x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

These Emirati women are in football league of their own

The story of a group of young Emirati women whose love affair with football has been instrumental in the creation of a pioneering new league.

From left: Mariam Omaira, Hemyan Khalid and Azza al Kaabi are Emirati women football players at the Dome@Rawdhat in Abu Dhabi.
From left: Mariam Omaira, Hemyan Khalid and Azza al Kaabi are Emirati women football players at the Dome@Rawdhat in Abu Dhabi.

If you rummaged around for a description of the young Emirati women playing in the nascent Abu Dhabi Football League, you might start by presuming them innately gutsy.

After all, from the days of the makeshift matches of single-digit ages, these poised, polished university graduates freshly into the workforce demonstrated a sort of hard-wired inner fibre necessary to get in there and roughhouse in the boy-dominated games starring brothers and cousins.

Or, as Mariam al Omaira put it: "I was never really a Barbie girl."

Al Omaira, 25, started at maybe age seven. For Hemyan Khalid al Meraikhi, 23, it began at nine or 10. Azza al Kaabi, 23, really got going at 12 with an Abu Dhabi ladies' football club, but before that she mixed it up with brothers and cousins.

In al Kaabi's games, maybe two other girls would join. In al Meraikhi's, there would be one other girl, a cousin, and the boys would pick her first because of her goalkeeping prowess.

"We were the last to be picked," she said. "We were kids. But they did like us. They wanted us to play."

The matches of al Omaira's childhood days happened "right in front of my grandmother's house". They took place on the street. The children used shoes as goalposts. They bought balls from grocery stores until they started getting them from sports shops.

"At first," al Omaira wrote in an e-mail after an interview, "they thought I would let them get past me without tackling because I'm too scared to break a leg. But then I sort of started pushing them around and they got the point. On the other hand, I'd sometimes use the girly side to win penalties and fouls."

In time, she said, "They didn't treat me gingerly. I was, like, part of the team."

As a child of the 20th century zooming into the 21st, her fascination with football sprouted with a familiar flashpoint: the 1990 World Cup held in Italy and featuring the UAE. It continued with the Atari video games that would make her rapt as her older brothers played. It grew further with Japanese cartoons heavy on football and reached full blossom with a sustained affinity towards Spain born at the 1998 World Cup in France and, then, the natural gravitation toward the Barcelona club.

From all of that, she said, "The ball has been my best friend."

As al Meraikhi put it, "It was always a thing for me", but of course, early childhood ends, so she went on to high school where she stopped playing football with boys at 13 and took up the game offered then to girls, basketball.

"I did play because I'm athletic," she said. "I loved it for a while, but my passion …"

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Really, though, a broader set of words might be appropriate, so you might call these particular human beings unusually industrious.

After all, they knew football had taken up residence in their bloodstreams and they knew they did not want to stop even after playing with the newly formed team at Zayed University that included al Kaabi and al Meraikhi.

They knew that, in al Kaabi's case, "I like building a bond between players and I like the football itself, the rules, how it's played, everything." In al Omaira's case, "I think for me it's the excitement of scoring, the excitement of dribbling past people and keeping the ball attached to you. It's not really that easy. And, at the end of the day, it's a team sport. I love working with people and football is about working with people and trusting one another."

So they did not sit and pine away.

Al Kaabi and al Meriakhi can tell you of latter days at Zayed University energetically assembling all the parts necessary for a five-nation women's university football tournament that took place last October. A bank account. Money raised for charity. "Fifteen teams to play, referees, everything," al Kaabi said.

Al Omaira can tell of large daydreams that maybe no listener really bought - "I was always defending women's football" - except that in late 2009 she met the chief executive of Reem Investments, Bambang bin Kajairi, and through him she met Eric Gottschalk at Mediapro Middle East, and through him she found an apt venue for this newborn women's league.

"The logistics were there, because it's covered," she said.

Born on January 26, the Abu Dhabi Football League plays inside the Dome at Rawdhat. It features eight teams, including Team Abu Dhabi, Team Tigers, Dubai Ladies Club, Storm and Reem Developers.

