In a region as socially conservative as west Asia, it is no simple matter for a woman to excel in a sport such as football. But Darine Fakhreddine, first-choice goalkeeper for both the Lebanese women's national team and the country’s futsal side, is a powerful inspiration to those who believe that, given proper guidance and support, the women’s game in the Middle East can realise its limitless potential.
Fakhreddine began her journey as a nine-year-old girl having kickarounds alongside the boys from her neighbourhood. She has come far since then, playing for clubs both in Lebanon and abroad and featuring in tournaments at domestic and continental level.
Her most recent achievement was being named goalkeeper of the tournament at the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Women’s Futsal Championship in Bahrain. Ever modest, the talented shot-stopper credits much of her success to her brother, as well as to her first coach Ashraf Mahjoub.
“When I was 18 I was a basketball player,” she told FIFA.com, on her start in the game. “This one time I was messing around, using my head and feet to control the ball, when Ashraf Mahjoub spotted me and invited me to take part in a trial game he was organising. That’s how it all began.
“I owe a lot to coach Ashraf,” she went on. “He’s helped me develop my game and gain experience throughout my career, and he stuck with me when I went to Jordan to play for Al Ansar. He got my name out there.”
She has achieved much, but it has been far from easy. “In Arab societies, everyone regards football as a man’s game,” said the 31-year-old custodian. “It’s not like Europe, where a lot of attention is given to women’s football.”
Nevertheless, the opportunities for women now are better than ever before, as she explained: “When I started out, Jordan only had four clubs that offered women’s football. Now there are eight sides in the league and it’s much more competitive. There’s also a lot more interest in women’s futsal.”
A quick route to the top
Lebanon had been written off as serious contenders prior to the 2012 WAFF Women’s Futsal Championship. The squad had come together a mere two months before the start of the tournament, with the local association organising a futsal competition for 200 players, from which 27 were picked to represent their country.
But this eleventh-hour side went on to record some impressive results. They excelled in the group stage, defeating Palestine and Qatar and losing to Jordan, earning themselves a spot in the semi-finals where they stretched a strong Iranian outfit to the limit before going out on penalties.
Girls love to play, but there’ll be no progress if we don’t receive the support we need.
“This was my second appearance at the WAFF Futsal Championships and it was really successful, because we performed brilliantly and played some proper futsal,” said Fakhreddine, clearly very proud of her side’s achievements.
“Our first time at the competition was four years ago in Amman,” she continued. “We didn’t really know the rules of futsal and we lost to Iran by a wide margin. This time it was different. We were the only side, apart from Iran, who played futsal as it should be played and everyone was surprised by the quality of our game. We embarrassed the Iranians and almost knocked them out of the competition.”
As for how they were able to play so well at such short notice, Fakhreddine had this to say: “For two months we trained really hard under coach Hussein Dib, who worked wonders getting our game up to scratch and improving our physical fitness.”
With so many personal achievements already to her name, Fakhreddine is looking forward to the next challenge: making her mark with the Lebanese national side. Along with her team-mates, she is understandably keen to emulate the recent impressive displays of Lebanon’s men in Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
More than anything else, however, she is conscious that real success is dependent on the genuine, long-term support of the game’s administrators. “There’s so much talent in women’s football,” she insisted, her frustration evident. “But we need the government to pay more attention. Girls love to play, but there’ll be no progress if we don’t receive the support we need.
“In Europe there’s a lot of support,” she added. “First and foremost from family members, who encourage the girls to take part, but also from the state. Here, it’s different. There are so many obstacles.”
She hopes that Japan’s victory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ will give Arab countries the incentive they need to raise the standard of their game. She also looks forward to passing on her experience to future generations of female players.
“I’ve participated in loads of training sessions,” she said, as the interview concluded. “And I hope I can transfer some of that experience to the other players. We also need to professionalise the women’s game in Lebanon so we can close the gap with other countries.”