Once-banned, Saudi women’s soccer team wins big as Riyadh woos FIFA
A Saudi women’s national team winning a tournament would ideally make headlines. But a friendly match featuring the four biggest male stars in contemporary football in a country’s capital on the same day nearly drowned out history in Saudi Arabia last month.
Away from the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, where Cristiano Ronaldo of the combined Al Nassr-Al Hilal XI and Lionel Messi, visiting Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappe met for the first time on any pitch, the he Saudi Arabian women’s national team were crowned champions at the Prince Saud bin Jalawi Stadium in Al-Khobar, a small town some 400 kilometers (248 miles) from the capital. They participated in the International Women’s Friendly Tournament, alongside football teams from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mauritius and Comoros.
Despite the relatively low media coverage and the very low ranking of the participating teams, the organization of the four-nation tournament and the participation of Saudi Arabia is a historic event.
Saudi Arabia formed a women’s national football team less than two years ago and is not ranked among FIFA’s 187 nations. Mauritius rank 187 and Comoros 182, but Pakistan are higher at 160, with few of their players taking part in European leagues.
📸| أبطالنا + 🏆!!#معاً_نصنع_التاريخ 🇸🇦🤍 pic.twitter.com/9UOOAI55PM
— إدارة الكرة النسائية – SAFF (@saff_wfd) January 19, 2023
The stars of the Saudi women’s national football team are Al Ittihad left-back Bayan Sadagah and Al Nassr goalkeeper Sarah Khalid, co-captain of the Saudi women’s football team. Attacking midfielder Al Bandary Al Mubarak is one of the top scorers. Fellow squad member Farah Jefry became the first Saudi sportswoman to represent sporting goods maker Adidas in 2021, while midfielder Seba Tawfiq was chosen as the best player in the WAFF Futsal Championship 2022.
The news comes as tourism brand Visit Saudi reportedly struck a deal this week with FIFA to become a premier sponsor of the Women’s World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand in July. The hosts were blindsided by the announcement and complained about the sponsorship, given Saudi Arabia’s history in the game and its restrictions until 2017 on women banning them from playing and even entering in stadiums.
Host football associations Australia and New Zealand are filing a complaint with FIFA over the Saudi tourism board’s sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup. https://t.co/dsNVCP3kNt
— Kristin Diwan (@kdiwaniya) February 1, 2023
The coach of the Saudi women’s team is Monika Staab, a UEFA veteran who has worked with women footballers in around 80 countries and who coached the Qatar women’s team from 2013 to 2014, called their victory a important.
“Winning this tournament is a milestone in Saudi football and will give the players great confidence as they progress in their national team careers. … It provides a huge springboard for future success and inspiration for the young girls of all corners of Saudi Arabia as well as for other talented young players in the [Saudi Women’s] Premier League who aspire to play international football,” Staab said.
The win is an added boost just as Saudi Arabia have confirmed their bid to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
The Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) representative told Al-Monitor that the team will reach the official FIFA ranking. “They will feature for the very first time in the next official FIFA rankings, which will allow them to officially participate in regional and continental qualifiers and competitions,” the representative said.
FIFA last month selected Anoud al-Asmari as an international referee, making her the kingdom’s first female referee.
#Saudi Arabia #Iraq: First woman to referee football matches in the Gulf Cup – Anoud al-Asmari is the first Saudi woman to receive the international #Fifa badge
— sebastian usher (@sebusher) January 7, 2023
When Qatar was chosen in 2010 to host the 2022 Men’s World Cup, FIFA’s bid evaluation report cited Qatar’s commitment to “the promotion of women’s football, including the creation of special facilities”. However, having a women’s national team is not mandatory to host the men’s World Cup.
“Green ladies of Saudi Arabia. From the beginning, the motto was #TogetherWeCreateHistory. Today, the first line of this history has been written in the kingdom. Congratulations on winning the championship and entering the international rankings”, tweeted Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal.
Women’s sports teams around the world are fighting against the discriminatory policies of different establishments. In the UK, football was banned for women until the early 1970s due to a 1921 Football Association decree banning women’s football. Almost two years ago, the England women traveled premium economy class for the SheBelieves Cup in America, while the senior men’s team traveled business class or first class. In 2014, a group of American female players sued FIFA over the artificial turf they were forced to play on.
But the situation was worse in Saudi Arabia, where powerful conservatives have long barred women from playing sports. When two Saudi women, 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and Judaist Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London thanks to the persuasion of the International Olympic Committee and a campaign for rights that began in 2009, Saudi Twitter was flooded with a hashtag translated as “Olympic_Whores”.
Initially, the International Judo Federation also made it difficult for Shahrkhani, saying she should fight without a hijab, The National News reported. However, curiously, many Saudis were largely protective of half-Saudi swimmer Jasmine Alkhaldi in her Olympic appearance representing the Philippines.
The immediate reason for the establishment of a women’s national football team is attributed to the kingdom’s increased sporting push under Saudi Vision 2030. Yet, there is no denying the role of a few early sports organizers such as Lina Khaled Almaeena, president of the Jeddah United basketball club.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Almaeena said it was a great development to see sport emerging as an outcome of Vision 2030, as a sector and as a means of empowering women.
“As someone who created an industry under a commercial umbrella when there were no laws, legislation [or] governance for women’s sport 20 years ago, and as someone who voted as a member of the Shura for [physical education] in public schools across the country while serving on the Advisory Council, seeing these developments is miraculous as they also involved the “social shift of the mind” as HRH Ambassador Reema bint Bandar described it,” said Almaeena, referring to a recent speech by the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, who has previously promoted women’s sport in her various roles in sports administration.
Unlike those who attended public schools, Almaeena had the opportunity to practice basketball at her private school. In 2003, she reunited her former classmates around the idea of forming a basketball team in Jeddah, which is now a private club with franchises in other cities and whose members represent Saudi Arabia in the regional tournaments and won gold at the Saudi Games last November.
But Qatar is now relaunching its team, perhaps because of competition in the neighborhood.
Al-Asmari, Staab, Bandar and many others who work in football and other sports contacted individually and through the Saudi Football Federation did not respond to emails and text messages from Al- Monitor. A PR firm responsible for Federation communications said answers “could be difficult given the short notice and the ongoing international friendly tournament in Dammam”.