"Before, girls weren't playing soccer, now they play more," al Kaabi said. "Why? Because we are being supported as much as we can. We are encouraging ourselves, making tournaments … They're loving it. They're enjoying the fun. They're coming more to play it. Of course within our standards, our traditions. They wouldn't be on TV and stuff."

You might call them pioneering, because they run (and dribble) around the forefront of one of the changes in the generations, tilting toward seeing women in sports as a matter of health.

"My father was always very supportive," al Kaabi said. "He's a sportsman. He's a chief of the Officer's Club … My father always supports me by giving me a place to play. He makes everything easy for me."

Her mother played volleyball, goes to the gym, or walks the beach with Azza's father.

Otherwise, parental concerns usually involved injury, musculature, injury, social stigma and injury. "They have to understand that women play differently," al Meraikhi said. "They say, 'It's a tough game. You'll get hurt. You'll be injured.' They hear a lot of injuries for the men and they expect the same. That was the major concern. But they also say, 'What will people think? The society won't accept it.'

"But now they know more of the girls are playing."

Said al Omaira, smiling, "I still get from my Mom, 'Oh, you're going to be too muscular.' … But they're trying to be supportive."

Said al Meraikhi, "Our parents are now kind of supportive. They ask if we won. So it's a little different."

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Still, when seeking a proper description, you probably have to seek wider parlance. You probably have to branch out beyond football or sport to the distinctive feeling you get when talking to these unlikely footballers. It is a feeling not completely dissimilar from what people describe around Nawal el Moutawakel, the Moroccan hurdler from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who became the first Arab woman to win a gold medal, and who appeared in Abu Dhabi last week for the Laureus Awards.

That feeling would be hard to describe.

There is a sense of it when al Omaira says, "I think this is like a pilot study and the more people hear about it, the more girls are going to be interested. I'm hoping it's going to change the idea of how parents" will think about sport and daughters.

An inkling comes when al Meraikhi talks about how high schools are forming girls' teams now, and when she says, "It is changing a lot because when I first started football there were only two teams. They had a team in Abu Dhabi and a team in Dubai."

Or it's there in her enthusiasm when saying, "The league here is the first league for women. We've been getting calls. My friends have been calling. They want to join."

And: "I'm having high hopes." And, most tellingly: "I've seen it change."

You sense it when al Omaira says her father is "really proud," or when she describes the level of talent as vastly improved over recent years - "They all have the skills" - or when she says of her family and friends, "They're excited. They're like, 'OK, I can't believe you're really doing this.' They remember me saying, 'Oh, I want to do something about it. I want to do something for football here in Abu Dhabi.' So for it to be happening, it's a real achievement."

In turn and by sheer contagion, she said, she has tried to coax her mother onto the treadmill and, in turn, "She has been doing that every morning. She goes on for 45 minutes."And the aura that perhaps best describes these women, you definitely grasp when al Meraikhi looks back across the years a bit and states one reason she has been able to keep on playing: "Because I insisted," she said. "The girls now insist. It's melting away a lot."

Or maybe it is best to relate the story of al Omaira's recent trip to Camp Nou to watch her beloved Barcelona. She and two friends secured three tickets, and those tickets happened to be right up front. "We were soooooo close to the field," she wrote, "that we felt we're a part of the team."

To her, here in the 21st century, "watching these big stars and following teams and all makes me want to be a better footballer. I try to learn from them. Football is a big part of who I am; I watch it, I play it, I breathe it and I definitely try to get as many girls interested as possible."

That happened to be the night of el clasico, the night of last November 29, the night Barcelona annihilated Real Madrid 5-0, and the singing never did stop from 1-0 on, and the people sang hosannas in the streets to the manager Pep Guardiola.

Yet as al Omaira describes this all vividly, one passage might give the best sense of the feeling.

As she described her excellent seats and her proximity to the action, she wrote: "The temptation to jump in killed me."

So the best way to describe these women might be that they are uncommonly alive.