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Future of Saudi women’s football bright as young ‘pioneers’ shape history 

In the last five years, sports in Saudi Arabia have seen transformative changes as the country makes giant strides toward revamping the field.
In 2018, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed into stadiums as spectators for the first time. Since then, Saudi Arabia has achieved significant milestones for women’s football that have completely reshaped the Kingdom, its youth, and the sport.

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The Women’s Football Department of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) was established in September 2019.

Two years later, the country announced the launch of its first-ever women’s national football team.

Members of the Saudi Women's National Team. (Supplied)

Members of the Saudi Women's National Team. (Supplied)

Initial tryouts saw more than 700 compete for a spot in the national squad, which has since featured 47 young Saudi women from across the country.

These young women who made history as Saudi Arabia’s first female footballers to play professionally have shared their stories in a new FIFA documentary titled ‘Determined to Play.’

Find out more about the film here.

‘Everybody loves football’

In a nation where more than 80 percent of the population either plays, attends, or follows football, the decision to establish a women’s team was almost inevitable, Technical Director of the Saudi Arabian women’s national team Monika Staab told Al Arabiya English in an exclusive interview.

Technical Director and former coach of the Saudi Women's National Football Team Monika Staab leads a training session at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

Technical Director and former coach of the Saudi Women's National Football Team Monika Staab leads a training session at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh on November 2, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

From the outside, it may seem that people in the Kingdom have only recently begun to take an interest in the sport, she said, but that could not be any further from the truth.

“One thing that many people do not know is that Saudi Arabia is a football-crazy nation. Everybody loves the sport, both men and women, and I did not expect that, to tell you the truth, when I came to Saudi Arabia,” Staab said.

“People have always been crazy about football and now the leadership is giving women the opportunity to play this beautiful game,” she added.

The Saudi Women's National Team. (Supplied)

The Saudi Women's National Team. (Supplied)

A clear strategy

According to Staab, no country has developed sports for women to such a significant extent within such a short span of time. In just one year, SAFF recorded an approximately 86 percent increase in the number of registered female players, with the figures rising from 374 in 2021 to 694 in 2022.

During the same period, the number of women’s clubs across the country went up by 56 percent, from 16 to 25, as did the number of coaching courses, which saw a whopping 557 percent increase – rising from just 7 to 46.

More than 48,000 players competed in the 2022-23 Schools League across 3,660 teams.

All of these highlight the expanding talent pool that can take the game to newer heights in the coming years.

SAFF also has 90 female beginner referees, more than 1,000 qualified coaches and 50 international players from 20 countries featuring in the Women’s Premier League.

In March 2023, the Saudi women’s national team entered the FIFA rankings for the first time, with Anoud al-Asmari becoming the first Saudi woman international referee recognized by FIFA.

“I have not seen a country make such a progression in two years. Looking at the fast progression we have already made in such a short time, I believe the leadership is not only serious, but their strategy is absolutely clear. They know what they have to do at the base level,” Staab added.

Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 are ranked 171st in the FIFA Women's World Rankings, but did you know the women's national team was only formed in 2021?
The next challenge? Qualify for the @FIFAWWC 🏆

— FIFA (@FIFAcom) June 3, 2023

From coaches to referees to players, SAFF has provided a wide spectrum of job opportunities to Saudi women in the field.

The Kingdom has also set up training camps all across the country to train young girls from ages 10-15.

All of the women on the field and those behind the scenes have become “role models for the future and all of them are pioneers,” Staab said.

Women have seen support and investment grow exponentially from their families as well as the community around them, Saudi footballer Layan Jouhari told Al Arabiya English.

Saudi football player Layan Jouhari. (Supplied)

Saudi football player Layan Jouhari. (Supplied)

“When we first started to create more teams all around Saudi and when the huge men’s clubs created women’s teams, it was the biggest news ever. Everyone was so curious. ‘Who are these girls?’ Now we reached a place where we are seeing so much support and so much excitement,” Jouhari said.

The female players are determined to take the team to the highest levels and know that their efforts will help elevate women’s football in the country even further, she added.

“Our part in this journey is to is to get out of our comfort zone and to take these first steps for the next generation,” she said.

More fine-tuning ahead

“Slowly, bit by bit, we can see where we are heading, and we have a clear plan of what we want to achieve. We must build the recreational centers, making sure that the younger generation is taught [to play] in a correct way and taught professionalism at a young age,” Jouhari said.

Highlighting the need for more “fine-tuning,” she said: “There is so much more that we need to learn and gain. A lot of that is going to come from more experience.”

The Saudi Women's National Team during training. (Supplied)

The Saudi Women's National Team during training. (Supplied)

According to Staab, the federation and the players have to keep working on the development of women’s football. She said the Saudi women’s national team has the potential to be among the best in the world in five to 10 years’ time.

“We have to be very honest and realistic. Every development in sports takes time. It cannot come overnight, especially when you are starting from zero,” Staab said, adding that the journey thus far has been amazing, but the process of development needs to be sustained in order to reach the pinnacle.

Patience, hard work, and an unwavering commitment to the sport are essential to achieve that, she added.

A game for every woman

The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup held earlier this summer showed the world the impact that inclusivity has on football, according to Staab and Jouhari. With almost two million fans attending the games and billions tuning in worldwide, the teams from 32 different nations proved that football has a place for everyone.

The tournament was extra special this year for Saudi player Jouhari, she told Al Arabiya English.

“This year’s Women’s World Cup was different as I got to see it from a different perspective. Now that we are a part of FIFA and now that we are a national team, I watched it from the perspective that these [teams] are our opponents. They are our equals, and we are going to be facing them in the future. It was very, very interesting to watch.”

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For Staab, one of the things that excited her the most was seeing women from the region represented on a global stage.

“Two things that impressed me the most in the Women’s World Cup were Morocco joining the tournament and a Muslim player in a ‘hijab’. She showed the whole world that anyone can come to the World Cup wearing a hijab,” the technical director of the Saudi women’s national team said.

“The last years of development showed that everybody gets a chance to play the game. It does not matter what one’s religion is or where one comes from. Every woman has the right to play. Every woman has the potential and, of course, should have the opportunity to play this beautiful game,” Staab added.

The Saudi women’s team has that potential, according to Staab.

“We saw Morocco going to the World Cup. We saw Vietnam going to the World Cup, and Philippines going to the World Cup. So it is possible if SAFF is serious about the development of women’s football.”
“I think a lot of really great things can happen in the future for Saudi Arabia.”

Read more:

‘Destined to Play’: FIFA+ documentary tells journey of Saudi women’s national team

Women’s football in Saudi Arabia ‘breaking records,’ says first female VP of SAFF

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