Banaat FC: The UAE's 'game-changing' new club aiming to break barriers in women's football

Dubai-based outfit, launched last month on Emirati Women's Day, has already made a significant splash on local scene

Dubai's new women's football team Banaat FC gets ready for kick-off

Dubai's new women's football team Banaat FC gets ready for kick-off
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Even on these particularly muggy evenings, when the September humidity bites most, a group of enthusiastic and earnest footballers travel from long and far to Al Khawaneej in a bid to change the perception of the women’s game in the UAE.

Some arrive from Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, or Kalba. It’s a serious undertaking, the two-hour training sessions held four times per week to get ready for next month's debut in the UAE Women’s Football League. Training often stretches to 10pm. Most participants have school, or work, the following morning.

But the excitement of a new footballing project in the Emirates has brought them here. Brought Noura Al Mazrouie, the former UAE national team goalkeeper, to be their coach. Brought Amal Wael, the UAE international forward, as the squad’s de facto “veteran” – admittedly, Wael is only 32 – and self-professed prankster.

Brought Maha Al Bloushi, the current UAE Under-20s captain, as goalkeeper. She is one of nine Emiratis signed up; seven of which represent the U20s national team.

Then there is Sabrine Mamay, an international forward with Tunisia, and fellow UAE residents, six in all, hailing from Palestine, Morocco, Philippines, Russia, India and Zimbabwe.

Here they are, on this stifling September night at the Football Association’s headquarters in Al Khawaneej: Banaat FC, the latest entrant to the top division of UAE women’s football.

The owner

“I came up with the idea when looking at an account online for UAE women's football and saw that none of the Women’s League clubs had Arabic names,” says founder Budreya Faisal, a long-time prominent figure on the men’s football scene in the country and the region. “And there wasn't much online about the Women's League.

“So I thought, instead of getting frustrated, why not start one? I called some friends in football and in women's football to find out what the process would be, and it didn't seem to be too challenging. So we're here.”

Rather remarkably, in truth. Banaat FC was conceived on August 2, then launched on August 28 to coincide with Emirati Women’s Day. The idea, the identity, the mission. It has all come together astonishingly quickly.

“Banaat FC was the first name that came to mind,” Faisal explains. “I thought, ‘What represents women? What represents girls?’ And it doesn't need to be specifically Emirati. I want something that girls from everywhere in the Arab world can relate to.

“What's one word we all have in common, one word that represents all of us? It's banaat; girls. 'Banaat' is 'girls' in Arabic. So Banaat Football Club.”

The reception, and uptake, has exceeded expectation. Banaat boasts 16 players already, has Al Mazourie as coach, is backed by highly respected UAE national team coach Houriya Al Taheri, and has been provided training facilities by the FA.

Saudi Arabian social-media sensation Amy Roko is club ambassador. What’s more, Banaat’s first three videos on Tiktok – social media represents a key component of the club’s remit and building the players’ profiles – have garnered more than 300,000 views.

“It's been incredible,” Faisal says. “We've gotten so much attention and so many applicants every day for girls from all over the Arab world that want to come for our try-outs and want assigned to the team.

“And our social media ... our TikTok's blown up, which is incredible as well. People are generally very receptive to the fact that women's football in the UAE is being shared in a new light, in a new way.

“We're showcasing the girls, the personalities, the nice light colour that we have [club badge, jerseys], our lilac. People are open, and brands and schools and companies.

“Everyone's reaching out, and everyone wants to support us one way or another. We're open to all of it.”

Banaat FC founder Budreya Faisal.  Ruel Pableo for The National

Opening minds a little more, breaking down still-there barriers, forms part of Banaat’s mission statement.

“I would say we're definitely prioritising Emirati culture at the core of everything we do,” Faisal says. “Arab culture as well, trying to respect everything we can about the culture and tradition of the country, and trying to empower Emirati women, give them more opportunities.

“There aren't enough clubs out there for women right now. There isn't enough support out there, so I wanted to create a place that becomes home to girls that love the game and want to play for it, and that play for the national team.

“It's about creating a new perception of football for women in this region that makes it a safe space for anyone to come and play the game. The plan is for this to change the game for everyone else.”

A UAE national, Faisal knows the men’s game intrinsically. She has worked at Dubai’s Al Ahli and also the UAE Pro League, before stepping out on her own in 2009 to set up the Gulf's first athlete development agency.

"Ghost Concept" would eventually count among its clients Syria star Omar Al Soma, 2016 Asian Footballer of the Year Omar Abdulrahman, Qatar’s second-most capped player of all-time in Abdelkarim Hassan, and UAE starlets Ali Saleh and Harib Abdallah.

“I've faced enough challenges in men's football,” Faisal says. “But now that I'm in women's football, I see the differences. It's quite striking, the support you get on a men's team or as an athlete or a celebrity in the game.

“There's definitely a long, long way to go. But we're getting support from everyone. The federation's been incredible. Look where we are; this pitch is amazing.

