Monday, December 11, 2023

Saudi Arabia wants to win over women’s football: from being banned to signing World Cup players

In 2018 Saudi women They attended football matches for the first time. It was an ‘openness’ measure adopted by the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It was part of the ‘Vision 2030’ plan for economic and social reforms in which sport is playing a fundamental role.

Six years later, the Saudi state women’s team played his first game (February 20, 2022 against Seychelles with a 2-0 victory). The next step is to attract players who have played in the recent World Cup that crowned Spain. The goal, as in the men’s roadmap, to have influence and host international tournaments such as the Women’s Asian Cup 2026to which they aspire.

‘Sportswashing’ or not, Saudi Arabia’s policy involves investing in football in all its aspects. If this summer market they have broken the rules of the game with the signings of Neymar, Benzema, Kanté or Fabinho – who joined Ronaldo and company -, they seek to do the same for their women’s league.

These days they can be seen on the Spanish platform SoccerJobs several vacancies to play in the First and Second Division of Saudi Arabia. The salary depends on the profile of the soccer player. Among the requirements to be in the highest category is “having been called up by her country in the 2023 Women’s World Cup”.

Ashleigh Plumptre, the pioneer in Saudi Arabia

An important filter if you take into account that they were 736 professionals who traveled to Oceania and that in July a proposal for third-class players was also published in FutbolJobs in which they offered 4,000 dollars per month (3,778 euros at the current exchange rate). In both cases, those chosen will also have a paid for house in the country. For the second division, the conditions are much lower: between 500 and 1,000 dollars per month (from 472 to 944 euros per month). It should be remembered that the Saudi Women’s Premier League was founded in 2022 and is currently made up of eight teams.

For the moment, the arrival of foreign securities has occurred in dribs and drabs. The most notable player who has been seduced by the Saudi project is Ashleigh Plumptre, international with Nigeria, present at the last World Cup and that he changed English Leicester for Benzema’s Al-Ittihad. “My journey to delve deeper into myself continues. It’s more than football,” said a footballer who was also an international in the youth ranks of the English national team.

To promote competitiveness, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has opted to hire foreign coaches. In the local competition there are two Spaniards: David Cabildo, in the Eastern Flames; and Ana Junyent, in Al-Riyadh. But the strategic bet was made for the national team, which on February 20, 2022 made its international debut against the Seychelles. The SAFF hired Monika Staab, a former German player who has already launched women’s teams in other Middle Eastern states such as Bahrain or Qatar.

The frustrated example of Qatar: ten years without playing

The case of the country that hosted the last World Cup was dramatic. Staab started a team that ended up being a cosmetic exercise within the World Cup bid. The Qatari women’s team has not played for more than a decade. Staab left office in 2014 without having won an official match.

She justified her departure by saying that the Women’s Sports Committee, created as a result of this selection, was looking for “a male coach and someone who speaks Arabic”. A priori, the Saudi Arabia project has a more solid foundation. In addition to Staab, technical director, the federation has just signed the Finnish Rosa Lappi-Seppälä as coach.

After his abrupt departure from the world champion, the name of Jorge Vilda came to be considered, but Staab wants a woman to build his project. FIFA made this work visible through the documentary Destined to Play: the history of Saudi women’s football where testimonies such as that of Layan JouhariAl-Ittihad player and captain of the national team. “This is something very big, it completely transcends”says a soccer player who competes without a hijab.

The mix of professionals who wear or do not wear this garment is natural in the development of the competition. “In just two years we have doubled the number of registered players, clubs, referees and staff. The number of coaches has grown by 800%,” highlighted Yasser Al Misehal, president of the SAFF, in the presentation of the audiovisual piece, which shows an authentic green tide of young people willing to be the substrate of the national team.

More than 48,000 players in the school league

According to FIFA, the number of national women’s clubs has gone from 16 to 25 in just two years. More than 48,000 players competed in the 2022/23 Women’s School League in 3,660 teams, “which highlights the number of talented girls who are asking for passage and who can make women’s football reach new heights“, according to the international organization.

However, Staab provides the dose of realism that marks goal setting. “For me it was like going back in time, when you wanted to play football, but there was no team nearby. They drive two hours to train, work and spend another two hours on the road to return home. All of them study or work and none of them receive a salary for playing. Of course, they exude enthusiasm and are convinced that their dream is going to come true,” explains the national team’s technical director in an interview with FIFA.

The future lies in professionalization, hence the work proposal launched by the league clubs. With this action, Saudi Arabia wants to win over the regime’s detractors and the multiple criticisms leveled when, for example, the state applied to be a sponsor of the World Cup. After protests from players and some federations, FIFA was forced to reject the Saudi Arabian tourist office as a sponsor of the competition.

Reach the World Cup and organize the Asian Cup

“While we recognize that some important and positive gender equality reforms have been initiated, it remains undeniable, by any reasonable standard, that Women’s rights remain severely restricted“concluded the hosts, Australia and New Zealand.

After hosting the Club World Cup waves Italian and Spanish Super Cups, it won’t be long until Saudi Arabia hosts a women’s soccer tournament. And this will be covered by female journalists, who have gained a place in newsrooms and stadiums, even in positions of responsibility. Achieved the award of the Men’s Asian Cup 2027, The Saudi bid is the favorite to host the 2026 women’s edition.

Although the big dream is to participate in the next World Cup, which still does not have a location. Hence the message from Aalia Al-Rasheed, director of the SAFF Women’s Football Department, at the end of the documentary: “Enjoy football, play with passion, for the shield and for our country. “This is just the beginning.” A statement that shows the speed of a project that until five years ago was not even a possibility.


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