x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The belles of the ball in Dubai's close-knit football community

The women's game has been growing in the UAE. Amith Passela meets the players pushing the sport.

Reem Team, in white, takes on the Thursday Team, during the Women's Sevens League at The Jebel Ali Centre for Excellence football pitch. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Reem Team, in white, takes on the Thursday Team, during the Women's Sevens League at The Jebel Ali Centre for Excellence football pitch. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

What compelled Sebrina Riley to make a 300-kilometre round trip to play a game of football?

"The passion," she said. "It is my first love. I was working in Al Ain before and I wanted to play football so much I would travel all the way for the games."

Riley even quit a teaching job to move to Dubai so that she could continue playing in the Amateur Women's League, a seven-a-side tournament conducted by the Dubai Women's Football Association (DWFA).

The 31-year-old Briton played the game at secondary school and later for the women's teams of Birmingham City and Ipswich Town, both English Championship clubs, before she arrived in the UAE.

"I always played football in my childhood and when I was around 15 or 16 I was pretty good at it. I played as far as you can go as a female player," she said.

"I had three brothers and they were all very good players. They played in the youth division and my older brother was scouted [by clubs] to play as well. But that wasn't what my parents wanted us to be."

Riley has been involved in the DWFA league for around two years and thinks it is the best league in the country.

"All teams participate wholeheartedly and work wholeheartedly," she said. "It's not just something that you come here, just join and play. Yes, it is open to all.

"Here you are making a commitment to play and you make a commitment to your team. When that's happening, you do your best you can on the pitch. And that's what's happening here.

"Everyone is working and everyone is training on their own besides the matches. We train on a Saturday and it's expected they train outside this time individually as well."

Riley trains for a couple of hours five days a week. She started with a team named The Players and moved into her present team 3 Ahdaaf, a side that was put together last season and finished runners- up in the top division.

"We have players extremely skilful and some who love to play and have progressed quickly. Dubai is such a small place and if anyone wants to play football this is the place to come," she said.

"Everyone is so friendly and you get to know people. When I came here first I didn't know anyone."

Houriya Al Tahri, a former Emirati international and now a coach in Abu Dhabi, joined the league as a player last year.

She has now formed her own side and has included six Emiratis in her squad of 12 players. One of them is 16-year-old Afra Al Bedwawi, who Al Tahri thinks is a good forward prospect for the UAE national team.

She made her debut in the DWFA league with a goal in a 2-2 draw for Reem on the opening night of the competition. Mariam Bartawi, another Emirati, scored the other.

"They are the role models for the Emirati girls to come and play in the open," said Al Tahri. "It is the way forward if they want to improve their own skills by playing in a strong league.

"I hope more will follow them to come and play in the open. It is good experience for them against strong opposition.

Like most Emirati women, Al Tahri first started playing with her brothers. She later played for the school team in Dubai.

"One of the coaches saw me play and invited me to play for Abu Dhabi," Al Tahri, who holds a B licence from the Asian Football Confederation, said. "I am based in Abu Dhabi for the last eight years, first as a player and now as a coach.

"The sport is very popular among the Emirati girls yet they need to come out and play in the open if they want to take their game to the next level.

"It may take some time but they are gradually now coming out in the open."

Jennifer Madore is a mother of two girls aged nine and seven. She is the captain of Coega Sevens, back-to-back winners of the league.

"I play two nights a week, one training and one game," said the Canadian, who works as an executive secretary for Gems World Academy in Dubai.

"I have help at home to take care of my children while I get to play. The atmosphere here is fantastic. The women's football is growing and getting popular. The quality is quite high."

Madore has been playing in the league for more than six years after joining up a year after she arrived in Dubai.

"We support one another, we push each other to make sure we are here committed and to win. And off the pitch we are all friends, and the passion and the collegiality between the players are fantastic," she said.

Madore will be a member of the A team that will represent the UAE in the Phuket Sevens in Thailand on November 17 and 18.

Then there is Janet Pickering, the oldest player involved at 57. She joined the league in its second year in 2005 and also had her daughter, Jane, 22, playing at the same time.

"We were both playing for different teams and played against one another. We both played in the defence and didn't get physically too close to one another though," she said.

Pickering said a lot more women were playing football now than from when she started. She also plays netball on different nights.

"My message to everyone is to live healthily and keep fit in a way you enjoy. I don't like the gymnasium so I come down to play a team game. I do walking and cycling when I am not playing football or netball," she said.

The DWFA league kicked off two weeks ago at the Jebel Ali Centre of Excellence with the Division One games on Tuesdays and Division Two on Wednesdays.

"We are in the ninth year and it has been a remarkable experience to see the league grow from strength to strength," Katarina Lukovic, of the DWFA committee, said.

"When I took over in 2007 there were 10 teams and now it's grown to 15 this season. It was overwhelming and intimidating at that time. I was just out of university."

The DWFA was founded by Susanna Hall, Lukovic's mathematics teacher at high school in Dubai. She handed it over to her pupil when she returned to her native Australia.

"The members have been very supportive thereafter and helped me all through up to now to make this league stronger and grow over the years," Lukovic said. "I have got the support of the team captains, the coaches and the referees.

"The league is financed by all the teams and thankfully they all have sponsors to cover those fees. We have more than 50 nationalities."

Lukovic does it as a hobby and for the love of the sport. She plays for The Players.

"I first started playing in the streets back in Serbia with the boys," she said. "I was around six. That's my football background."

When she is not busy with her day job, Lukovic, 27, spends all her free time working for the league.

"I still enjoy it. Everyone chips in and they are all volunteers," she said.

Looking to the future, Lukovic thinks an 11-a-side format could be introduced.

"The way this league has progressed I would like to think the format may become a reality in a few years from now," she said.

apassela@thenational.ae

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