Opinion

Women in Saudi Arabia fall in love with the beautiful game 

December 13, 2022

By Dr. Ghadeer Talal Melibari



Something is stirring among women of all ages in Saudi Arabia and it has been palpable this past month on the streets, in cafes, and on university campuses.

Everywhere you go, there is only one topic on many of their lips - the football World Cup.

In a very short space of time, something monumental has changed in their minds.

It’s not just that women want to watch men playing the beautiful game, but they also want to get on the field themselves.

Some even want to become referees, having been inspired by female officials taking charge in Qatar.

While this change may have surprised some, for many in Saudi, it has seemed quite natural that more and more people have fallen in love with the sport.

There are many aspects of our lives we do out of duty, to earn a living, or with expectations on us.

Before the World Cup started in Qatar, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman met the national team players and took all the pressure off their shoulders.

Facing a tough group, he said that nobody expected a win or even a draw - but asked that everyone simply enjoyed the tournament.

The words motivated and inspired so many women to pause what they were doing at 13:00 on 22 November and watch Saudi take on Argentina and one of the world’s greats, Lionel Messi.

With little expectation, the team pulled off the shock of the tournament by winning the match.

Just like the men’s game has been allowed to grow at its own pace, so has the women’s, and the Crown Prince’s words proved predictive with more people than ever simply enjoying the action.

Of course, it helps that the tournament is being held in our neighboring country of Qatar, but in many ways, football is becoming a symbol of the changing face of Saudi.

At our matches in Doha, estimates suggest that about 5% of our traveling fans to watch the games were women - a number similar to those in the fan bases of our rivals, including Mexico and Poland.

This shows the change happening not just at football games but in Saudi society in general.

At past World Cups, such an amount would not have been possible as it was just three years ago reforms meant women were allowed to leave Saudi without receiving the consent of their male guardian for the first time.

This explosion of interest from women could also be the culmination of a number of other things that have happened in the Kingdom.

Two years ago, a Saudi Women’s Super League was set up, allowing our best female talents to nurture their skills on the pitch.

Then earlier this year, our women’s national side played their first-ever game - beating the Seychelles 2-0.

Football is fast-paced on the field and also off it in how it can help instigate change.

A new subculture has emerged, with thousands of women gathering in cafes across the country to cheer Saudi on at the World Cup.

The team didn’t qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament, but it was still a huge success.

It achieved what the Crown Prince had hoped by putting smiles on everyone’s faces.

Women were full of passion for the side and it brought them together like few other things could do, to be a part of this great adventure.

The authorities have been quick to recognize the impact the games have had and how women’s football can be driven forward on the back of it.

The country has submitted a bid to stage the Asian Football Confederation Women's Asian Cup for the first time in 2026.

Women's national team manager Monika Staab called it an opportunity to inspire a generation and turbo-charge the continued growth of women’s football.

The whole face of football in the Kingdom seems to have changed in the past few weeks.

Women have come together to watch men on their biggest stage, hoping that it will soon be them given the chance to play in major tournaments as well.
Dr. Ghadeer Talal Melibari, holder of PhD in English from University of Hertfordshire, UK, is currently working as Assistant Professor of English teaching at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah.

December 13, 2022
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