Friday 24 March 2023, 17:00

Historic moment for women’s football in Saudi Arabia

  • The Saudi Arabia women’s national team are making history once more

  • The team have entered the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking for the first time

  • Their long-term goal is to qualify for a FIFA Women’s World Cup

When Monika Staab took on the job of coaching the Saudi Arabia women’s national team in 2021 with the aim of setting up and developing the side, she told in an interview that she could only provide the spark and that it would be up to the players to light the fire themselves.

That flame has been burning steadily ever since, as women’s football in the country continues to develop in leaps and bounds. Staab herself has since been appointed technical director, with the Finn Rosa Lappi-Seppala replacing her as head coach of the national team.

Saudi Arabia is a clear example of how football has the power to inspire broader social change. For example, the kingdom has set up a first and second-tier women’s league featuring a total of 25 teams (Premier League and First Division League), created regional training centres for girls aged six to 17, and introduced an U-17 women’s side. There are also more than 1,000 coaches (compared to 119 in 2021) with various licences and almost 50,000 girls in the schools league. Overall, the number of referees has increased by 66% and the number of clubs by 56% in a short period of time.

“What these girls achieved in just a matter of a year and a half has been nothing short of incredible" said SAFF President Yasser Al Misehal. "Since 2019 we have managed to successfully establish a national team, a premier league, a first division, a school’s league, with 50,000 girls signing up and in recent weeks introduced an U-17 national team. In just 2 years we have nearly doubled the number of registered players, clubs, referees and staff and seen an 800% growth in the number of coaches. Statistics all of football can be proud of and it just shows what is possible when you love the game.” “We are fully committed to offering equal opportunities for boys and girls, in sport and beyond. For instance, our national teams get equal daily allowance while representing their country, regardless of gender. They share the same training pitches, stay in the same quality accommodation, and have access to the same equipment and resources. “On behalf of everyone in Saudi football, I want to thank every player, member of coaching staff, fan, mother, father, sister and brother for their support. This is just the start of something very special.” The country’s women’s national team now plays internationally and can look back on four victories in nine encounters. The team even won a friendly tournament this year - which was broadcasted by FIFA+ - where Pakistan, Comoros and Mauritius featured alongside Saudi Arabia.

These already-completed projects are part of a wider strategy for women’s football, with the team ultimately aiming to successfully qualify for the FIFA Women’s World Cup™.

The side reached another important milestone recently when they entered the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s ranking in 171st place.

“Our national team made history when it was established 18 months ago, and since then their journey has inspired millions across Saudi Arabia and the region. Entering the FIFA Rankings has been the moment we’ve been building up towards, and signals just the beginning of what we want to achieve with these girls", reflected Lamia Bahaian, Supervisor of the Women’s Football Department and SAFF board member, on this historic moment. "They can write their own history now. We are also already in active collaborations with many global bodies and federations and invite the world to join us on our women’s football movement as we strive to give it the platform it truly deserves.”

Aalia Al Rasheed, Managing Director of the Women’s Football department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), was also enthusiastic about the development of women's football in her home country.

"You can’t imagine how proud I am to be involved in the development of women’s football in Saudi Arabia and see the tremendous growth it has experienced since its early days,“ she said during the fourth edition of the programme for female leaders in Lausanne.

"Ever since SAFF established a separate department for women’s football, we have managed to promote the game and give everyone, not just players, the opportunity to develop their skills. We are extremely proud of our progress and the solid foundation that has since been created." Al Rasheed emphasised that the SAFF is aiming to create an entire ecosystem – from grassroots to leadership training, all the way to ensuring that there are good coaches and referees in place to move the game forward and hosting various competitions.

Applying to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2026 marked another important step in taking Saudi Arabian women’s football to a new level, and provides an example of the country’s efforts to tap unused potential and create opportunities for women and girls across Asia. "My football journey began in 2011, at the age of 14. One of my close friends discovered me playing football at school and invited me to a training session with her team. After finishing my studies I wanted to provide more girls with access to football, so I joined the Ministry of Sport to open doors and give girls the opportunity to play the sport they love," explained Al Rasheed, who was appointed to lead the women’s football department at the SAFF in May 2022.

"I really believe that the development and change underway in women’s football in Saudi Arabia is one of the most exciting stories in world football. The development of the game reflects a large part of the change currently taking place in many areas across the kingdom."

Images kindly provided by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.