x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In their football boots, these women have seen the world

Female footballers from Arab nations share their passion and commitment to the beautiful game.

Omina Mahmoud, left and her Egyptian national teammates listen to coach Takrek El Siyagy during a practice game against a boys' team outside of Cairo, prior to a match against Jordan. John Perkins
Omina Mahmoud, left and her Egyptian national teammates listen to coach Takrek El Siyagy during a practice game against a boys' team outside of Cairo, prior to a match against Jordan. John Perkins

She knocks him to the grass and leaps over him. Leg muscles strain over Puma-sponsored socks. A whistle. She reaches out her hand and pulls him back to his feet. Another whistle. She runs to break through, he runs at her, they clash again, nothing matters except the ball trapped between their entwined legs. "Fight, fight, fight!" shouts the coach, a thick artery pulsing on his face. It's a vicious game. Physical distances between women and men count for zero on the pitch. "You need to forget you're a girl when you play football, you need to be vicious, but outside we are just normal girls," says the broad-shouldered Egyptian midfielder Faiza Heidar. For some it's the Nineties all over again, when young girls played football with boys on the streets in dusty provincial towns, egged on by older children.

Women's football was born on the streets of Egypt against all odds. "It's an illegitimate child of the Egyptian football federation," as the Egyptian club coach Mohamed Kamal puts it. There's one woman's will behind it. After her referee father Izzat's death, Seher Al Hawari was determined. She travelled to provincial clubs and found potential female players. After convincing their parents, Seher brought 25 girls aged 15 to 22 to the bustling capital and trained them for five years. The idea of women playing a rough masculine sport was an absurdity to the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and a good joke for a patriarchal community. In 1997, under Al Hawari's initiative, the first women's football committee was finally established and led to the first Women's Football Tournament in Egypt. In 1998, Egypt played in the inaugural African Women's Championship organised by Fifa in Nigeria. Although the team didn't even make it to the quarter-finals, it was a giant leap. Al Hawari became the first African woman member of Fifa and the first female EGF board member. Her girls are now coaches raising the next generation of players. There are 12 clubs and around 500 players. "It's like a dream come true," Al Hawari says watching the national team playing a friendly match with a boys' team at the Confederation of African Football headquarters in Cairo.

"My home is up there," says Monika Staab as she looks up and points to the night sky. She has just finished a coaching course with Egyptian club coaches and is heading to Iran. In four years working for Fifa as an adviser on women's football development, she has travelled to 60 countries. "Football teaches us to respect each other, team spirit and human value, and if you do this maybe we'll have less war, less fighting, less people killed. I believe in this and that's why I've been doing it for four years." On the ground, she says, it's a struggle in strict countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, where girls risk their reputations for football.

Staab was 4 when she started playing, and football for girls was forbidden in 1970s Germany. She played it anyway, with boys behind her parents' backs. It was just like the conservative countries she would visit 40 years later. She was one of the first footballers who travelled beyond Germany to elsewhere in Europe when women's football was slumbering after a 50-year ban. The world of women's football has changed since then. There are 30 million female players worldwide, compared to 210 million men. The first Women's World Cup Championship was held in 1991, 61 years after the first World Cup in 1930. Germany is now one of the most successful teams .

"Football is my fate," says Isra'a Osama, 24, an Egyptian national team midfielder. Her strength is her persistence, which is her name in Arabic, so maybe it's fate.

"When you touch the ball, you feel something inside you bursts out,"says the speedy striker Shahinaz Yassin, 19, from the Jordanian national team. The girls' teams are about to play a friendly match. Last year the Egyptians lost 1-0 to Jordan at the Women's Football Cup Arabia 2010, which won Jordan an exclusive training camp in ermany in the run-up to the 2011 Women's World Cup. They didn't qualify, but it was an achievement for a new team, established in 2005. Jordan is now 59th in Fifa women's rankings - the highest ranked Arab team. Morocco is 73rd and Bahrain 75th, with Egypt 84th.

A tranquil pitch before the climax. Small rainbows form above the sprinklers. Little black beetles are wandering around. Many are destined to fall victims to the match. Girls are giggling on balconies about some Facebook photos before they head out for the briefing. "Today I don't want you to think that I've got a ball and now I'll tear my opponent apart; I want you to connect with each other," says Tarek El Siyagy, the head coach. He coached Gambia's national U-17 team for four years and won a World Cup victory in 2009. This is his first experience in coaching females.

Hesterine De Reus, the head coach of the Jordanian team, says the current turmoil in the region has more of a negative effect on football in Jordan. "It enabled conservatives to put on pressure. We occasionally practise with boys because it's challenging for the girls, but last time nobody could play with us because the press criticised us under their influence." Just like Monika Staab, who first played "illegally" with boys in Holland. Between 1983 and 1993 Hesterine gained 44 caps for the Netherlands women's national football team. After 20 years working for the Dutch Football Association and coaching the Dutch national U-19 team, she moved out of her comfort zone to Jordan.

