x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Girl power on to field of dreams

Women's football is on the rise in the UAE and The National looks at why the beautiful game is so attractive to girls of all ages.

Aspiring women's footballers at the American University are encouraged to put their best foot forward by football director Lee Mitchell.
Aspiring women's footballers at the American University are encouraged to put their best foot forward by football director Lee Mitchell.

When the girls first hit the football field, many of them barely knew the basic rules, let alone the complexities of offside, dribbling or heading. But since October, about 40 girls aged from five to 16 have been taking part in coaching sessions at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) run by their wellness director, Lee Mitchell, a former professional footballer in the United Kingdom and a Uefa qualified coach.

The sessions, run exclusively for the campus residents, are all about making it fun and getting the girls involved, says Mitchell. "As it grows and grows we'll begin to set up a league and a team so that we can take the girls to tournaments and bring teams here to compete against. For now, it's important to be getting the girls to exercise because for most of them, it's the only exercise they do outside of school."

The children are a mix of nationalities from Emirati to American. They all realise the value of their free-time exercise, with many doing just one to two hours a week of compulsory exercise at school. Nationality is no barrier to the girls who nearly all have Arab roots; some of them even wear their hijab to play football and others mix freely with boys in spite of their single sex schooling. Reem Ashraf, 11, who attends the Wesgreen School said: "I know what we do at school is not enough to be healthy. We need to exercise at least three times a week."

She says she has learned many skills during her girls' only sessions at AUS and has improved her fitness levels, footwork and dribbling. Since October the number of girls attending has doubled, especially in the girls only group of 10 to 12 year olds. "Girls usually will come with friends and see it as something social," says Mitchell. "Many of the girls might also come with their brothers, or their parents are really into football so they encourage it."

Sarah Salama and Nada Majdalawieh, both 10, were encouraged to join the team by their fathers who have taught football and are keen fans who also play in their spare time. Sarah is one of the only girls who has grown up watching professional matches and who is aware of the game's money earning potential. A keen fan of Manchester United, she says she loves the excitement of watching the big matches.

Many of the girls admit that some of their friends find it strange they choose football over other sports such as the more popular basketball, netball or swimming - all of which are organised into inter-school competitions - but this does not deter them. Shatha Ayman, 12, has been playing football since she was four in Canada where she grew up. "Some of the Arab girls think we're weird," she says. "They're staying home learning to cook and we're out playing football."

It was also her father, a former football coach, who encouraged her to join the team and she says her family have always supported her love of the game which began when she played with her brothers and cousins as a child. When Mitchell left the UK 11 years ago, girls' football had not taken off but while working in the US, he soon saw how quickly it was developing there with some of his players now on the national youth team.

"Girls are more willing to learn and they want to please the coach," he says. "The more you put into a female athlete, the more you get out of them. It's instant returns." Coming to Sharjah from the strongly disciplined field of sport in the US, Mitchell says that it has been challenging to instill the value of sportsmanship into the children, most of whom have never been involved in structured team sports on a regular basis.

"As the sessions have gone on, the kids have learned to respect equipment, to turn up on time, to be more disciplined and to respect others. Many of them had never been part of a team before," he says. The girls who have been playing against boys in the mixed sessions are learning to play quicker and are picking up techniques in a more competitive environment. "A talented athlete definitely accelerates when playing among male players but it could have an adverse effect if the girl needs a bit more encouragement and support, more confidence building," says Mitchell.

Caitlin Ashill, 14, has been playing football since she was six but became more serious three years ago. She now plays in the mixed teens sessions twice a week. Although she plays some football at the Sharjah English School, she says it is more competitive to play against boys. "It is more intense and it's more high energy. I prefer it," she says. "I learn more and it is more challenging." While most of her school friends prefer to play netball, she has thrown herself into football, saying it is the central focus of her social life.

Without a structured league and training at school, she feels the level at AUS has improved her technical abilities far beyond those of her peers. "Here, we learn skills, tactics, structure; stuff we don't learn at school which is more about the simple rules, the basics. It's more fitness based as opposed to technique," she says. Mohammed Nasif, the head of physical education and activities at Wesgreen School said that girls' football has recently become more popular since they introduced it last year.

As early as grade five the children now learn basic skills for three weeks as part of the teaching plan where they learn basic skills such as passing, dribbling and shooting. "It's important while the girls are young to get them enjoying the game and we can't spend too long on it as they have to do a range of sports during each semester," he says. While there is still no structured league, the girls plays against other schools such as the Sharjah English School and the Australian School in competitions they arrange themselves in the hope of laying the foundations for something more official as time goes on.

"It's very early days right now but in time I hope to see this formed into a league. It will depend on the participation of the other schools." For many of the girls, Sharjah will offer no means of continuing their love for football once they leave school. Its universities and sports council have no women's league and their nearest, and only, alternative is the Dubai Women's Football League, the Sharjah Ladies Club do not offer football among their sports.

The Dubai League has girls from 14-years-old right up to around the age of 50, including four school teams and one team from the American University of Dubai, showing the popularity of the sport. The majority of the players are from Dubai but some travel from Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and even Al Ain, says the league's chairwoman, Kat Lukovic. "This shows the strong commitment towards the sport and particularly, the league," she says.

"The majority of the players are foreigners, around 70 per cent, and the remaining 30 per cent are from Arab countries such as the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Lebanon. "With the growth of the league, we see that Arab interest in women's football is on the rise." mswan@thenational.ae