In the UAE

Why women are bend­ing it like Beck­ham. Re­sult!

Friday - - Editor’s Letter - Women who would like to sign up for the game can email dubaiwf@hot­ or see www. dubai­

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

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