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Saudi Arabia Gradually Becoming The New Mecca Of Women’s Football

Written by Oluwaseun Oyediji

Some years back, it was hard seeing women attend men’s football games in Saudi Arabia.

An attempt by FIFA to form a league was quenched back in 2008, but fast forward to 2023, Saudi Arabia now has a women’s football national team and a league where players from Europe and Africa are trooping.

In 2019, the women’s department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation was established.

A year later, came the Women’s Community Football League and then the Regional Women’s League in 2021.

The Premier League launched in 2022, the same year that the national women’s team played their first-ever international game, defeating the Seychelles 2-0. They now have a FIFA ranking.

Just like the men’s league which took decades of development before attracting key players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Kareem Benzema, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves, Neymar Junior, Milinkovic-Savic, Fabino, Ngolo Kante, Jordan Henderson, just to name a few, the women’s league is gradually attracting the big names in the game.

We are starting to see some well-known women players sign with Saudi Arabian clubs over the past few weeks.

Signings

In mid-September, Nigerian international Rita Chikwelu signed with Al Shabab FC.

The 35-year-old Chikwelu played last season with Levante Las Planas after three years with Madrid CFF. She has played for clubs in Finland and Sweden (7 years with Umea and 3 with Kristianstad) and at home with Akwa Starlets.

She played for Nigeria 33 times and scored 15 goals and played at three FIFA Women’s World Cups.

Another Nigerian international defender moved to Al-Ittihad. The United Kingdom (U.K.-born) Ashleigh Plumptre, 25, was a revelation for Nigeria at this summer’s Women’s World Cup.

She has played the last three seasons (with 62 appearances) for her hometown side Leicester City of the English Women’s Super League (WSL) and Manchester United was reported interested in signing her. She played four years at the University of Southern California, won a UWS summer league title in 2019 for LA Galaxy OC (Orange County), and played for England at multiple youth levels.

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Al-Ittihad also signed Morocco's 2023 Finalist midfielder Salma Amani, who played last season at Metz. She was a youth international for France and played for nine years at Guingamp and also with Fleury 91 (two years) and Dijon (1 year) in France.

[Main image] Al-Nassr players celebrate during their win over Sama in the first-ever Saudi Women's Premier League match

Al-Ittihad's new coach is former United States (U.S.) international Kelly Lindsey, who left her position as head coach at Lewes F.C. in England and has coached Afghanistan's and Morocco's women's national teams in the past.

A report emanating from The Athletic has it that a club in the Saudi Arabia women's league is showing interest in multiple UEFA Women's Champions League (UWCL) winner, Wendie Renard and Brazilian star, Marta.

With these signings, Saudi Arabia's efforts to develop their women's national league have truly begun and we should see more top-quality moves to Saudi Arabia during this winter's signing window.

Challenges

Concerns over human rights in Saudi Arabia have come to the fore in recent months, with the country's stance on LGBTQ+ and women's rights having been called into question. The kingdom's endeavours to boost the profile of its domestic football leagues have led to accusations of sportswashing.

LGBTQ+ stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender".

Saudi laws and cultural setting frown at LBBTQ+ as well as some other activities in the Western world.

Homosexual or extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery, are illegal and can be subject to severe penalties. It’s also illegal to be transgender. Transgender people travelling to Saudi Arabia are likely to face significant difficulties and risks if this is discovered by the authorities.

Local laws require men and women to dress modestly covering shoulders and knees in public, avoiding tight-fitting clothing or clothes with profane language or images. Female travellers don't need to wear the traditional robe or abaya.

Saudi law prohibits the importation of weapons, alcohol, narcotics, pork and pork products, pornographic materials, distillery equipment, re-treaded or used tyres, used clothing, and certain sculptures.

Personal videos, books, and magazines may be subjected to scrutiny and be censored on arrival. In addition, electronic devices may be screened by customs officials on arrival and departure.

Special approval from the Saudi authorities’ on items such as agricultural seeds, live animals, books, periodicals, movies, and tapes; religious books and tapes; chemicals and harmful materials; pharmaceutical products; wireless equipment and radio-controlled model airplanes, and archaeological artefacts’ requires.

It is an offence to drink alcohol or be drunk in public. British nationals have been detained under this law, usually when they have come to the attention of the police on a related matter, such as disorderly or offensive behaviour. Penalties for the possession of, or trade in alcohol are severe. Both result in prison sentences.

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The public practice of any form of religion other than Islam is illegal; as is an intention to convert others. However, the Saudi authorities accept the private practice of religions other than Islam, and you can bring a religious text into the country as long as it is for your personal use. Importing larger quantities than this can carry severe penalties.

The above might discourage players used to Western ways of life from moving to the Saudi Arabian women's league but as the saying has it, "those that live in Rome behave like Romans", players will have to make do with the laws of the land if they are to have a successful stay and work in the country unless the nation amend some part of the law to suit women's footballers.

Irrespective of the above, we are happy with the level of progress women's football has taken in Saudi Arabia over the past four years and hope to see their teams at the World Cup in the future, following the footsteps of Morocco which became the first North African and Arab nation to qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup this year.

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