In the UAE
Why women are bending it like Beckham. Result!
It’s a humid 26 degrees outside but at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence, in Dubai, most of the people are too engrossed watching – or playing in – a football match to worry about the lack of breeze. Shots are fired off. Tackles fly in. The odd Cruyff turn – a football move named after Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff – is executed with aplomb. The team in green bibs, notes one chap on the sidelines, don’t like it up them.
On the pitch, 14 players – it’s seven-a-side – from across the world communicate in an array of English footballing phrases. “Down the line,” “on my head” and “play it through” can all be occasionally heard. So can “man on”. Which, strictly speaking, is somewhat inaccurate.
Because on this particular pitch tonight, there are no men at all.
This is one of the early games in the new season for the only women’s football league in the UAE, run by the Dubai Women’s Football Association (DWFA). For those who think the beautiful game is not for the fairer sex, it seems they could not be more mistaken. Not only is the standard tonight seriously decent, but the number of females playing this traditionally most male of sports is increasing like never before.
Some 250 women divided into 12 teams – and from more than 35 different countries – are signed up for the city league this season, while the game has also become popular in schools.
Under-16s and under-13s competitions featuring eight teams from different education zones have now run annually since 2012.
The UAE’s national women’s team, meanwhile, played their first match just four years ago (they beat Palestine 4-2 in Abu Dhabi) and have been improving since.
“I would say female football is the country’s boom sport right now,” says Kat Lukovic, chairwoman of the DWFA. “This is our 10th year since forming and we’ve never had so many people wanting to be involved.”
Which perhaps leaves one question: considering there was no official female football team in the UAE just a decade ago, what exactly has inspired this sudden growth?
It was all a very different story back in 2004.
Male football, of course, has always been big news in the UAE. The national team have won the Gulf Cup of Nations three times, been semifinalists in the AFC Asian Cup twice, and qualified for their first (and, so far, only) World Cup in 1990 – no small achievement for a nation that only came into being 19 years earlier. The professional UAE Arabian Gulf League, meanwhile, has been played since 1973.
But at the beginning of the new millennium the sport was still very much a male preserve. Back then there were no organised games for
women. For all intents and purposes, female football didn’t exist here.
That was until an Australian woman called Suzannah Hall, who was living in Dubai, decided she fancied a kick about too. With no clubs to join or leagues to become part of, she simply started her own.
She and several likeminded souls arranged to meet one Tuesday evening in Safa Park in late 2004. Thus, the Dubai Women’s Football Association was born.
“Only about 20 of us turned up that night,” remembers 29-year-old Kat, an advertising account director in Jumeirah who has lived in the UAE her whole life. “We had a couple of games and arranged to keep playing through the season and fantastic winter weather.
“Suzannah knew a few of the guys who were running the men’s amateur football league and they helped us with the foundation – formation and set up of the league, rules of the game, pitch hire, tips for promotion and even where to get things like kits, balls and bibs.
“Essentially, we pretty much copied what the guys were doing.”
It was an almost instant success. Within two years of this small-scale start, the number of people turning up meant the group had outgrown Safa Park and moved to The Country Club in Nad Al Sheba. A year later they moved again – this time to the Centre of Excellence where they have been based since.
Now, this season looks set to be their most popular yet. As well as those 250 players competing for 12 teams – called things like Born To Perform FC and Arabian Leopards – more and more family and friends are turning up to watch the games.
The operation has grown so much that a volunteer staff of four is now needed to run things, while each of the 12 teams have a coach (some male, all volunteers) appointed to train and develop individuals. All teams practise together on Sundays before games are held on Tuesdays. New players can simply turn up, sign on (for Dh100 a year), and be assigned to a squad for the rest of the season.
“I think when we started we thought it would be popular, but we never expected it to grow quite so fast,” says Kat. “The women come from all over the world. We have more nationalities here than they did at the World Cup. It’s truly global.
“You get a lot of Europeans and South Americans, of course. But some of the Asian and Arab players – including a couple of Emiratis – are definitely among the best.
“And they come from all backgrounds, too. We have students, professionals, schoolgirls. Our youngest player is 14 and our oldest is 50. That’s the thing about football – it brings people together. It crosses divides. I think you’ve got people here who come from so many different walks of life who simply wouldn’t mix if it wasn’t for coming together to kick a ball around.”
Last year’s World Cup appears to be one reason for the rise of female footballers. The theory goes that women see the games while their husbands, brothers or fathers are watching; decide it looks good fun; and find out if there’s anywhere they can play a game.
“After all,” says Kat. “It’s good for fitness and it’s definitely more
enjoyable than going down the gym.” But as the players here tonight point out, the success isn’t all on the back of one spectacle. The rise of women’s football globally, as well as increasing acceptance of the sport in the Middle East have also created conditions in which the growth was possible.
The fact that it’s seen as a sociable way to stay healthy and active adds to the perceived benefits – not least in a country where obesity remains a real problem for both sexes. A domino effect has also been noticed. As more women take it up, that in turn encourages others to get involved.
“Why did I start?” ponders 29-yearold Yune Azmar, a Spanish national and sales assistant now living in Dubai Marina, and a midfield general on the pitch.
“I’ve been playing since I was quite young. I love it. It clears your mind and relaxes you. When I came to the UAE four years ago it was one of the first things I looked to do. I’m so glad this league was here.
“I’d be lost without it. Every Sunday and Tuesday, you cannot beat it. Why should men be the only ones allowed to kick a ball about?”
Ellie Hanlon, a 27-year-old UK national, feels the same.
“I played back home with Manchester City WFC and I figured coming along to this would be a great way to make friends,” says the swimming teacher and on-field defender who lives in Jumeirah Village. “The funny thing was when I got here, there was a girl I used to know back home who was already playing in the league.
“The coaching is great – they try to help you develop as a player – and the social side is a big thing. We tend to have nights out and get to know each other better.
“I would definitely say that if you’re new in the country or even if you’re just looking to try something different, it’s a brilliant way to spend a couple of evenings a week.
“Plus,” she adds, “it’s better weather than a lot of places. You don’t end up having to play in the rain and cold like you do in England.”
At present the UAE Football Association, which runs the sport in the country, remains aware of the cultural sensitivities around female football.
Head honchos are also keen to develop the male team in the hope they will reach the World Cup finals when the tournament is held in neighbouring Qatar in 2022.
But the body has been keen to pick up on the increased interest in female football. In 2011, a squad of national players toured the US in a bid to promote the game back home, while a spokesperson said energies are now being focused on developing an under-16 side for a possible tournament to be held in Bangladesh.
If some of the talent on show tonight can be transferred to a national side, the prospects must be promising.
Nehal Abdelaziz is among those who has been displaying fancy footwork – just like she was 10 years ago. The 35-year-old Egyptian national is one of the few players who was here on day one back in 2004. Today, she helps run the league.
“It’s really satisfying to have seen it grow so much,” says the architect of Sports City.
“The next step now would be to turn it into an 11-a-side league. The numbers are there but at the moment seven-a-side gives people more time on the ball so it keeps it more enjoyable. But I think in the future that’s what we’d plan to do.
“After that, we’d love to see a national league set-up. I think that’s some way off but if we could arrange the best players from our league to play teams from Abu Dhabi, that would definitely be something we’d like to do.”
‘It clears your mind, I’d be lost without it. Why should men be the only ones to kick a ball about?’
As well as health benefits, there is a strong social aspect to the beautiful game
The league has brought together women from all over the world Each team has a volunteer coach – some male