Qatar's female football starlets eager to emerge from the shadows

DWANA Khalifa's brother, Hamid Ismail Khalifa, could be one of the select eleven who starts on the first ever Qatari World Cup team on November 20.

But, as of mid-morning Wednesday, she still didn’t have a ticket for the long-awaited Group A opener against Ecuador which will be historic for her nation and for her strong footballing family.

It seems unfair to me, not just because she’s his sister but also because she herself is a Qatari national team footballer. And I’m not helping here either when I’m introducing her through the success of her veteran international sibling. 

Because she is a symbol of a greater success.

I met with Khalifa and her three Qatar Womens National squad teammates in Manhattan and heard about being among the first female players to ever get an opportunity to play in their own country.

It’s a fascinating insight into the longterm ambition of pre-teen girls who play against boys on the street but can’t understand why they don’t have the same access. They’re well used to pushing for equality for over half their lives so they direct their concerns, jovially, to their longtime manager and matriarchal figure, Abeer Ahmed Al-Kuwari.

The gentle Qatar FA official turns to me and explains (via her two interpreters, Khalifa and the self-described baby of the group, Hagar Nader Nessim Aziz Saleh) that it’s out of the hands of the association. The FIFA spaceship and its 200-strong presence has landed in Doha and is handling everything.

We are sat around a table in the lobby of the Midtown hotel where this group of aesthetic agitators are staying while they carry out a soccer-based fact-finding mission to New York City. The four players, neatly filling a couch facing Lexington Avenue, are looking beyond a World Cup in which they have no involvement. They want to know what the legacy of this event will do for them and their gender.

And they want to learn from the greatest nation in women’s soccer. How did female leaders in the game fight for its corner here and how did they build a successful infrastructure?

They are on day three of their mission, organised by UEFA and Armenian FA official, Anna Tadevosyan, who is helping them navigate several meetings around the Big Apple. They’ll meet with professional soccer people and advocates alike.

Tadevosyan tells Al-Kuwari that a strongly worded email to FIFA will right the wrong. They want to see more women and girls playing, she reasons, they will acknowledge this if you point it out.

Holding midfielder Suaad Salim Al Hashimi chimes in, seizing on the opening: “We’ll take tickets to see France, Brazil, Germany…” she demands laughing while counting out the world’s greats on her hand.

When Al Hashimi was young, her father would take her to the Al Rayyan Sports Club. Football was not offered to girls so she would sneak away and play with the boys in her neighborhood. She played all the other sports she could sign up for: basketball, volleyball, handball, and track. When the first women’s football team was established in 2011, she was spotted as a talent and she would soon be named as one of the first ever captains.

The team was small at the start and the players trained in futsal until their coach Helena Costa switched them to football.

The youngest of the four teammates, centre back Saleh, was 11 when she was recruited as a basketballer for the national team. For some reason, that was the culturally more acceptable game at that point.

“For a woman to play football around that time, it was not very acceptable,” she explains. “For the country and the culture.” 

“It was too physical for people to accept,” offers up Al Hashimi.

It was 2009, a year before Qatar won the World Cup bid in controversial circumstances. Saleh preferred soccer to basketball though little did she realise that change was coming and she was on the verge of being part of the first ever generation of young female soccer players who would be permitted to play.

As their manager Al-Kuwari quietly listened, Saleh explained why a large part of the credit for the breakthrough goes to her leadership and advocacy on their behalves. She was charged with reassuring over two dozen fathers, many of whom were part of the conservative tradition dominating the tiny Gulf nation, that they didn’t have to worry about their daughters playing the sport they love. They would be safe with her.

One of the more progressive fathers was, however, ready for this new era. Ismail Khalifa, a former professional player in Sudan, nurtured his daughter’s talent and eventually advocated for her and players like her. Khalifa was a street player, talented enough to muscle her way in with the boys because there was no other option.

“He used to say, ‘come let me teach you the basics’ and he would coach me on the street because our only option was street soccer, there was no organised system for girls,” she recalled.

“He saw how much I wanted to play football and he took the time to coach me. He’s a really good supporter of me to this day, gives me all the good advice. He knows that’s what we all want and he wants to uplift us all.” 

Eventually, she was ready to be scouted and recruited by the national team coach and although by this point as a teenager, she was quick enough to represent Qatar as a sprinter, the dream of playing the sport she loved for her country was about to be realised.

Slowly, a humble system is blooming and the barriers knocked. Al-Kuwari has convinced 25 fathers that trips abroad to play against other young girls from different cultures will be beneficial for their daughters.

In Arabic she explains she is proud of the adults they have become. They are coaching the next generation of girls too.

The night before we meet, the group watched a weekly women’s recreational league on Brooklyn’s waterfront. Just across the East River, the sun set over Lower Manhattan and after being coaxed out of a discreet corner of the field, Gotham League officials introduce themselves and they begin to mingle. Of course the immediate concern is finding a ringer goalkeeper and Shaima Abdullah Al-Siyabi obliges.

“She played brilliantly,” beams Khalifa. 

“We were so tired and we didn’t want to play but as soon as we saw the field and the view of the city, we forgot about being tired and we were ready,” laughs Al Hashimi.

A work-from-home order will be in place in November and December with Doha residents being asked to avoid going out if possible, allowing visitors to enjoy the sights of the city. It's an odd commitment to civic pride but the players are eagerly looking forward to the Women’s World Cup in 2023, even though the earliest they can hope for the next generation of players to be involved is 2027.

Khalif runs the Elite Girls Training Academy alongside national team coach, Fedha Al-Abdullah, with the pair overseeing a fully female staff. She and her three team-mates are equally driven by the necessity for girls to have more opportunities to participate in sports and sports culture than they did when they first started playing.

Less than a mile away US President Joe Biden is addressing the United Nations General Assembly, always a week where the focus on human rights is front and centre. The Qatari soccer delegation chose the right time to capture the imagination and Thursday would bring an audience with Qatari Royalty, Sheikha Hind bint Hamad Al Thani.

The 12 years since the vote went the way of Qatar has brought with it mounting controversies which will overshadow the build-up and the event itself. There is no getting away from the murky methods that led us here and the horrific conditions under which immigrant workers suffered.

But I also cant help but be heartened by the mission of this brave group of soccer players whose only option was disorganised street ball in a society that didn’t want them on an equal footing.


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