Elimination at the semi-final stage of a knock-out football tournament has not deterred player Areej Al Hammadi from pursuing her dream of increasing participation in the women’s game.
The Emirati, 35, was playing for the Fuelees team in the UAE round of qualification for the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five, a five-a-side tournament, held in Sharjah.
Despite losing out at the penultimate stage of the competition, in which winners Arab Stars qualified for the finals in Brazil in December, she said female involvement in matches should inspire more women to play next year.
“It was the first time women played in the Neymar competition, so it was great to be part of it,” said Ms Al Hammadi, who plays in midfield.
“Hopefully the coverage will encourage more women and girls to take part next year.
“Interest in the women’s game is growing, but there are not enough clubs or competitions for them.
“Most of the girls have to pay to play, so it is a challenge. Many are working so don’t want to get injured.
“If they were getting paid to play or had support from clubs, they would have more of an incentive to go all-in.
“There is a lot more interest now than in previous years.”
The tournament offered up a unique style of football with a premium placed on skill, player eliminations and the first to five goals.
Mixed teams from around the world are bidding to qualify for the competition, backed by the Brazilian and Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar Jr.
Ms Al Hammadi, who plays for the national team and Abu Dhabi Country Club, set a “hotstepping” world record in August, recording 86 ball-control tricks in only a minute.
She has been training for the UAE national futsal team, a form of the indoor game favoured in South America in which players kick a smaller, low-bouncing ball and focus on close control.
Ms Al Hammadi lives in Mira Oasis, Dubai, and works for Expo 2020.
It has helped hone the skills needed to excel in the five-a-side format of the game.
“Before the pandemic, we were training for a Gulf futsal competition in Kuwait but it was cancelled because of Covid,” she said.
“As Emiratis, we have grown women’s football a lot over the years by improving participation and the quality we play.
“We have more opportunities for girls to participate than ever before and we owe it in part to competitions like these.”
Ms Al Hammadi believes every girl who is interested in participating in sport should have the opportunity to do so.
In the UAE, she said more sporting opportunities are opening up.
“When I was a child, there lacked the infrastructure to allow me to play the game and develop myself as much as the boys,” she said.
“This has changed immensely. In the UAE we have many academies providing all types of sports for young women to channel their interest in sport.
“This infrastructure will blossom a bright future for young women interested in sport and in particular football.
“I hope the involvement of more girls will influence a lot more global and regional competitions to emerge and further develop women’s football in the UAE.”