The Abu Dhabi football lover giving women a sporting chance

Lyne Ismail is helping female footballers hone their skills after making the switch from player to coach

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 17 DECEMBER 2019. Lyne Ismailis, Head Coach of the NYU Abu Dhabi women’s football team. She works for the Department of Athletics as a program coordinator, and has had a history in working for different sporting venues and events around Abu Dhabi. She runs a programme to encourage and develop adult female football, something that wasn't available in Abu Dhabi before. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Gillian Duncan. Section: National.
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At school everyone knew her as the girl who loved football.

Fast forward two decades and that fact remains the same. Lyne Ismail, 29, still plays, but now she is helping other women to discover their passion for the sport through New York University Abu Dhabi’s SoccHER initiative.

SoccHER, which offers women the chance to play every Thursday evening, was founded in March after Ms Ismail and her colleagues spotted a gap in the market.

Young women could play football at school or university, but once they graduated, there was nowhere for them to play regularly.

“We just wanted to offer something a bit more fun, [in a] laid-back and relaxed environment which just had women,” said Ms Ismail, who is of Lebanese-Iraqi origin.

“Something like that for women hadn’t been done. And our department is very heavily invested in promoting equality in women’s sports, providing the same opportunities for women as men. And so this idea was born.”

Women's football has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, with the final of this year's World Cup between the United States and the Netherlands enthralling a global audience of more than 82 million live viewers.

The UAE's own national team may have failed in their first attempt to qualify for the showpiece event, but their participation raised hopes of an Emirati side one day taking to the field in a future tournament.

SoccHER was launched in March, when Ms Ismail, an FA Level 2 certified football coach, reached out to women she knew who played the game.

“It grew through word of mouth. More and more people started to join the WhatsApp group and the community was born,” she said.

That community has since expanded to offer women the chance to play two more sports – volleyball and basketball through the HERvolley and HERhoops initiatives. In total, around 60 women meet each week to play one of the three sports.

“These ladies come from all walks of life and come to our campus every Thursday night. It’s a great opportunity for them to mix and mingle,” she said.

The groups are open to the community, with the only restrictions being that you must be a woman over the age of 18 to take part.

"If you have no experience or if you have a lot of experience – everyone is welcome. It's an all-inclusive programme for all nationalities," she said.

She oversees the sports programme and leads the SoccHER session each week, devoting half an hour at the start to help women hone their skills.

Ms Ismail began playing football when she was seven years old and living in Saudi Arabia. She would participate in her brother's training sessions, and soon they allowed her to join the boy's league.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 17 DECEMBER 2019. Lyne Ismailis, Head Coach of the NYU Abu Dhabi women’s football team. She works for the Department of Athletics as a program coordinator, and has had a history in working for different sporting venues and events around Abu Dhabi. She runs a programme to encourage and develop adult female football, something that wasn't available in Abu Dhabi before. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: Gillian Duncan. Section: National.

“There were maybe 10 girls playing in the boys’ league,” she said.

“I started first as a goalkeeper and I started to progress, then I joined my school team.”

She moved to Abu Dhabi when she was 13 years old, and by the age of 15 was already representing the UAE.

“At the time it was called the Abu Dhabi Country Club Team and that was a really cool opportunity to play for three years under the name of the UAE,” said Ms Ismail.

A number of women on the team could not tell their families they were members as they would not approve.

“I looked at my own family and thought I was so grateful they never told me I couldn’t play,” she said.

“I left when I was 18 to go to university and then I didn’t play at a higher level.”

She did, however, continue to play. And when it was suggested that she take on the role of coach after joining NYUAD two and a half years ago, she initially baulked at the idea.

"But I jumped into it and all of a sudden had 25 girls I had to coach. It was a little bit stressful at the beginning. But now it's a part of my life. I couldn't see myself not being a coach."

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