Saturday 06 November 2021, 08:00

Staab: What's happening in Saudi Arabia has to be seen to be believed

  • Monika Staab is setting up Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team

  • 62-year-old pioneer has worked in 85 countries in last 14 years

  • "I give them the spark – it’s up to them to light the fire"

Some 6430 kilometres separate Gambia and Saudi Arabia, the distance between Monika Staab’s two most recent postings. From the end of 2018, she had been in charge of the "German Gambian Football Project", until COVID-19 came along and with it, a new challenge… "In November last year, my phone rang and I saw that it was a 966 country code and had no idea who it was,” says Staab in an interview with I thought to myself: ‘Come on, what have you got to lose?’ And then the person said: ‘This is the Saudi Arabian Football Association. We’d like to bring you over for our first C-licence coaching course for women.’ I thought: ‘Sorry, what? Saudi Arabia?’ I thought that nothing could ever surprise me and then this came along. They asked if I could give the coaching course in December and I said: ‘Count me in!’" Staab is an experienced coach who has worked in no fewer than 85 countries to date, and she has never lost sight of her main goal. "In the 51 years that I’ve been involved in women’s football, the main thing for me has always been to give women the opportunity to play football. I might not be able to change everything in people’s lives, but I can give them hope. I give them the spark – it’s up to them to light the fire,” she says. Despite her decades of travels around the globe, the sheer levels of commitment and enthusiasm that women in Saudi Arabia have for football came as a surprise to the 62-year-old pioneer. "I got here and was told that we would be starting at six in the morning. Having people fit and ready to go at 6 am is something that I’d never experienced, and yet at the stroke of six, 24 women arrived and wanted to start training,” she explains. “I thought: ‘This can’t be happening’. I looked at the women and they were all full of enthusiasm, passion and spirit. They then went on to spend the next 14 days doing the C-licence course with me, and every day, they were there at six on the dot." "I went to 25 clubs in Dammam, Riyadh and Jedda. All of them have over 40 players, some of whom have to drive over two hours to training. It reminded me of back in the day when you wanted to play football but you didn’t have a club nearby. They drive for two hours to get to training and then drive two hours back afterwards. All these women are working or studying, and none of them are paid for this. They just have a real passion for it and are all convinced that they are going to be able to realise their dreams." FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura also got to see this commitment first hand when she met with football stakeholders and influential figures in Saudi Arabian society in Riyadh.

Another milestone in the history of women’s football came about on 2 November, when Staab held the first training session with the national team. 700 players registered to play for their country, and all of them attended try-outs and had their skills assessed, with Staab then whittling down the number to a squad of 30. "In mid-February 2022, we want to play our first international match in the Maldives. Why the Maldives? Well, I had my first international there with Bahrain and we won 7-2. And then I had my first international match there with Qatar and we won 2-1. So I thought that I’d go for number three on my retirement tour,” says Staab with a grin. "What’s happening here has to be seen to be believed,” she adds. “It’s unbelievable, it really is. These women have a sense of freedom in that they can finally express their love for the sport. 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 and they’re getting support from the president and the GS of the national football association, so what more could you want?"

Aliyah Alrasheed, Adwa AlArifi, Lamia Bahaian, National Coach Women Monika Staab

Playing a role in this social change is something that is very important for Staab, who hails from Dietzenbach near Frankfurt. As well as looking after the national team, her tasks include training other coaches. "In the past eight weeks, I’ve held two C-licence courses,” she says. “Then in December I’m running the first B-licence course with the 24 women I had last year." "We want to create a total of 13 regional training centres for U-13, U-15 and U-17 players – the first is almost finished – and by the end of next year, we’re looking to have a women’s U-17 national team. We’re on the right track here. We know that you have to build on a solid foundation. We have seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds in this academy that is just for girls. They have training twice a week, and the parents even want them to train three times. People are prepared to invest in the future here. I’ve spoken to a lot of the parents and they’re all very open to the idea. In Germany it was around 2003 when the first parents started to say that their daughters didn’t have to do ballet and that they were allowed to play football. Why? Because we’d won the World Cup." The next step will be the launch of a league championship on 18 November that will be played across three cities. This will be uncharted territory for the players and another challenge for Staab, who coached the women’s national team in Bahrain in 2007 and then held the same position in Qatar from 2013 to the end of 2014. "Last year there was a community tournament but only on a nine-a-side pitch. They haven’t yet played on an eleven-a-side pitch, so everything we do at the moment is writing a new chapter in the sport’s history here. We’re starting pretty much from scratch, and we need to teach the players everything. It’s an adventure but it’s fun and I’m enjoying it," says Staab with a smile, before making sure that she expresses her gratitude to a couple of very important figures. "I got to know two very powerful women in Lamia Bahaian (Head of the Women’s Football Department) and Adwa Al-Arifi (Deputy Minister of Planning and Development at the Ministry of Sports), and it’s thanks to them that I’m here now. Their passion, commitment and dreams are what won me over, and I want to do what I can to help them. With the experience that I’ve gained in women’s football and in particular in its development, I think I’ll be in a good position to do that."