Women's Football in Qatar - The State of Play in the 21st Century
The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France was one of the greatest successes in women’s football in the last 100 years or so. Over one million fans supported their teams at the stadiums across the tournament. Over one billion people across the globe tuned in to watch the broadcasted games. Some of the biggest names in sport sponsored the 24 teams battling for the Cup, and the event itself was sponsored by numerous industry giants. On the field, the action proved, for once and for all, that women’s football was a force to be reckoned with…and equal to that of the men’s game. But, of the 24 teams revelling in the unprecedented excitement and hype of the event, where were the teams representing the Middle East?
Women’s Football in The Middle East
No Middle Eastern teams have qualified for the FIFA Women’s World Cup since its inception in 1991. In fact, less than half of the teams in the region enter the qualifying matches.
The lack of representation from the Middle East is not that surprising, women’s football has only really taken off in the current century, and resistance to women’s sport is still prevalent in the majority of the nations. Women wanting to play sports, particularly football, must negotiate numerous social, political, cultural and religious barriers, and even if they do, they are often beset with problems such as no funding, no facilities and no support.
Time for Change
However, the picture isn't all doom and gloom. During the last two decades, things have started to change. New generations bring new ideas and a thirst for modern social reforms. Increased global interactions at political, business and social levels also compel the development of human rights. And, women's ability to contribute to economic growth, especially through popular sports such as football, has been recognised.
In terms of football, women's teams from the Middle East have increased their involvement in regional, national and international tournaments and competitions. There is a distinct improvement in the number of teams entering competitions since the early 2000s. They are not always successful, but, as they say, 'if you're not in it, you can't win it'! There also appears to be a marked change in the support some countries are offering women's football. Qatar, hosts of the FIFA World Cup 2022, in particular, have picked up the mantle for change. Senior figures are spearheading not only women's involvement in sports but also women's football. Programmes and initiatives designed to increase women's participation, enhance skills and talent, and ensure the development of the national football team and the football industry have been rolled out. Facilities and opportunities for women are being created to aid the industry's growth. More women are being employed in senior-level management positions within the industry. And, the nation has begun hosting and supporting women's regional to international tournaments and competitions.
With the FIFA World Cup 2022 being held in the Middle East for the first time, it is hoped that Qatar can use the opportunity to improve the state of play in women's football, not only for the nation but for the region as a whole.
Promoting Women’s Sports
Qatar is changing, and along with it, so is the role of women in society. The nation, while a staunch preserver of culture and tradition, recognises the importance and value of women's input into all spheres of life, in particular political and economic spheres.
Qatar's 2030 National Vision incorporates guidance on economic diversification (away from the traditional industries associated with oil and gas), and the role of women, especially in decision-making positions, in achieving their long term goals. The National Vision calls for increased participation of women in society and opportunities to empower them and expand their capacities. Sport is one industry in which Qatar is seeking to diversify and an area into which women's roles have been supported.
At the turn of the century, the Qatar Women's Sports Committee (QWSC) was established under the council of Her Royal Highness, Sheikha Moza bint Thani. A year after its founding, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani affiliated the organisation with the Qatar Olympic Committee (QOC), giving added credence to their mission - the QOC Sports Sector Strategy includes provision for the advancement of women in sports.
The primary role of the QWSC is to increase women's participation and performance in sport. However, their goals also include improving the number of women in administrative and technical sporting roles, and those in positions of power, and ensuring their capabilities to assume such roles through education and training. To that end, the committee set up a board of female directors and developed a long-term strategy for improving female sports to help achieve their goals.
Two decades later, sport for girls has become embedded in schools and universities, sports leagues and amateur cups have been founded, national teams have been established in football, futsal, basketball, cricket, volleyball and handball, to name but a few. International, regional and national women's games have been played and hosted. And, women athletes, who have competed in numerous regional and continental games since 2000, have been sent to the Olympics (in 2012 for the first time and in 2016). In addition, women are assuming an ever-increasing number of top management positions in the sporting industry, programmes and initiatives have been rolled out to train female coaches, managers, referees, administrative staff for a host of women's sports, new facilities for women's training and games have been secured in conjunction with Qatar's top sports establishments, and sponsorship for women's sports has been successfully secured.
At a community level, the QWSC has worked tirelessly to gain social acceptance of women's sports in a conservative country bound by culture and tradition. Programmes and initiatives and community events involving and encouraging women's participation in sports have helped to break down some of those barriers. In response, the number of sports venues and clubs offering classes and training to women and girls has grown rapidly.
The achievements and successes of the QWSC have been such that they have been recognised internationally. In 2013, former President of the Committee, Ahlam Salem al Mana, won the International Olympic Committee (IOC) award for her outstanding contributions to the development of women's participation in sport and sports administration.
So, how has this progression of women's sport in Qatar impacted on women's football?
Support for the Ladies Game
Women’s football in Qatar, like many countries in the region, has encountered cultural resistance. Football is seen as a masculine sport, which, due to outdoor playing fields, does not allow for modesty in terms of segregation from male spectators. Other ball sports such as basketball, volleyball, handball and tennis, that can be played indoors and allow women to maintain their modesty, are more widely acceptable, are played more regularly and are offered more support. As a result, the game of futsal, an adapted version of football that can be played indoors away from male spectators, has been more warmly received. Women’s futsal teams, leagues and tournaments, supported by official bodies in Qatar, have been active for some time.
