Football Beyond the Veil – Saudi Arabian Women’s Silent Revolution

Our editor Anushree Nande talks to Sarah Algashgari, a female football fan in Saudi Arabia. She investigates the state of women’s rights, and how women’s football there is quietly leading the way for a societal change.
Football Beyond the Veil - Saudi Arabia Women's Silent Revolution
Art by Charbak Dipta.

On June 13, 1956, Real Madrid became the winners of the inaugural European Cup, beating Reims 4-3 in Paris. Almost 3000 kilometres away from the Parc des Princes, a new stadium was being built. With an estimated cost of 480 million euros and a seating capacity of 81,000, the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow was officially opened on July 31, 1956. Sometime that year, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation was formed.

On June 14, 2018, the Luzhniki stadium will be the venue for the opening ceremony of the World Cup, before hosts Russia face Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s first match. The latter have qualified for their first world championship since 2006, but this chance goes beyond football for them if the past year is any indication. As hungry as the Russians are to prove their worth as hosts and representatives of the host nation, Saudi Arabia, are on the cusp of what appears to be a genuine step in the direction of change and one wonders how that will impact or manifest in their performance out there under the floodlights.

Abdul Aziz created Saudi Arabia in 1932 as an absolute monarchy based on the Wahhabi school of Sunni Islamic thought.

Today, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is spearheading Vision 2030 with the aim of socially, culturally and economically transforming the state. This includes diversifying their interests and weaning off the Saudi dependence on oil, lifting the ban on public film screenings, as well as allowing women more freedom in the workplace and the public, starting with stripping religious police of their power.

On the background of that, Saudi Arabia held its first women’s squash tournament and women’s basketball tournament for universities; women were allowed to participate in the National Day celebrations for the first time; women were present at the first public concert by a female singer; there was a historic lifting of the driving ban which allows Saudi women, starting June 2018, to drive; and earlier this year, women fans were allowed to watch a live football match in the stadiums for the first time.

Many of these changes might seem more surface level than not, but it’s important to remember that these small steps are huge for Saudi women who were previously banned from sports and entertainment events, and herald the hope that other freedoms and independences might soon be theirs.

Sarah Algashgari is one such hopeful. The 18-year-old, who loves history, science, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, grew up like any other teenager. Except, she couldn’t attend football matches with her twin brothers, whom she’d started watching the game with as children and never felt any different to. So, when the company organising the first-ever match where women fans would be in attendance advertised their need for organisers and volunteers, Sarah signed up without hesitation.

“It was an honour for not only attending but also contributing to the success of it,” she wrote via email. Her highlight of that surreal historic day was a father attending the match with his daughters and explaining the tactics and players to them. “And also the women who are finally seeing live something they’ve always seen behind a screen.”

When asked about the state of women’s rights and its future in the country, Sarah, like many others, is increasingly optimistic. “I can confidently say that Saudi Arabia is entering a new era of equality and emphasising the roles of women.” She adds, “Things are better, so much better. At this rate of progress and development, we can be very hopeful about the future.” But, she’s equally aware of the work yet to be done, the battles still to be fought and won, and she’s not about to stop anytime soon. “It has been uphill, but they [Saudi women] don’t intend to stop anytime soon and I won’t either. It’s my duty [as a Saudi woman] to participate and contribute in whichever way I can.”

One of those dreams includes a national women’s football team and a national women’s league, as well as support for women’s sports in general. Saudi Arabia has a famously contentious history when it comes to women in sports, even after FIFA officially allowed the hijab to be worn during competitions. But, while she’s pushing for those rights, Sarah, who lists Cristiano, Messi, Ozil, Neymar, and Pogba as her favourite international players, can continue going for more matches (currently, unaccompanied adult women are allowed to enter stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam) and cheer for the men in green and white in Russia this summer.

The narrative of the men’s national team, though not as turbulent, has seen enough ups and downs in its short history.

Saudi Arabia’s national team did not feature in a tournament until their qualification for the AFC Asian Cup in 1984. However, soon after, in 1992, the country organised and hosted the King Fahd Cup (Confederations Winners Cup) with their national team participating along with other continental winners. This was repeated in 1995, before FIFA took over to transform it into what we now know as the FIFA Confederations Cup. Saudi Arabia’s first World Cup qualification was in 1994, which was incidentally their best showing in the tournament, reaching the Round of 16. Yet, the Green Falcons are one of Asia’s most successful teams, the sport is the country’s most popular, and their most successful striker at the tournament shares a record with players like Pele, Maradona and Klose (scoring in World Cups 12 years apart).

