In PE class, there is one girl who runs faster than the boys, a fact that does not go unnoticed by her teacher, who earmarks her for the track events on the school’s sports day. She takes part but the experience is not entirely to her liking. Deciding to try her hand at football instead, she reveals a natural talent for the game, a talent that needs only to be nurtured.
The girl in question is 12-year-old Alanoud Ghazi Alzabrey from Jordan. Far from the gaze of the clubs, she is invited to join the team at the Khoutouat Foundation, which devotes its energies to developing talented youngsters. Having since taken part in a tournament in Sweden, which marked the start of her journey to a brighter future, Alanoud said: “I had never been outside Jordan before.
"I was scared about being so far away from my family and home. It was the first time I had been on a plane, though all my fears went away as soon as I joined up with my colleagues. We were like a family. We didn’t win the tournament, but we learned a lot on the trip.”
A wonderful surprise
A few months later, in early 2013, Alanoud received a phone call from one of the heads of Jordan’s U-14 team, who invited her to join the team for the qualifiers for an Asian youth competition. “I was shocked,” she said, taking up the story. “I never thought I’d have the honour of representing the kingdom abroad. That’s the moment my footballing career started. My family were right behind me and they’ve really helped me to make it.”
After getting her first taste of international football, Alanoud joined the women’s team at a football club in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Before she had even turned 16 she had won two league titles and an U-16 tournament in which she scored four goals, despite being a defender. It was that kind of form that attracted the attention of the coaching staff with the Jordan U-17 team, who called her up when the side that will represent the host nation at Jordan 2016 began training for the competition.
“Right from the very first training session, I understood that my life had totally changed,” she explained. “In Jordan everyone sees it as a great honour to play for the national team at any age level, so you can imagine how it’s going to feel to be playing at the World Cup. I set myself the challenge of earning my place in the team and developing my game. I also want to show people that girls can play good football. We have to bring the barriers down and prove that girls can do the impossible.”
Alanoud has grown in self-confidence during the course of her short career. No longer is she scared of flying or of leaving her family and home far behind. Her travels have so far taken her to Uzbekistan, Egypt, Portugal, Germany and England, and she was back in Jordan this week for the final phase of her team’s preparations for U-17 world finals, which kick off on 30 September.
A blossoming talent
Anyone watching the team walk out on to the training ground could be forgiven that one or two of the players look a little out of place, so reserved and slight of frame are they. Jeeda Al Naber is a case in point. Yet as soon as the session begins, she bursts into life, stroking the ball around with ease and doing everything her coach asks of her to perfection, attacking and defending with equal assurance.
When training comes to an end, Jeeda happily fields our questions, without the slightest sign of tiredness: “A lot of people think we’re just not able to play, but it’s what you do on the pitch that counts in football. We girls have shown that we belong on the pitch.
“I’ve loved football since I was little,” she added. “I started to play when I was six. At school I played in girls’ competitions, and then I joined the youth team, before getting called up for the U-14 national team. I’m now in the team that’s going to play at the U-17 World Cup, a competition that is going to help women’s football grow and develop in Jordan. I’m so happy to be here.”
One of the team’s forwards, Leen Al-Btoush discovered she had a talent for the game while playing in the street, as she explained: “When I was little, I’d go down to the street to play with my brothers and friends. I loved kicking a ball around.
"I joined the Khoutouat Foundation and played in competitions for them abroad. I then started playing for the U-14 Jordan team and took part in the Western Asian Championships. They have all been very rewarding experiences and they have allowed me to overcome my fears. Football has given me confidence and helped me grow as a person.”
Leen added: “I’ve turned that fear into something positive. Competing gives me the chance to show what I can do. My family gives me a lot of support too, and here we are, about to represent our country at the biggest youth women’s competition there is.”
Football has done much to spur the development of young women like Leen, who was named player of the tournament at the 2013 and 2015 Asian regional finals, finishing top scorer at the second of those competitions. Despite her young age, she earned promotion to the U-16 side and was selected by the Jordanian Olympic Committee as its best young sportswoman of 2015.