A visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain in October 2010 would surely have challenged the perceptions of anyone who still considered the Arab-speaking world to be devoid of opportunities for women footballers.

The small Gulf state is one of several countries in the region to have embraced the women’s game in recent years, and in October it staged an eight-team women’s football tournament called ARABIA 2010, involving sides from Syria, Palestine, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, along with the Bahraini hosts.

The event was organised with the support of the German Foreign Office as part of an initiative to promote the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™ and women’s football in general in non-qualified countries. The special prize for eventual tournament champions Jordan was the opportunity to train with their German counterparts later this year in the lead-up to the European heavyweight's defence of their world title on home soil.

After adding her support to the event as tournament patron, Germany 2011 Local Organising Committee President Steffi Jones told FIFA World she was hoping to see plenty of fans from the Middle East making the return trip to Germany this summer.

“It was a great honour to be the patron, and we would love to welcome as many visitors as possible from Arab countries to Germany in 2011,” Jones said. “More importantly, however, I think this tournament has been a milestone in the further development of women’s football in Arab countries and will do much to enhance the sport’s integrative power here.”

As manager of Bahrain’s national team and head of the association’s women’s football committee, Sheikha Hussa bint Khalid Abdulla Al Khalifa said she was sure that the tournament had already demonstrated new levels of acceptance for the women’s game.

“I am deeply proud of the fans reactions to the tournament,” she said. “Beforehand, we had only played in tournaments outside of the country so this was the first women’s football tournament to be held in Bahrain and all of the games were televised live. The number of fans who attended and the mix of men, women, families, and children who came out to support the team was beyond amazing. The team has become the talk of the country and to see grown men wearing Bahrain jerseys with the names of our female players on their back is incredible!”

The team has become the talk of the country and to see grown men wearing Bahrain jerseys with the names of our female players on their back is incredible!

Sheikha Hussa bint Khalid Abdulla Al Khalifa, Bahrain manager

Breaking barriers
Al Khalifa, who was also recently chosen as the first-ever female member of the Executive Committee of the Union of Arab Football Associations despite being just 25-years-old, believes that the barriers to women playing football are starting to come down. A shift thanks largely to the better organisation and increased opportunities available, particularly when compared to Al Khalifa’s own experiences when she was starting out as a young player.

“I grew up playing football with my brothers, younger sisters and friends,” she recalled. “I started playing in high school and then started a small team with my friends and sisters to play during the off season. But once I had graduated from high school, I realised that there was no team that I could join other than the one my friends and I had created. So we approached the General Organisation for Youth and Sports in Bahrain and expressed an interest in continuing playing if there were some means to do so. This coincided with FIFA President [Joseph S.] Blatter’s trip to Bahrain in 2002 when he encouraged the development of women’s football. The national team was born a year later in 2003.”

Although a significant step, the creation of a national team is not the final goal when it comes to the successful promotion of women’s football. To ensure more widespread success and to improve the quality at the top level, strong interest in the sport is required at a grassroots level. It is this aspect in particular which Al Khalifa hopes the ARABIA 2010 tournament can help promote.

“Even in 2003, after we had established the women’s national team, we still faced a lot of negativity from the general public, many of whom still took the view that ‘women shouldn’t waste their time in a man’s sport’,” Al Khalifa said. “It took years of slow, steady exposure in the press for us to change that perception, but now public opinion is completely different. ARABIA 2010 epitomised that change, with men, women, boys and girls all flocking to the stadiums to support the girls, and plenty of positive media coverage both on the tournament itself and on the level of play our players had shown. As long as you show people that you are here to stay and work hard to achieve results, despite resistance, you will find that eventually the resistance turns to support and respect for your efforts.”

Similarly positive tales were told by many of the other team officials who attended the October tournament, including Rana Husseini, a board member and the head of the women’s football committee at the Jordan Football Association (JFA).

“It was hard for people in the beginning to accept that women play football and, as a result, many female athletes did not even consider the sport,” Husseini said. “But that was the case in many countries around the world, not just those in the Middle East. With FIFA’s support in promoting the game, however, it has now become a very popular sport for women, including in our region.”

It took years of slow, steady exposure in the press for us to change that perception, but now public opinion is completely different.

Sheikha Hussa bint Khalid Abdulla Al Khalifa, Bahrain manager

Financial challenges
Those who attended ARABIA 2010, though, do not consider the struggle for recognition to be over. According to Husseini, the challenge has now switched to become more a matter of resources. “I think the biggest barrier now is primarily financial,” she insists. “Football development requires a healthy budget and it is always a challenge to find the financial support that is necessary to meet all the various obligations.

"I am not saying that the cultural barriers have completely come down. Of course, there are still some people who think that women should not be playing football or any other form of contact sport. But finding financial support and corporate sponsors can also help overcome these barriers as well as boost the game in general. Then, on the wider social level, it is the responsibility of all of us to continue to promote women’s rights and look to include them in all spheres of life, including sports and football.”

In Jordan, Husseini knows she can count on the strong support of the association, whose General Secretary Khalil Al Salem, told FIFA World that women’s football development was a top priority after also attending the Bahrain tournament. “We regard the development of women’s football in Jordan as more than just a sporting obligation,” he explained. “It is also about social and economic empowerment, providing access to new opportunities for our country’s youth. That is why the JFA has focused not only on the senior national team’s activities, but also on strengthening our youth national teams. We have done this by attracting dedicated technical expertise, and by enhancing grassroots participation through the expansion and development of our Prince Ali grassroots centres across the kingdom.”

In the United Arab Emirates, an important overlap is also seen between youth football development and the promotion of the women’s game, as the UAE Football Association (UAEFA) women’s football committee chairwoman H.E. Hafsa Abdulla Mohammed Sharif Alulama explains: “In the UAE, we already have many competitions and programmes that are specifically provided for girls in schools, because this is where we think the future of the sport lies. Domestic participation in general is growing and there are certainly more women’s teams than ever before. In the next few months, we will be starting a women’s league which will include teams from many cities. At international level, we have also been participating in games against other countries in the region, including the 3rd West Asian Women’s Championship which we had the honour of hosting in February 2010.”

With more leagues developing and a greater spotlight on Middle Eastern women players, I am sure that Asia can emerge as the next major centre for women’s football.

Rana Husseini, Jordan Football Association board member

Wider interest
The positive sentiments expressed in Bahrain are increasingly typical of the wider interest being shown in women’s football across the Middle East, as demonstrated by the recent workload related to women’s football that has been carried out by the FIFA Development Office in Amman. Since 2008, more than 30 FIFA courses related to women’s football have taken place in the region. In 2010 alone, nine member associations (Palestine, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait) received ongoing support from FIFA’s PERFORMANCE football management programme in regards to the marketing of women’s football, as well as availing themselves of additional guidance in the area of coaching, refereeing and wider technical issues.

“FIFA’s support has been instrumental to the women’s football programme in Jordan,” said Husseini. “Palestine is getting ready to launch their first domestic league and Jordan has a national team player (Stephanie Al Naber) who has played in the Danish league and the European Champions League!

“We can also see right here in Bahrain how they are planning for the future with the establishment of a women’s under-16 team, so the future is looking bright right now for everyone. Women’s football is gaining in popularity around the world, but especially here in this region, and I believe this will continue. With more leagues developing and a greater spotlight on Middle Eastern women players, I am sure that Asia can emerge as the next major centre for women’s football.”