However, winning the rights to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has proved a much-needed stimulus to advancing women’s football in the country. During the bid for the World Cup 2022, the Qatari tournaments governing body, the Supreme Committee of Delivery and Legacy, announced their commitment to boosting women’s football and changing perceptions of women’s football in Qatar. Indeed, since winning the bid in 2010 and in conjunction with the QWSC, Qatar has launched the first Women’s National Football Team (2010), created a Women’s Football League (2012), hosted a myriad of women’s football events, and engaged with local and international organisations to develop football facilities and opportunities for girls and women to participate and compete.
The National Team
Qatar’s national women’s football team is a relative newcomer to the football scene. However, the team have benefited from guidance under coaches such as Helena Costa (Portuguese men’s and women’s football manager/coach), Monnkia Stabb (former German football player and football manager/coach), and Abdelaziz Bennij (former Morrocan footballer and previous manager of the Qatar Stars League team, Al Arabi Sports Club). Under Helena Costa, the newly established team began regular, structured training and played their first regional tournament. Under Monika Stabb national under 14s and 16s teams were formed to develop up and coming talent and ensure the progression of the senior national team. The senior team also benefited from training camps in Germany and the development of football facilities specifically established for women players.
Since their formation, the team have participated in regional and international tournaments - the Arabian Cup, the West Asian Football Federation Championships and the Asian Games. The team have also played numerous games and competitions with overseas clubs, including Bayern Munich women’s football team, to build and develop their skills and techniques.
Schools, Clubs and Universities
Through the work of the QWSC and the support of the Supreme Committee, sports, including football, are now more prevalent throughout schools and Universities. Young women can play football in university teams, and national and regional tournaments are supported and sponsored by official national bodies and programmes. For younger footballers, a community football league, which includes under 13s and 16s teams for girls, was set up in 2016. And, several organisations, such as Evolution Sports (a sports development and coaching group for young children) and BK Sports (a sports development and educational club) offer football training, coaching and events outside of the school environment specifically for girls up to 16.
Initiatives and Programmes
A social development program called Generation Amazing, set up as part of the 2022 World Cup preparations, aims to use the power of sport, in particular football, to positively impact on society, especially youth culture. In Qatar, the programme is rolled out through a number of projects targeting school children. A team of ambassadors for the programme, including famous faces such as Xavi Hernadez, and members of the Women’s National Football Team, use football training to help develop playing skills and impart lessons based around personal development, health and well-being, and social unity - tackling issues such as gender equality.
The Football Industry
Qatar committed to increasing women’s roles in sport and opportunities for women to enter the industry, not just on the field. To this end, a number of initiatives to improve women’s access to a variety of sporting roles have been organised, such as training courses for Qatari female coaches (hosted by the QWSC in conjunction with the Royal Netherlands Football Association and the Dutch Embassy) and referee training courses (organised by FIFA and the Supreme Committee).
Promoting Women’s Football
While sponsorship and promotional activities for the women's football team in Qatar are scant, especially compared to the men's national team, there is hope on the horizon.
Aviation industry giant, Qatar Airways, recently ran an advertising campaign promoting the FIFA Women's World Cup 2019 in France. They were also an official sponsor of the event. The organisation is an official FIFA partner and the official airline of FIFA (sponsoring a host of internationally recognised FIFA events). They are the official sponsor of CONMEBOL, the governing body for football in South America, and sponsor a host of top global football clubs, including France's Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), Italy's AS Roma, Argentina's Boca Juniors and Germany's FC Bayern München. The football club sponsorship also incorporates the ladies national teams for PSG, AS Roma and Boca Juniors.*
So, by association with Qatar Airways, recognition of women's football, and the importance of its role to the footballing industry, is being supported and promoted not only globally but more importantly in Qatar and the Middle East. The more prominent women's football becomes, and the more global support and recognition it receives, the more likely women's football is to grow in countries like Qatar. And, who knows maybe one day the Qatar women's national football team might be added to similar sponsorship giants portfolios.
Equally, a host of women's football teams from around the globe, including England's Lionesses and Germany's Bayern Munich women's team, have been conducting their winter training in Qatar. The media coverage they command will also bring some much-needed recognition to the ladies sport in Qatar and the Middle East, and hopefully, help to achieve greater acceptance of the game.
A Bright Future?
By encouraging women into sports on the international stage, Qatar also hopes to elevate women and their role in Arab society - increasing their confidence, skills and opportunities; and confirm to the world the nations alignment with modern views on gender equality. In addition, by fostering initiatives that persuade girls and women into sports, Qatar aims to nurture talent for the future, encourage healthier lifestyles, and leave a lasting legacy of inclusivity and diversity.
However, in terms of women’s football and the boost in attention the game has seen in Qatar since the World Cup 2022 bid, it is vital that the impetus driving changes to the women’s game remains after the end of the tournament. There is still much to be achieved. More girls need to be encouraged into the sport at a young age and provided with support to remain in training once their education is complete - which requires continued adjusting of social and cultural barriers. Access to training facilities needs to be secure and the longevity of organised leagues maintained. Local and national teams need to be promoted to broaden the local fanbase and sponsorship needs to be secured to grow and nurture teams. And, a more significant number of women need to assume decision-making roles within the industry.
As Qatar progresses towards a more inclusive society, hopefully, women’s football in Qatar and the women’s national football team will also advance to greater success.
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