Lebanon’s women breaking new ground

Lebanese football has enjoyed some unforgettable moments in these last two years, in which time the men’s national team has progressed to the fourth round of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, an achievement that has had the whole country rallying behind the Cedars.

While they prepare for their next engagements in Group A, against Korea Republic in Beirut this coming Tuesday and away to Iran in Tehran on 11 June, the country’s women are readying themselves for their first-ever appearance in the qualifiers for the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which presents them with a chance to matching their male counterparts.

The Lebanese kick off their campaign on Wednesday and will take on Jordan, Uzbekistan and Kuwait in their bid to qualify for a competition where places at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ will be up for grabs.

Before the team set off for Jordan, FIFA.com spoke to their coach Farid Nujaim, who sees this qualifying debut as an opportunity for his team to put Lebanese women’s football on the map.

Odds to overcome
Lebanon is a conservative country where women’s football has yet to attract much interest, leaving the men’s game to monopolise the domestic scene in recent years. To date the women’s national team has registered just two tournament appearances to date, at the West Asian Women’s Championship in 2007 and 2011, while the national league competition lasts a mere three months, leaving the players without any competitive football for the rest of the year.

Lamenting the situation, Nujaim said: “Obviously our first appearance in the Asian qualifiers is important to us, but we’ve only had eight training sessions in preparation for them and the championship finished three weeks ago. To make matters worse, there’s a lack of competition in the league, which features only six teams and is badly organised. The result of it all is that we haven’t been able to prepare in the way we’d like.” 

Drawing a comparison with Lebanon’s neighbours in Jordan, Nujaim, who also coaches club side Al Sadaqa, said: “There’s a lot of interest in women’s football there. The championship runs for a long time, and the team has been able to prepare because the league has stopped and they’ve organised several friendlies. That will give them an advantage over us.

Assessing his side’s qualification chances, he had this to say: “Uzbekistan’s players are physically superior to us and Jordan have got a lot of talent in their team. I was genuinely optimistic about our chances in the first game, which is against Jordan, but we’ve just lost three key players for administrative reasons.”

Following in the men’s footsteps
Despite the upheaval the country is currently experiencing and the low profile the women’s game enjoys there, Nujaim is hopeful his charges can achieve some good results that will help take the game forward and improve their current FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking of 110 and their AFC ranking of 25.

“When I met with the players for the first time, I held the Lebanese men’s team up as an example, pointing to the good results they’ve had despite the lack of financial resources and the relatively low standard of the domestic game,” he explained. “There’s a tremendous amount of potential in Lebanon and a lot of talent too, not to mention the never-say-die spirit of our players.”

He added: “I’ve asked the players to give their all in trying to match what the men have achieved. Taking part in the Asian Cup qualifiers is really going to contribute to the development of our sport and it will have a positive impact on the players too. This is the first time they are going to play against teams of this calibre and I hope this is just the start of a great adventure.”

Having recently lifted the Lebanese Cup with Al Sadaqa, the 29-year-old coach believes Lebanese women’s football must generate more interest if the national side is ever to reach the FIFA Women’s World Cup, aside from the support already provided by FIFA and the AFC.

“I presented a women’s football development project to the national FA, and it focuses on youth, school and university teams,” continued Nujaim, the holder of several AFC coaching diplomas

“The perception of women’s football has to change,” he added. “We need to start working at grassroots level and build a solid base. In women’s football you can reach the World Cup in a short space of time. We’re fortunate that the game has the support of FIFA and the AFC, but we need the Lebanese FA to take more of an interest and help with development because the talent is there in Lebanon.”

It is that talent that Nujaim is banking on in his bid to follow the men’s example and show that his side’s place in the Women’s Asian Cup qualifiers can be a genuine turning point for Lebanon’s female footballers.