x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Proud UAE female football fans blaze trail for Emirati women

Experts say the patriotic women who supported the UAE in the Gulf Cup represent a progression of their role in society.

Female fans cheer on the national team after a goal against Bahrain in Tuesday's Gulf Cup match. Their presence at the game caused a stir on Twitter, with tweeters condemning and praising their attendance. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
Female fans cheer on the national team after a goal against Bahrain in Tuesday's Gulf Cup match. Their presence at the game caused a stir on Twitter, with tweeters condemning and praising their attendance. Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

DUBAI // When Majed Hassan scored five minutes from time in the national team's nail-biting encounter with Bahrain on Tuesday, his boot connected with far more than the ball.

That kick - which sealed the UAE's place in the semi-finals of the Gulf Cup - set in motion a wave of public euphoria credited with uniting the nation in pride, heralding a new sporting dawn, and signalling a change in women's role in society.

The UAE have won the Gulf Cup only once, in 2007, when they hosted the tournament. It is the only trophy the national team have won.

But as the squad progress in this year's contest, hopes are growing that the victory six years ago was not a once-off.

Such optimism is reflected in attendance figures at the team's games - six planes of Emirati fans flew to Bahrain for Tuesday's encounter, which ended in a 2-1 victory for the visitors.

But it is not the number of travelling fans raising eyebrows, it is the make-up of the fanbase.

For the first time, say commentators, female fans are proudly - and publicly - displaying their allegiance to their team.

Ahmad Abdul Latif has been a waiter at Lacabana Cafe in Al Ain for eight years and can recall the team's victory in 2007. But this time around he noticed something had changed - the number of women in the 250-strong audience.

"The mood kept shifting from anger to happiness depending on the development of the game, but when the first goal went in people were jumping for joy and two tables were broken as a result of the buzz that swept the place," he said. "I remember when the team won the cup for the first time, the sentiments were the same but there was a major difference this time - the presence of women was very noticeable.

"Yesterday there was no difference between men and women. The women were just like men."

Psychologists and sociologists also detected something more profound in Tuesday's result and its aftermath that goes beyond mere sporting victory, suggesting the tournament represents a seminal moment for Emirati women.

Ahmad Alomosh, professor of applied sociology at the University of Sharjah, said females cheering the national team represented a natural progression of Emirati women's role in society.

"Women are increasingly playing a more proactive role as they enter all sectors of society and the fact that they are involved in sports is an indication of this," Dr Alomosh said. "Sport is no longer a male monopoly."

Living proof of this is Maryam Qassim, 18, an Emirati student at Zayed University who has been a football fan since she was six. She used to watch games with her male cousins but now she plays, too.

"Football is a passion of mine because I also play," she said. "My cousins and I play twice a month or so."

Ms Qassim is excited for the national team and has big ambitions for them. "I will be more excited if the next step is Asia Cup," she said.

While many of her female friends are not football fans, they have started watching games because of the success of the national team.

This success has also been credited with uniting the nation in pride.

"Sport makes everyone connect as it is a mutual language for everyone," Dr Alomosh said. "A victory for a national team is bound to enhance national identity and unite people. Everyone becomes interested and it gives them a sense of pride.

"Such unity and interest in sport is very important for the UAE, especially in a time like this when everything is evolving."

Dr Abdul Al Aziz, a retired professor of psychology, agreed, adding that the euphoria surrounding the team was best seen as a manifestation of national loyalty.

"The fact that this generation is so loyal to their country and leadership is manifesting itself in the form of support for the national team, rather than the opposite."

Nowhere, perhaps, was that sense of loyalty and pride more evident than in the words of Khalifa Al Tamimi, 22, an Emirati law student at UAE University.

"It gave me that amazing feeling when you hear the national anthem and the whole audience reciting it, and when you see your country's flag waving ... it increases your love for the country and united us all under its wing," he said.

"I thought we would win and we did, and I think we will win the whole championship. But even if we don't win the next match I'm still proud because this team gave a wonderful image to our country.

"This [victory] added to people's self esteem because they get influenced by the team's success and want to be successful themselves.

"If your self esteem increases in one aspect, it increases in all other aspects."

wissa@thenational.ae

aalkhoori@thenational.ae