It's the second half; the first was drawn 0-0. The Egyptian team appears more substantial than the Jordanian, and more aggressive. An ambulance is on stand-by. The Egyptian reserve team recites the Fatiha (the opening of the Quran) loudly with their hands crossed behind each other's backs. The Jordanian reserves are quieter. Beyond are two circles on each side of the pitch - red and white - they give a shout and take their positions. A whistle. Both teams know that there will be goals. They chase, knock, enrage each other. Nobody likes to lose. Players on the ground, mostly Jordanians, pain and cries. Doctors wait for a sign, all good. Egypt win this time, 2-1. The men from the media pick up their phones and report: "Al Hawari's team won."

When the match is over, the Egyptian team has qualifiers for the 2012 African Cup to prepare for. They are up against countries such as Nigeria, who are eight-time winners of the African Women's Cup, while the Jordanian team travels to the Emirates for the West Asian Football Federation tournament. Then there is a match with the Women's World Cup champions, Japan, in Palestine.

At a training session at Wadi Degla club, I have never seen so many girls spitting in Egypt. "Go, Messi, go!" They occasionally call each other by their football idols' names, usually those of male players. "When there was a women's match on TV, I switched channel immediately," remembers Mohamed Kamal, before he started coaching girls in 2003. Now he's the head coach of Wadi Degla club, champions four seasons in a row. "People advised me against it, said I'm ruining my coaching career." But he was impressed by the players and wanted to be a part of something new. He has been coaching since 1981, after sustaining an injury as a professional player. Kamal is a good coach and knows how to read a footballer. "If I think about her as a girl, I'll never be able to coach her; she's an athlete on the pitch." Kamal says that at the end of a rough session, they are girls and they need to feel that with a nice compliment. "And girls talk a lot, all the time," he laughs. They travelled to Europe and the Middle East, but some players haven't seen beyond Egypt, like a team from Kena in Upper Egypt. "Once I was asked to lead Kena's team to a tournament in Jordan. The girls never travelled abroad - they had never even seen an elevator - so whenever I couldn't find a player, I knew I'd find her going up and down in the hotel's elevator," Kamal laughs. "We brought the cup home that time."

Not everyone is as good as Heidar, who is a starlet of her club Tayaran, coaches male players and plays on the national team. She loves a challenge and won't leave her club, even if she's paid less there than she would be elsewhere. The girls are only paid by their clubs and not supported financially by the FDA, Kamal notes. Unlike in other Arab countries like their rivals in Jordan who are supported by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, president of the Jordan Football Association. The players of Wadi Degla receive the highest salary, the equivalent of Dh600. There's also a championship bonus of Dh9,300, and some of them even bought cars, Kamal says. But the gap in performance between the Wadi Degla club and the others is obvious - their players make up the majority of the national team.

Sally Ismael, 21, is a popular striker on the national team with her virtuoso dribbling, a move she borrowed from Christiano Ronaldo. She runs circles around the pitch on her own. Ismael has been playing football since she was 6. She moved from Mansoura to Wadi Degla club in Cairo to pursue a professional career in football. She traveled to Zambia, Congo, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and the UAE with the team, and Estonia and Finland on her own. "I have style and if I get fitter, then I can do miracles," Ismael says. A Finnish coach noticed her in Cairo and invited her to play in Finland, which she happily did without telling anyone. Coach Kamal is concerned that countries such as Qatar and the UAE offer money and nationality, and whisk away good players. Ismael came back to Cairo. "Foreign players are fit but they don't have the moves," she says, sitting in the dormitory, with Arabic pop music blaring. "Kaka is fit and scores the goals, but he's not eye-grabbing like Messi or Ronaldo."

In Arab women's football, little details make big changes. "The veil gives me power, " says Yassin. The neck-covering veil violates an agreement between Iran and Fifa in 2007. Fifa insisted the agreement was a concession on its banning of all expressions of religious or political beliefs on the pitch. Consequently the Iranian team was disqualified from the 2012 Olympic qualifiers. Yassin was disqualified as well, and her team had to play without her. There's a specially designed cap that covers the hair only. Heidar wears it, but Yassin refuses on religious grounds. De Reus says the ban costs potential players.

Football opened the world for the girls. They travel across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. On the other hand, their passion eats their time, their personal life and forces them to compromise. But there's no other way. "When you're born with a gift, how can you let it go," asks Osama. I ask if they ever thought of leaving football: "No," each one replies. The key is to find a balance between their passion and their private life. The Jordanian team defender Farah Badratah, 24, just got married. Not many girls can play football and be married, De Reus says, and that is one reason why the team is so young. Farah is an uncommon phenomenon. She balances football with her day job at the football union, training and her own home.

Maisa Ejbarah, 22, prefers to have two separate lives. A rough and busy one with her teammates where it's all about football, and the other one outside it, where the Arab Striker of 2010 can have girlie moments with her friends. While Yassin postpones; "after I'm 30, when I achieved what I could, I'll have life of my own, my own family, stability, a life I don't have now."

Heidar explains that there is a day in a footballer's life where you feel that you have given all you could to the game. They hope through studies and coaching experience their lives will be linked to football, but they also know that one day they won't play it anymore. Until then it's simple; they keep doing what is innate in them - football.

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