Thursday 19 October 2023, 12:00

Saudi Arabia’s transformation continues thanks to FIFA Football for Schools Programme

  • Football for Schools was launched in Saudi Arabia between 16 and 18 October 2023

  • Women’s football is growing rapidly in the country

  • The initiative will help to introduce girls to football from an early age

A few short years ago, it would have been hard to envisage a Saudi Arabia where girls and boys could be seen high-fiving each other to celebrate a goal they had crafted together. Not only was football traditionally a male-dominated sport, but it was also generally rare to encounter mixed‑gender activities in the country. And yet it was a common sight at the launch of the FIFA Football for Schools Programme in the country, held in Jeddah on 18 October. What’s more, it seemed nothing but natural.

Things have changed dramatically in a short space of time in Saudi Arabia. “Today, we have four regional training centres across the country. We’ve also been working on educating female teachers, offering 40 courses so that they can then coach and develop female players in schools. We now have three active women’s national teams and a department comprising 23 staff who work to develop the women’s football pyramid,” said Ibrahim Alkassim, General Secretary of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), upon being asked recently about the growth of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia.

His words were backed up by Aalia Abdulaziz AlRasheed, Head of the Women’s Football Department at the SAFF: “I genuinely believe that the growth we are seeing in women’s football in Saudi Arabia is one of the most exciting stories in world football. The development of the women’s game reflects the wider changes currently taking place in various sectors across the country,” she explained. Invited to the country to launch the initiative between 16 and 18 October, the Football for Schools team both witnessed and contributed to that development.

Over the course of the three days and under the guidance of Football for Schools instructors, coaches and schoolchildren – both male and female – supported and helped each other and pulled together to ensure that the initiative got off to the best possible start in the kingdom. That was particularly fitting to see, since solidarity and cooperation will play such a vital role in making football more accessible to girls and boys in Saudi Arabia, while strengthening the country’s education system by adopting football’s values. That is what Football for Schools is all about.

“It’s always so uplifting to see the progress being made by FIFA member associations around the world. The SAFF is a shining light in that respect,” said Fatimata Sidibe, Director of the FIFA Football for Schools Programme. “The launching of Football for Schools here speaks to the strides the country has made over the past three years. Such outstanding progress lays the groundwork to develop football and life skills.”

More than 120 male and female physical education teachers and coach educators from all over the country received expert advice from Football for Schools Manager Antonio Buenaño Sánchez and women’s football experts Susan Ronan Martin and Thuba Sibanda. All of the teachers will be tasked with circulating the benefits of the Football for Schools initiative, which promotes a positive and enthusiastic approach towards the game while offering practical skills in the education and development of children.

“Physical education teachers and coaches will be able to pass on their knowledge to their pupils, helping them to become better citizens and agents for positive social change,” said Sidibe. “The SAFF’s enthusiasm and dedication will have a decisive social impact and will pave the way for future generations.”

And that’s not all: the scheme also helps in identifying talented young players. And there were already a number of talents showcasing their ability during the launch day on 18 October, which included friendly matches, training exercises and ball games.

There was certainly plenty on offer to feed the member association’s ambitions: “Within the SAFF, we’re now wondering whether the men’s or the women’s national team will win our first World Cup,” joked General Secretary Alkassim a few months ago. In any case, everything is now in place to keep the suspense going!