"It's going to be a very, very exciting season for us. I think we're going to change the game. I feel we already have a little bit, but there's a lot of pressure considering we haven't played a single game yet.

“But that's a good sign, that people are this excited about a team that was just put together. Hopefully one day, we'll have it in Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco.”

The coach

It's Faisal’s vision that convinced Al Mazourie to join. The Al Ain-born goalie was part of the pioneering UAE team that won back-to-back West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championships title, in 2010 and 2011.

However, at present there is no senior national team, while the country’s professional clubs don’t currently offer women’s sides.

Banaat, therefore, is a chance to re-stake a claim.

“The project is not just about making a football team and letting the girls play,” Al Mazourie says. “The purpose is something beyond, just giving the chance, telling the community, telling the society, telling the world, that girls can play. And they can do any sport; it’s just about football.

“We want to send a message out there, because football in the UAE has gone backwards recently and this is really unfortunate, and we feel sorry.

“Women’s football needs support from the people who are in charge. So it’s a message that we have to stand all together to send out that we’re giving the chance for everyone.

“We hope that, from here, we start a bigger thing, and we tell the clubs that women’s football deserves a chance and that at least support them.”

Al Mazourie, who for a couple of hours before was busy diligently putting the players through their paces, has been impressed with the introductory weeks at Banaat.

“There’s a lot of good qualities there,” she says. “I’m really happy with the players because they’re really nice, they’re polite, they listen.

“The most important is the desire they have. A lot are not from Dubai; they come from Abu Dhabi, Fujairah, and to drive every day back and forward for two hours – and some of them have school the next day, or are working, or are married.

“So they sacrifice all these responsibilities just to come and play football and be part of this project. It means a lot. It gives me a bigger responsibility to help them to achieve what they want.”

A Pep Guardiola devotee – “of course ... he’s a genius” – Al Mazourie considers herself a disciplinarian who still likes to have fun. A sounding board, also: she wants the girls to feel comfortable, to confide in her whenever life throws up challenges.

Al Mazourie senses a shifting tide in women’s football in the region overall, buoyed boundlessly by Morocco’s history-makers at the summer Fifa Women’s World Cup.

If Banaat, and the UAE, can benefit from that, ride along on that wave, then great.

“That message was seen worldwide,” Al Mazourie says. “The Moroccan team performing in the World Cup, the first Arab team to play in the World Cup. This gave us also the focus to work hard, that there is no impossible.

"Even if it’s going to take a long time, if you put the right vision, right strategies, right plans, you’re going to achieve, sooner or later.

“But you have to be consistent. You cannot do something now and stop it tomorrow. Let’s be optimistic. The future’s bright for women’s football.”

The players

Wael was one of those caught up in Morocco’s progress beyond the group stage in Australia, made possible by memorable victories against South Korea and Colombia.

She watched the matches, even bought the team jersey.

Now pivotal in Banaat recruiting their Emirati core, she wants to keep the feelgood factor rolling.

“I believe culture and community is the biggest challenge and barrier that we have overcame throughout the years,” she says. “And yet there is so much to push further.

“We have the support, but we don’t have enough to outshine other countries. Women’s football in the UAE is not shining as it should. So we’re hoping, through this team, we take women’s football further.”

A member of the senior national side for eight years, the Team Lead at Abu Dhabi Government Media Office recognises what needs to change to deliver on that objective.

“Support, support and support,” Wael says. “And it starts from the community and the culture surrounding us, up to the federation moving forward.”

Banaat FC players during a training session at UAE Football Association headquarters in Al Khawaneej, Dubai. Ruel Pableo for The National

Known as something of a “social butterfly”, Wael is well-positioned to take the temperature of Banaat’s sudden arrival within the football framework.

“Around society, for real, people are happy that they find Emirati women that are part of football and are aware of football,” she says. “That they are full of knowledge, and they know how to play.

“It didn’t start like that. Ten years ago, everything was against us. But now everyone is exposed to a better vision of women’s football, so the acceptance has changed. This is a huge opportunity for us to stay consistent.”

Compared to Wael, teammate Caye Yocor is relatively fresh to the competitive game. Aged 19, the diminutive Filipina with the giant smile took up football in her homeland around nine years ago, prompted by her male cousins.

Having juggled a ball over to her interview, Yocor suddenly falls shy in front of the camera. She needs pressing when asked what value she brings to Banaat.

"Because I’m a chilled person," the defender says bashfully. "I’m a cutie; I’m a shortie; I can [mimics tricking her way past opponents].”

Neymar, Lionel Messi and Pele are her inspirations. Neymar, now in nearby Riyadh, tops the shortlist.

“I like the way he plays,” Yocor says. “The way he uses control, the way he dribbles, his body build. And he’s good looking too …”

Yocor finishes with another giggle, then reveals what seems to be at Banaat’s heart.

“It means a lot for me [to be part of the club],” she says. “Because I am able to show more of myself.”

Updated: September 15, 2023, 2:31 PM