When a group of women university students met in the Lebanese capital Beirut in 1997 to form the Mediterranean country’s first women’s football team, it perhaps would not have occurred to any of them that, 18 years following their meeting, one of their country’s women’s national teams would make history.
The date was 23 February 2015 as Lebanon’s U-17 women’s team proudly lifted aloft the Arab U-17 Women’s Cup, after the six-team event hosted by Qatar. This win is considered to be the first major achievement by Lebanese women’s football, on either the international, continental or regional stage.
Despite the absence of big-name nations in the competition, the Cedars’ success has already had a major positive impact. The players arrived back in Beirut International Airport after the tournament to a hero’s welcome from officials of the Lebanese Football Association (LFA) and the media, as well as cheering crowds that had gathered to celebrate this achievement by young coach Hiba Jaafil and her charges.
“In fact, most of the team that took part in the Arab [U-17] Women’s Cup had played in qualifying for the AFC U-19 Women’s Cup, where we lost three times in a row,” Jaafil, 28, said in an interview with FIFA.com. “We didn’t let those defeats get to us too much though because the footballers gained good experience, which proved fruitful in the Arab Women’s Cup.
“We faced some difficulties ahead of the championship because it was held during the girls’ school examinations and because rainy weather prevented us carrying out intensive training,” she added. “The girls, however, were very enthusiastic after getting good experience in the AFC U-19 Women’s Cup qualifiers. Following the first match, our enthusiasm grew still further and we were determined to make it to the semi-finals. And once we made it there, then winning the title was right within touching distance.”
Jaafil, who had previously played for her country’s senior team in qualifying action for the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, went on to discuss the fundamental shift that winning the Arab U-17 Women’s Cup caused in Lebanese football circles and the attention it brought to women’s football – developments that make Jaafil optimistic about the future, despite obstacles faced by the women’s game in Lebanon.
“Before that championship win, only 20 per cent of Lebanese people were aware of women’s football, but after our achievements the figure rocketed to around 80 per cent,” Jaafil, the first and to date only Lebanese woman to hold a first-class coaching certificate from the LFA, said.
“Following the media attention on the team, many girls contacted me, expressing a desire to play football. A while ago, we held a training session which was attended by 50 girls. It’s a good thing for us,” Jaafil, who has 15 years' playing experience, said before touching on the future of the triumphant crop of U-17s. “The squad that won the Arab [U-17] Women’s Cup is very talented. What is more important than this achievement, however, is a decision to keep nurturing and supporting this team so that it will develop even further."
*Development in full swing *Alongside Jaafil's outstanding work with the U-17 women’s squad on the pitch, the LFA’s Women’s Committee has made huge efforts to develop the game, including the introduction of the women’s U-19 league championship. Claiming the title last season was The Girls Football Academy, a squad featuring six U-17 national-team starlets.
“We cannot deny the role FIFA plays in the advancement of women’s football in Lebanon, whether through development programs or assistance benefiting the various national teams,” Women’s Committee member Rana Nakhle said, speaking to FIFA.com, on the importance of the global governing body’s support. “We in Lebanon also depend greatly on the efforts of individuals, too. This is due to a lack of sponsorship, which is a very important issue in football.”
Nakhle had attended the first phase of the first edition of the Female Leadership Development Programme, launched by FIFA last July in Vancouver, Canada, a day before the Final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™. She will also attend the second phase of the programme, to be held in Zurich next week.
“This programme greatly enhances our level of experience, which is key to the development of the game, although we in Lebanon are [currently] a long way from the standards seen in international football,” continued Nakhle, on the significance of the programme. “Through this programme, we will be able to provide training in Lebanon, with help from FIFA.”
A spectator at the Final of Canada 2015, between USA and Japan, Nakhle is optimistic that one day Lebanon will be present at the showpiece event: “We can definitely qualify for the Women’s World Cup one day.
"Our U-17 team has pulled off a great achievement and we have the ability to achieve more,” she concluded, her confidence clear. “If we receive support for our vision and plan, starting with the players and moving on to include parents, clubs, the association and all those following the game, in four or five years, at most, we'll be in a position to make it to the Women’s World Cup.”