Emirati women not just making up the numbers

With eight Emiratis in the Abu Dhabi Women's Football Club, the basis of a national side could be formed in the capital alone.

Abu Dhabi Women's Football Club players Elaa Ahmed Hassan, right, and Danya Waqfi.
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Youngsters clatter out of the football clubhouse on a humid summer evening. They exchange greetings and chatter excitedly, tightening laces on their football boots before springing to attention at the sound of a whistle. It is a scene played out around the world, but this is different. These are the young ladies of the Abu Dhabi Women's Football Club. Lining up on the AstroTurf football pitch at Abu Dhabi Country Club (ADCC), they jog and run their way through warm-up exercises, smiling and laughing as they take turns to sprint back and forth.

With eight Emirati girls in the team of national and expatriate 13 to 26-year-olds, these eight players could be the basis of a national team. They are three players short of being able to put out a full team, and even that would leave them without any substitutes. "The only team that is UAE born, if you like, is this one," said Hafsa al Ulama the chairman of the newly formed UAE Women's Football Committee, who are in charge of developing women's football in the country.

Formed by a group of enthusiastic Abu Dhabi-based Emirati girls five years ago, the team attracted support from ADCC and its chairman, Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Hazza's support enabled the team to bring Connie Selby on board as a coach and build the clubhouse and football pitch. Completed 18 months ago, the facilities include an AstroTurf pitch, changing rooms, showers, physiotherapy treatment rooms and offices.

But while they may have the facilities, they struggle to find the players. "There are other girls in different areas, but it is getting out there, finding them and convincing them to come and play the game," said Selby, a Fifa-certified coach. "A lot of it is because of the culture and religion, I think that might change a little as time goes on." Kit, facilities and technical staff are all tailored to adhere to the cultural sensitivities of the Emirati community. The team has female-only facilities and a female-only staff. Kit is flexible, with some girls happy to wear traditional shorts and football shirts, with others teaming their kit with headscarves and long-sleeve T-shirts and leggings. A long-sleeve, long-leg tracksuit version of the kit is also available.

Nora Mazroui, 24, has been playing with the team for five years. While some of her friends have been discouraged from playing, her family have encouraged her. "For others it is difficult. Their families don't accept it in the beginning," said the goalkeeper. "We play against other girls. Maybe if young girls and their families see us play and train, they might think: 'Why not give it a try?'" The new committee hopes raising awareness of women's football will break down boundaries and convince more Emirati girls to take up the sport.

"We have a lot of UAE national girls here playing, it is a very safe environment," said al Ulama. "We have our own section so the girls have their own space to play and train. We also encourage the families to come and watch. "They can wear headscarves and longer tracksuits, or they can wear shorts, but it is what they like and what their families will accept. For us we are open to all of that. sports@thenational.ae