Monika Staab: the 'unstoppable' German tasked with transforming Saudi women's football

Monika Staab has coached around the world but now embarks on her greatest challenge

Monika Staab had spent the week, as with so many others in the previous two years, putting 800 girls through their paces as part of the German Gambian Football project, when something unusual happened.

The arrival of the dry season was heralding the end of the veteran coach’s stint overseeing the sporting initiative in West Africa, so the incoming call on her phone late last year was timely if unexpected.

In her pioneering mission to develop women’s football skills around the world, Staab has been an unstoppable force for decades but the 966-country code that flashed up momentarily brought her to a standstill.

“I wasn’t sure who it was,” she tells The National.

“I picked up my phone and was told that they wanted someone to do the C license coaching course in Saudi Arabia. I was shocked, and I said that I have to do it!”

“They” were the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF), which would, less than a year later, appoint the former German midfielder as the first coach of the women’s national team.

Around the world in 80-plus countries

The call had been a long time coming for Staab, 62, who started coaching after a professional playing career spanning more than two decades with clubs such as Germany’s Kickers Offenbach, Queens Park Rangers in England and Paris Saint-Germain in France.

After switching to management, Staab coached SG Praunheim, the last team she played for in Germany, before taking Bundesliga giants Frankfurt to nine domestic titles and one Uefa championship title between 1999 and 2004.

She has worked with female footballers in more than 80 countries, from North Korea to Iran, and Algeria to Gambia. The doors of every football association under the international auspices of Fifa have been open to her – all but those of Saudi Arabia.

“I worked in Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and all these other places, where you hear that Saudi doesn’t allow women’s football,” Staab says. “As a woman, I couldn’t go there on my own either.”

Vision change opens Saudi opportunity

But things behind the scenes had begun to change after the launch of Saudi Vision 2030, the blueprint for opening up the country economically and socially, announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman five years ago.

Staab talks about her astonishment at seeing the skills of the local players during her first visit. Women's football, it seemed, had been advancing quietly since King’s United WFC was founded in 2006, pushed by the individual initiative of players, with no funding or official support.

“I was surprised by how experienced the female players were,” she says. “They had some kind of tournaments and played community leagues, but nobody has ever talked about it because they played behind closed doors or not officially.

“Many of the players I met could dribble, shoot and pass because they have been training, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. But if we assume that the USA football team is on the 15th floor, then Saudi is on the ground floor.”

All of the women playing have 9-to-5 jobs, after which they turn up for training in the evening, Staab says. The fact that they are unpaid for playing football shows their passion, dedication and commitment, although she expects contracts with professional clubs to become a reality at some point.

Career-long struggle for equality

Staab has every sympathy for their predicament. It was not until 1970 that the German football association allowed women to play. That year, in the absence of any girls’ sides, the 11-year-old Monika signed up with SG Offenbach-Rosenhoehe’s senior team.

Even then, she was forced – as were her much older counterparts – to endure modified rules because females were deemed to be frail and likely to injure themselves. They were not permitted to play in inclement weather, wear boots with studs, use a full-size ball or compete for longer than 70 minutes.

“I have been struggling for over 50 years, even in Germany,” the former midfielder says. “Girls were not allowed to play when I started when I was 11 years old. We had to fight for our rights and admission to championships, to play in a league and all that.

“So it’s a little of deja vu, where I feel that I can contribute because of my experience, to help and support them, and to build women’s football here in Saudi Arabia in a professional, structured way.”

Last month, Staab visited 28 women’s football clubs in Riyadh, Jeddah and Damman, impressed by the discovery that each had between 20 and 40 players. Trials held for the national team drew 700 hopefuls, all intent on qualifying.

She has chosen 25 out of the 30 players who will comprise the national team, and they are already training. The final selection, though, depends on the performances of individual players in the second season of the women’s league scheduled to begin in Dammam on November 21, and in Riyadh on November 22.

We already have one men’s club actually offering us the chance to use their facilities and doctors

As in Staab’s own first forays into the game, the halves are expected to be 35 minutes each in an attempt to reduce the potential for injuries, with players training on small pitches in teams of five, seven or nine.

Challenges, such as the lack of experience in competitive 11-a-side full-length matches, need to be addressed, she concedes, “but the minister of sports and everybody is positive towards women’s football, and they want to find solutions"".

“We already have one men’s club actually offering us the chance to use their facilities and doctors. I didn’t expect this support and kindness from men. They want to help in any way, and I haven’t felt this positivity anywhere else in the world.”

The proactivity has been heartening for Staab, who thinks that creating a national team and allowing women to play are not all that it takes to enable female football.

“It is always a question of how seriously you want to make female football happen,” she says, “and when I look at other Arab countries, I know that, in reality, they are not serious.”

She draws a comparison with several other nations in the region that have players with potential, but not as much support from their federations.

Saudi football foundations in place

Staab checks off a list of bare minimum requirements for proper play: a leading women’s department driving everything with the freedom to make decisions; a league underneath to enable relegation and promotion; and fully trained referees.

Saudi Arabia, she argues, has all of this already. “In Jeddah, Sports Minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal came especially to see the women play. I found that really great and you see the interest. The way decision makers are so positive towards this. Everything we are doing is making history.”

Football is a popular sport among Saudis of both genders. They avidly support the country’s men’s team, which has played in five World Cup tournaments, and the 14 football clubs in the professional league, the oldest of which, Ittihad FC, was established in 1927.

This popularity and the youthfulness of the Saudi population are, Staab believes, factors on her side. Despite a reputation outside its borders for being conservative, she began the role quietly optimistic that there would be little or no opposition in Saudi Arabia against her day-to-day work.

The hope was bolstered on her arrival in Riyadh when she was told about a forthcoming World Cup qualifier between the national men’s team and Vietnam.

“I said: ‘I want to see it to get an idea’,” Staab tells me.

“I was in the stadium and the audience were cheering and singing so much that I thought I was in Europe. Then, I saw women in the audience doing the same thing.

"Seeing that women were also expressing their love and support for their team left a big first impression that I never thought to have here in Saudi,” she says. “I thought: ‘Women in a stadium ... this is unbelievable!’”

Buoyed by what she witnessed, she vowed to “accomplish something” and believes that she is surrounded by the right people to do that.

For now, the three-pronged focus is on the national team with training camps due to begin in January, presiding over the impending new season of the senior league and training women to obtain different levels of coaching licences.

Eventually, Staab will turn to her favourite part of implementing development plans in the women’s game, which is at the grassroots level in schools.

Setting pragmatic goals for Saudi team

Since her appointment, the SAFF has created a regional training centre in Riyadh to provide a youth academy pathway, and there are now plans under way for under-17s to be trained in more than a dozen such centres of excellence across the country.

It will be a long process, she says, but winning trophies is less of a motivation for her these days than developing talent, personality and other non-football-specific skills to help the girls grow as people, not just as players.

“I didn’t come here to guarantee success,” Staab says.

“Of course they want success and I understand, because if you don’t have targets to reach then how can you reach them? But to say that we can play in the World Cup in the next 10 years is not quite realistic.

"To play in the next Asian Football Confederation championship, this is realistic.

“Don’t forget, I think, four years ago, the girls were not allowed to do any sports at school. I mean, what’s happening here? We’re having,” she says, unable to contain a small smile, “some kind of a revolution.”

Updated: November 21st 2021, 10:36 AM