our scouting pool. We need to expand women’s football not only in Kuala Lumpur but the rest of Malaysia.”
Another chance for the Malayan Tigress to spread their wings further is coming later this month, when they take part in the Women’s International Friendly Tournament hosted by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
“This time I want to change the mindset of the fans and the people who criticize Malaysian women’s football,” Al-Zoubi said. “This time we can play, we can win, and we can bring a trophy.”