Saudi Arabia: First women’s football league from fan’s perspective

Image credit: Saudi Arabian Football Federation WFD (Twitter @saff_wfd)

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation launched its first official women’s league in November 2021.

The decision, which SAFF President Yasser Al Misehal claims emphasises how the Federation is “keen to pave a path for Saudi Women’s football”, stems from the WFSP framework — initially established in 2017, the framework is explicitly designed to promote and increase the growth of women’s football in the country.

“Football in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Background”

On October 4th, 2019, Saudi Arabia (KSA) launched its first women’s football league. Still, unlike the regular leagues, the tournament comprised seven teams playing with eight players on the pitch and eight on the bench. In December, Jeddah Eagles won the league. It is to be noted that the games played so far are only in Jeddah.

In 2020, there was a league created around the whole country. With 24 teams participating, ten teams were from Riyadh and Jeddah, while four participated from Dammam.

Played in a city system, each team from the said city played each other to advance to the Championship rounds.

In this first unofficial edition, Challenge Female Sports Club beat Jeddah Eagles 2-1 in the Championship Final on December 17th, 2020 to win the title.

Restrictions have been changed since 2017, and none of the National League teams is affiliated with the men’s teams.

Under the condition of anonymity, I had the chance to speak with a KSA resident who is a fan of women’s football. This conversation gave me an insight into their opinions about the league, the game and the current situation as a whole.

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“It’s the first official women’s league, but the western media has not covered it at all, which is a shame, but at the end of the day, it is progress for women’s football.”

-Anonymous fan

“First Official Women’s League in Saudi Arabia”

The league, which began on November 22, will be played in two stages.

The first phase includes 16 teams, six from Riyadh, six from Jeddah, and four from Dammam. The games will take place in the cities mentioned above.

With two rounds to be played, the top three teams from Riyadh and Jeddah while the top two from Dammam will qualify for the second phase that is the Kingdom Final Championship that will be played early next year in Jeddah in a one-match knockout system. The games promise to be instrumental in developing women’s football in the country.

With five wins and 53 goals, the Eastern Flame is the crowned champion of the Eastern Region League.

The anonymous fan’s question in hand was, why isn’t the sports media actively covering this instrumental development in women’s football? Is it due to fans’ previous reactions to any investment in the world of football by Arabic nations, or is it something else?

“Most are still judging and giving their opinions based on old news and time.”

-Anonymous fan

“National Team aims for the World Cup”

December 2019, the same time as the first women’s league, which took place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, created its first women’s national team for the Global Goals World Cup (GGWC). It is to be noted that this was not for the international level.

In 2021, SAFF appointed German Monica Stubb as the Women’s National Team coach. SAFF is ambitious with this team and aims to qualify for the World Cup in the coming years. They have also planned for their first international match to be played in February.

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“Things are changing with the National Team, and there is a lot of optimism.”

-Anonymous fan

“The Arab Approach?”

Football has been a platform where fans, players, and everyone express themselves. The Arab approach to investing in women’s football is an excellent initiative, given that women have a bit more freedom now. 

“They’re trying their best with women’s football and sports in general.”

-Anonymous fan

But, with all that said, a few critical questions arise. Saudi Arabia can develop football, but can they create the western football culture?

Something so essential to football without which, some may say, it is nothing. Some great examples would be the Black Lives Matter movement and Rainbow Laces campaign.

Fans are given the freedom to be open and be whoever they want to be when they watch football. 

The start of a women’s league shows the development, but can it be an ideal place for international players to go and play, given a few restrictions that the country still has in place?

While a few families are open and supportive to the women choosing the path of a professional football player, support for many girls depends on where and how they grew up, origin and roots. 

How is football viewed in the country? It is a prevalent sport with great support and is considered the best in the region for men’s football. The women don’t enjoy the same support as mainly the families support the girls, while many oppose. 

Another critical question is that we have seen the SAFF support the decision of a Biannual World Cup. While understandable from a men’s team perspective, what about the women? We know that their women’s team aims to qualify for the World Cup.

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“Thoughts from Women’s Football Perspective.”

We are at a stage in women’s football where we still need a lot of development. For example, if one country, Saudi Arabia, is willing to take the initiative to invest, it is good because it pushes every other country to do better.

There are not only professional leagues that fail their players to perform better, but also international teams fail their players to perform better.

The recent Women’s World Cup qualifier between England and Latvia is a prime illustration. With a score of 20-0 versus England, Latvia demonstrates how far behind it is in terms of progress. If a ‘conservative’ country like Saudi Arabia wants to improve, it drives every other country to improve.

It took a Ballon d’Or win by Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas for RFEF to improve and begin broadcasting more games from Spain’s top women’s football league, the Primera Iberdrola.

With these examples, I’m trying to say that we all have different perspectives — we should consider how the added stimulus of Saudi Arabia investing in a women’s team gives the rest of the globe a more substantial possibility to invest more in women’s sports.

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