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The Middle East On The Rise

Despite all the obstacles it continues to face, women’s football is becoming increasingly popular in the Middle East. It is on the up in spite of the continuing lack of acceptance and security.
The pieces of the puzzle of women’s football in the Middle East do not yet quite fit together. The picture is still incomplete, but is starling to take shape – and things are certainly looking positive at the moment. Women’s football is undoubtedly making strides both in terms of popularity and quality. FIFA can certainly take some of the credit for this, since it has introduced flexible and tailored development projects throughout the region and in individual countries and is now implementing them in cooperation with the relevant football associations.
Bahrain is one country that has already made significant advances, and the small island in the Persian Gulf has set its sights even higher. The foremost proponent of women’s football is the Minister for Sport Sheikh Fawaz, who lives right next to the national stadium. His recipe for success is to organise schools competitions, which are already being run very successfully at private schools and are now to be introduced in the country’s 40 public schools. “Instead of two or sometimes three club teams, we now have six teams in our league, which begins in a few weeks,” says Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, the vice-president of the Bahrain Football Association. There are also plans to organise a cup competition and to revive the national team. Khalid Al-Harban has been given the job of waking the team from its hibernation. “The girls and women who play football in Bahrain are thirsty for knowledge, very committed and talented,” says the German development assistant Monika Staab (see box), who initially set up the team and developed it into a strong unit. The FA now wants to build on her work, as highlighted by its President: “We warn a strong national team. To achieve that we need partners ftom business, which in turn requires acceptance.” As always in this region, it is a balancing act between modernity, religion and tradition.
Women’s football is also gaining ground in neighbouring Oman, where three clubs (Bausher, Majan and Oman) now want to establish a league together, and renowned coach Haroon Amur Al-Bartamani has been appointed to manage the national team. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) instructor and men’s goalkeeping coach took up his position in the spring and one of his first assignments was a futsal tournament in Jordan. Buthaima Faisal, the young chairwoman of the national committee for women’s football, whose job it is to increase the sport’s popularity, is also responsible for securing the necessary support from the football association. Her younger sister Fatima Faisal Al-Raisi plays for Bausher.
There have also been positive developments in the United Arab Emirates, where women’s football was officially allowed only two years ago. Women now play at the Abu Dhabi Club and for some foreign-owned company teams. More teams and clubs arc sure to follow.
Kuwait is also caking measures to develop women’s football. This is all down to Naeema Al-Sabah, one of the royal family’s most influential women, who presented an ambitious development programme on the occasion of the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup in China. The first courses were held at the beginning of this year. The national team is expected to be formed within a year, and will make its international debut in Jordan. All of this in a country where women’s football was considered unacceptable only three years ago.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are not yet at such an advanced stage, but some women’s
matches have been played at universities this year.
The situation is currently much better in Central Asia. In Afghanistan, girls’ football was able to gain a foothold within five years, with German help. There are now 22 teams across the country, which have already recorded their first international successes. In 2007, the Afghan junior side narrowly missed out on winning the Pakistani championship. The only thing that continues to hold them back is the precarious state of security, which means that when they have the chance, they train abroad or on the grounds of the US embassy in Kabul. “Luckily nothing bad has ever happened here,” says Klaus Staerk, one of the German coaches involved in Afghan women’s football. In order for this positive trend to continue, the national team players are being trained as coaches, with a view to teaching schoolgirls the basics of football.
There is also good news to report from other countries in the Middle East. Women’. football has gained significant acceptance in Palestine. This is confirmed by Samar Ara; Moussa of the University of Bethlehem who founded Palestine’s first women’s team in 2002. More teams have been set up it recent years, as has the first official women competition, which has now developed into a proper futsal tournament with four teams currently participating – Takafi (Bei Sahour-Bethlehem), Paladna (Bethlehem Orthodox (Beit Jala-Bethlehem) an Sireah, the champions from Ramallah Adequate playing fields are still lacking but the existing concrete surfaces are no bad in comparison to the facilities in other Arab countries.
The picture is marred by the politic problems that make life difficult for the women’s national team in Palestine, in particular the unavoidable delays at checkpoints that impinge on training especially since it is virtually only possible to travel outside of Palestine via Jordan’s capital Amman. “A journey from Bethlehem to Amman, which is only a stone’s throw away, takes a whole day over the River Jordan bridge,” deplores Samar Aray Moussa.
“living here is very difficult,” complains 23-year-old Honey Talijieh, who has been named both footballer and sportswoman of the year in Palestine in the last three years. The situation is even more difficult for the players from Ga2a, who were last allowed to participate in a tournament in the Egyptian city of Alexandria in 2007. And yet football fever among Palestinian women continues unabated.
Samar Aray Moussa is unwavering in her commitment to football and to challenging the political problems they face on a daily basis. She is vindicated by success. The national team’s progress is
now visible, and it seems that their entry into the FIFA world ranking is only a matter of time. Confidence levels are high, and shared by Honey Talijieh: “I dream of the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011′” in Germany. If we could train and play without disturbances, we would be among the best teams, because our commitment knows no limits.”
Although this dream may .seem unrealistic, the signs are positive. Girls’ football is now well established in schools and was boosted by the participation of a team in the Arab schools championships in Amman.
Other success stories include the establishment of a new team in Hebron and the construction of two playing fields in Bethlehem. A third is likely to follow with the first women’s international to be held in Palestine (against Jordan). “We’re making progress,” says Samar Aray Moussa happily.
Jordan continues to lead the way in women’s football in the Middle East, thanks to the commitment of the two Jordanian princesses Reem and Haja and also the support of Egypt. “We take much pleasure in sporting exchanges and love making friends,” says Amman Club’s Hakim Haffar of the women’s football boom in his country.
Jordan has long had a women’s league (and more recently an under-16 league) and a national team. In this unstable region, Jordan, whose football association even appointed a designated women’s football officer this year with the support of the AFC, has established itself as a host for international tournaments.
Although perhaps not always to the same extent, women’s football in the Middle East is definitely on the up. The picture is slowly starting to take shape – and things are looking good.