Friday 14 June 2024, 13:00

Iraqi women's football continues its transformation

  • Iraq is the latest country to be included in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking

  • The West Asian nation has made great efforts to develop the discipline

  • FIFA Forward has played its part in the process

July 2023 marked the start of a new era for Iraqi women's football. With assistance from the FIFA Forward Programme, the Iraq Football Association (IFA) staged a futsal tournament with 140 players from ten teams in the city of Duhok. But this historic event was just the first step in the IFA’s overall strategy to increase women's participation in football and give girls from different parts of the country the opportunity to play the game.

"We’ve started with futsal, but our goal is to build bridges that will eventually lead women to 11-a-side football," said Dr. Rasha Talib, a member of the IFA’s executive committee. Now, less than a year later, that goal has been achieved, as evidenced by the highly symbolic inclusion of the national team in the March edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking.

"Iraq's entry in the ranking, in 172nd place, was a significant event and tangible proof of the progress made by women's football in our country," explains Sarah Sahebkran, a forward with the national team. "Iraq now has a place on the women's football map. This ranking gives it more visibility and recognition at both local and international level.

"It will motivate people to support us and encourage even more girls and women to play football," she continues. "It could also provide more opportunities to participate in international tournaments and to progress, as well as to move a little closer to gender equality in the field of sport, and football in particular."

Dr. Rasha Talib, a member of the IFA’s executive committee

We are committed to a new beginning and have started implementing carefully devised plans and strategies to advance women’s football

Dr. Rasha Talib
Member of the IFA’s executive committee

In any case, the IFA has spared no effort in developing the discipline. In particular, it has been behind the creation of multiple championships in all age categories. "Throughout this transition, we’ve put in place an electronic control system to manage the competitions at each stage," explains Dr. Rasha Talib. "This system ensured compliance with the applicable regulations for participating clubs, the players, the federation and the referees."

Because not many Iraqi women wanted – or were even able – to play football for logistical reasons or due to a lack of infrastructure, futsal has long served as an alternative for them. And while bridges between futsal and 11-a-side exist and will continue to do so, with a select few able to play internationally in both disciplines, the federation has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket.

"Futsal and 11-a-side football differ significantly in many respects and only have a few similarities. Our current strategic plan aims to distinguish between female futsal players and their 11-a-side counterparts at all levels, including in domestic leagues and national teams," says Dr. Talib.

"By widening the player base, our aim is to create a strong pool of talent capable of performing well in the national teams of both disciplines. This approach ensures specialized development and excellence in each area," she adds.

The hunger and potential are there, and Sarah Sahebkran is the best example of this. Talented and driven by an irrepressible desire to play football, the new international had to leave her homeland a few years ago due to a lack of prospects. To give herself the chance to live her passion to the fullest, she went to Spain to play for Club Deportivo El Campello, the amateur club she still represents today. With women's football finally taking off in Iraq, she is now back, so to speak, and ready to defend her country’s colours.

Sarah Sahebkran in action

"I was called up to the national team in January 2024 to participate in the WAFF (West Asian Football Federation) tournament in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I was bursting with pride to be able to represent my country with the national team, although I also strive to fly the flag for my country when I’m playing in Spain," she says. "I've been playing the game for 15 years now and can't wait to discover the opportunities the future holds for me!"

And it is one she has high hopes for. "I think I have a bright future in football. I intend to continue taking part in tournaments with the national team, improve our performances on the international stage and win the hearts of our fans," she says, determined to put the experience she is gaining in Spain at the service of her national team.

Iraq women's national football team training session

For its part, the IFA is striving to ensure its players no longer have to fly to Spain or anywhere to fulfil their passion for football. In addition to the establishment of the aforementioned leagues, the federation intends to "create forums and academies to promote football in all regions of the country and widen the player pool," adds Dr. Talib. "This initiative addresses the critical issue of the shortage of players. The ultimate goal is to provide talent for the national teams in all age groups, including the seniors."

Though only recently integrated into the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking, all the signs suggest the Iraqi women’s team are here to stay.