Middle East women’s football takes step into a brave new world

Women’s football in the Middle East is set to take a giant leap when the Fifa U17 Women’s World Cup kicks off

Ali Khaled
Ali Khaled - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Women’s football in the Middle East is set to take a giant leap when the Fifa U17 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Jordan on Friday, with the host nation taking on Spain at Amman International Stadium.

As participants and hosts it’s a step into the unknown for Jordan, but Wael Al Qadi, executive board member of the Jordan Football Association and of the tournament’s Local Organising Committee (LOC) says the country is ready for the challenge of holding the matches in Amman, Irbid and Al Zarqa.

“The organisation for the tournament started over two years ago and a lot of work has gone into getting Jordan ready for this historic event,” Al Qadi, also President of Bristol Rovers, said. “The whole infrastructure for four stadiums along with eight training pitches in the kingdom have been redeveloped and brought up to a high, modern, international standard which is essential and bodes well for the future of football in Jordan.

Jordan 2016 is the fifth time the U17 Women’s World Cup has been held after New Zealand (2008), Trinidad and Tobago (2010), Azerbaijan (2012) and Costa Rica (2014). Seven teams - Canada, Germany, Japan, Ghana, Nigeria, North Korea and New Zealand - have taken part in every edition, but it’s Jordan’s first time out. Indeed, no Arab nation has ever taken part at this level before.

Such absences are no surprise considering the socio-political and cultural reasons that have held back the development of women’s football in the region in previous decades.

Slowly things are changing, with former Fifa Vice President and Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Hussein at the forefront of raising the profile of the women’s game in the Middle East.

Blessing has come from the very top.

“To have young girls playing sports, and playing football specifically, can do so much to change attitudes and perceptions as to how society perceives girls and young women,” said Jordan’s Queen Rania, a tireless advocate for women’s empowerment in the region. “If a Jordanian woman wants to play football, I say ‘go for it’. Because you are a role model for society, for changing traditional roles and challenging the negative perception regarding women. And football is the healthiest and the most inspiring way to do all this.”

Jordan may be taking part as hosts, but regionally at least, they have retain a higher profile than their neigbours. The country’s senior women’s team is the highest rated of all Arab nations, at 54 in the Fifa rankings, with Tunisia next, a further 17 place behind behind. At 76, the UAE is the third best.

It’s not just on the footballing side that this is a landmark event for Jordan. It is the first time that the country has held a Fifa-sanctioned event, and the organisers have been at pains to show that in terms of logistics and security, nothing has been left to chance.

Yesterday, a fan zone in Irbid was launched in the Fifa representatives. It remains to be seen how visiting fans, as well as foreign expatriates in Jordan, will mix with local population in the park that will broadcast the matches on a big screen, but Jordan has clearly sought to bring the facilities and services in line with those routinely available at similar international tournaments.

“A huge challenge for this event was to motivate the crowds to attend and the LOC has implemented a successful programme to encourage school children and families to attend and support the national team,” Al Qadi added. “The LOC has also worked hand in hand with the major security organisations in Jordan to ensure the tournament is hosted in a safe and organised manner.”

On the pitch, Jordan are in tough group that includes Spain, Mexico and New Zealand. They’ll also be up against history as no hosts have yet progressed from the group stages in the competition’s brief existence.

English coach Robbie Johnson has been working hard to get the squad up to the standard required to take on the world’s best, and remains optimistic there might be an upset.

“Jordan’s U17 women’s team are extremely enthusiastic and the players are keen to learn,” he told Fifa’s official website. "The girls who’ve been selected must, while working together with the backroom staff, give all they’ve got to be at their best, in terms of their physical and technical preparation. That will ensure that we can compete.”

Al Qadi, too, believes that on the field of play Jordan’s youngsters will not let their country down.

“Jordan's team had been preparing and working really hard for the past year to improve their standard of play and fitness in order to reach a level where they can compete in the competition,” he said. “Their enthusiasm and spirit to succeed is amazing and infectious and I hope they do their best and make us proud.”

Beyond the team’s short-term results at this competition, Al Qadi hopes that this tournament will act as a marker for the progress of the women’s game in the Middle East, on and off the pitch.

“This tournament will help change the role of women and girls in sport in the society in the region,” he concluded. “The legacy it will leave behind is an infrastructure which will provide women the opportunity to play football in first class facilities and participate in newly created teams and leagues. We hope that this tournament will also help encourage families to support their daughters in participating more in football.”

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