Now, the country’s leaders seem impatient for international progress, on the field and as a nation.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia, without consulting the Asian Football Confederation, created the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) which will be based in Jeddah and is currently led by Adel Ezzat, the head of Saudi Arabian football, and with Turki Al-Sheikh, the GSA chairman, as their honorary president.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia have emerged as winners in the media rights arena as well. In February 2018, the SAFF and state-controlled Saudi Telecom Co announced a 1.76-billion-dollar agreement for the TV rights to all of Saudi Arabia’s competitions. This replaces the 2014 agreement by the Middle East Broadcasting Centre Group worth 960 million dollars over 10 years.

The consortium offering the 25-billion-dollar deal to FIFA is led by Japan’s SoftBank which runs the world’s largest technology investment fund, a fund where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the biggest backers. According to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the consortium are willing to invest the above amount in exchange for the rights to be co-owners of the proposed 24-team international club tournament and the world league for national teams. Any decision in its favour would mean a paradigm transformation of club and national football that would render a familiar landscape, well, unfamiliar, with Saudi Arabia as a potential frontrunner in the international football power-stakes.

On the field, this restlessness is evidenced by the quick succession of managers it has seen since September. Bert Van Marwijk helped Saudi Arabia gain their first World Cup qualification since 2006, but left after a contractual dispute. He had, according to the players, changed the internal setup of how they trained and practised, and it is this culture that seems to be carried forward by Juan Antonio Pizzi who was hurriedly appointed after his compatriot in the interim, Edgardo Bauza, lasted long enough for them to lose to Portugal and Bulgaria.

Pizzi, who previously led Chile’s national team to the 2016 Copa America, has been given a little over six months to bed in his philosophy, and with Egypt and Uruguay joining Group A with Russia, it’s going to be far from easy if they are to come away with anything. Especially when the Argentine is a follower of fellow countryman Marco Bielsa’s high-tempo 3-3-3-1 formation which requires a lot of energy, pressing, teamwork, and peak athletic fitness. Much of their success in Russia will depend on how he’s able to adapt his tactics to what he has at his disposal in the Saudi Arabian squad.

And that’s not his only problem. As part of the multi-year partnership between the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia (GSA), the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), and the La Liga, nine players from Saudi Arabia were sent on six-month loans in early January to seven clubs from the first and second Spanish divisions. The idea being that they would be able to further develop their skills and gain crucial international exposure ahead of the World Cup, something lacking for players who have never played outside their country. The La Liga, in return, would get an increase in their television audience and commercial endeavours.

“It is GSA’s ongoing and long-term objective to develop football and elevate its level in the kingdom while also creating the new generation of footballers.” (H.E. Turki Al-Sheikh, GSA chairman)

Al-Sheikh told the Guardian that he wants his players to “learn what it is to be real professionals, gain experience and represent Saudi Arabia abroad.”

While this is great news for grassroots football in Saudi Arabia (the partnership includes academies, training, coaching, and scouting), there are concerns for both countries involved. The Spanish players union released a statement where they talked about a business model that “prioritises the economic aspect over the sporting one, sacrificing the essence of this sport and favouring business over the promotion and development of our footballers.”

While, for Saudi Arabia, most of the players who spent the latter halves of their seasons in Spain played little to no competitive football for those months, relegated to the bench – including, and this is what will worry Pizzi, Salem Al-Dawsari, Farhad Al-Muwallad and Yahya Al-Shehri, three of the stars during the country’s qualification.

Change is never easy and without roadblocks, for an individual. For a country of over 33 million, well, it’s harder. Especially one with Saudi Arabia’s complicated history, its intricate network between politics, society, religion, freedom, and power. But change, whatever it looks like, for better or for worse, for all its imperfections, is coming. And when Saudi Arabia stand on that field at the Luzhniki stadium on June 14, they are hopefully beginning a positive chapter for Saudi Arabia, for their team, and its women.

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.