New horizons for women's football in the Arab world
The year 2022 will go down in history for all football fans in the Arab world, and not just because the World Cup has come to Qatar and the Middle East for the first time.
This year has been a special one for the women’s game in the region already, and the biggest men’s tournament in the world has provided an additional boost in the lead-up to an even more important competition coming in 2023.
The highlight of this year so far took place back in July when, for the first time, an Arab team got to the final of the Women’s African Cup of Nations. In 13 previous editions, no Arab women’s team had even gotten past the group stages of the continental championship.
This made it all the more surprising when Morocco thrilled a nation and captivated a region by going all the way to the final. The North African country was also hosting the tournament, and the further their team progressed, the more excited everyone became.
"Just as this year's Qatar Men's World Cup is a historic achievement for football in the Arab world, so too is the 2023 Australia/New Zealand Women's tournament"
Most thought the dream run would come to an end in the semi-final against Nigeria, the team that had lifted the trophy an amazing 11 times out of the 13 tournaments in total. Yet Morocco squeezed past the powerhouse after a penalty shoot-out to spark major celebrations from Rabat all the way down the coast to Agadir.
While the Atlas Lionesses failed to secure a final victory against South Africa, they became the underdog story of the competition, and had already won the love of the nation. Over 45,000 fans squeezed into the Prince Mouley Abdellah Stadium in the capital for the final.
King Mohammed VI even called the president of the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, coach Reynald Pedros, as well as the team’s captain Ghizlane Chebbak, who finished as joint top scorer, to congratulate them on their effort.
"I experienced things that I had never experienced before: a stadium full of fans and football lovers," said Chebbak, who was named the Player of the Tournament. "I am living a dream. This is just the beginning for women’s football here. We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go.”
It was just the breakthrough that the women’s game needed in the region and showed that long-term commitment is the only way to bring about genuine success. Morocco has provided a template for others in the region and the celebrations give motivation to others.
"It was a sight for sore eyes," said Susan Shalabi, a Palestinian football executive. "It is heart-warming to see this enthusiasm and support for a women's match. It just needs to succeed in one Arab country, and the rest will want to copy and improve. This will help create a friendly environment for women's football."
Saudi Arabian ambition
Morocco’s success has been noted in Saudi Arabia too, a regional football powerhouse in the men’s game with ambitions to replicate their success with the women’s team.
This year, the Kingdom’s women’s team played their first-ever international game. In March, they went across the Indian Ocean to beat Seychelles 2-0 and then the Maldives a few days later by the same scoreline. Last month, eight clubs kicked off the Saudi Women’s Premier League.
Saudi Arabia has even bid to host the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup and is up against Jordan –the region’s traditional powerhouse, Australia, and Uzbekistan. It is not impossible that they win, but it would be impressive for a nation that started playing internationally just a few months ago to be hosting the continent’s biggest women’s football event four years later.
“What’s happening here has to be seen to be believed,” the team’s German coach Monika Staab said. “It’s unbelievable, it really is. In ten years’ time, they want to play at the Women’s World Cup, and I said to them: ‘Slow down! It took Germany 21 years and you want to do it in ten? That’s not going to happen.’ But they have a dream … So what more could you want?"
"This year has been a special one for the women's game in the region"
The team that perhaps stands to benefit most from an explosion of football interest in this World Cup are the hosts. Qatar’s women have not made the strides that were expected when FIFA handed the men’s tournament to the country back in 2010.
Staab worked in Qatar until 2014 and has been disappointed with the progress there. When bidding for the 2022 World Cup, authorities promised that if they were awarded the tournament, the women’s game would benefit.
From 2010 to 2014, Qatar took the first steps, competing in the West Asian Championships and various friendlies. Apart from an unofficial game with Afghanistan in 2021, that has been it.
The league finished last February with just six teams playing five games each. "The outward appearance is more or less preserved to say: Yes, we have women playing," Staab, who left in 2014, told German radio. “The arguments from the association are that we don't have enough women to play. That's nonsense. It depends on how seriously you promote women's football.”
A tale of two World Cups
With all the focus on Qatar 2022, there is another significant World Cup coming next year as 32 women’s teams head to Australia and New Zealand. For the first time, there will be an Arab team participating with Morocco flying the flag for the region.
The African runners-up have been drawn with the runners-up of Europe, South America and Asia in Germany, Colombia and South Korea. It should be a perfect test for them and it is to be hoped that all Arab nations get behind the Atlas Lionesses as they take on opponents from all far-flung nations.
Just as this year’s Qatar Men’s World Cup is a historic achievement for football in the Arab world, so too is the 2023 Australia/New Zealand Women’s tournament. Both will hopefully contribute to the development of the women’s game in the region, especially if Qatar commits to their promise of laying a stronger foundation for women’s football and Morocco can impress once more.
The journey to the top of the women’s game is shorter than it is for men and though it is far from easy, there is glory and excitement to be had.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden