It’s just a game. It offers no solutions to many of the struggles of everyday life. It does not cure illnesses or solve major geopolitical issues. And yet, football has broken through barriers, it has nurtured friendships, challenged outdated ideologies and even offered brief respites from war. No matter your cultural background, gender or belief-system, football gives you the chance to express yourself and connect with others through the universal language of human movement accompanied by a few basic elements - the ball, a pitch, two teams.
The Kingdom of Jordan, like all of FIFA’s 211 member associations, believes in this power of football, which is why the Middle East nation rallied, invested and laboured for years to deliver the biggest sports event of their history and the first ever FIFA women’s football tournament in the region – the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016.
On 30 September, as fans filled the 17,351 available seats at Amman International Stadium for the tournament’s opening ceremony, 250 unassuming girls shuffled excitedly into their seats among the crowd. On the pitch in front of them, 11 young women wearing Jordan’s national team jerseys were embarking on their first ever World Cup experience. Meanwhile, just a few rows behind them, Spain legend and 2010 FIFA World Cup™ winner Xavi was waving and smiling.
The football story for these unknown 250 girls starts back in August, when the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Trophy visited the Al Zaatari Refugee Camp as part of an official nationwide tour. Al Zaatari, established in 2012 to provide shelter to thousands of Syrian refugees, is a sober reminder of the challenges facing the Middle East as armed conflict continues to tear apart homes, families and strip thousands of Syrians of basic human rights and dignities. Al Zaatari’s football loving girls were ecstatic about the distraction the trophy visit provided. At the day’s end, they headed back to their temporary homes. Even this young, they were aware that the tournament was something that would happen outside the camp, in some other reality unavailable to them.
Leaving the camp is currently an almost impossible exercise, and many of Al Zataari’s citizens have never done so. Thanks to the support of the Jordanian Authorities, FIFA, the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), the UEFA Foundation and the Jordan 2016 Local Organizing Committee, the 250 football loving girls of Al Zaatari were able to do the unexpected - attend Jordan’s opening match at the Amman International Stadium.
"'It's the first time I'm able to get out of the refugee camp," said Raghda, sitting next to two of her younger friends. "I feel like I want to fly high from happiness."
''When I came here on the bus I was thinking about how I will enjoy this game." said Haneen, ''I will never ever forget this in my life."
It was a small gesture and a simple day in the greater context of their lives, but for the girls, the chance to be a part of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, to watch young women play international football, to cheer and sing and forget the weight of problems forced upon their small young shoulders for a brief 90-minute interlude, was significant.
"Freedom and peace, that's all I want." Haneen told FIFA.com. Laila quickly interrupted her twin sister, to add her own wish. "I dream of becoming a football player one day," she said. "I want to be the captain of the team and be able to play like the girls on the pitch."
‘’These children have lost everything, they are confined in refugee camps everyday under very difficult conditions, but today is different. Today they are football fans just like everyone else here cheering in the stadium. Today, they can feel free,” said Honey Thaljieh, FIFA’s Corporate Communications manager. As the co-founder and captain of Palestine’s first ever women’s national football team, Honey is well aware of the barriers facing young women in the Middle East and the profound impact sport can play in shaping a young girls character and future. “This is the power of football in integrating people and bringing them together, regardless of their conditions. Our message is loud and clear, football is for all,” added Honey.
In an effort to help spread football throughout the Kingdom, FIFA and the Jordan Football Association announced on the opening day that for every goal scored during the tournament, 150 footballs will be donated to vulnerable communities across the country. The joint-initiative by FIFA and the Jordan Football Association, with the support of the Asian Football Development Project and adidas, aims to simply offer that first step – the ball, to anyone wanting to play.
The preparations; the social initiatives; the financial investment in facilities; the efforts of football’s world governing body and a Local Organising Committee comprised mainly of Jordanian women, have kick-started something. The beginnings of what the JFA and FIFA believe will be a long and rich legacy in the region, shaping the future of football for all men and women in Jordan and the Middle East.