DUBAI — Salma, a 15-year-old soccer player for the Alliance Girls Football Club Dubai, was early to training. The turf at Sunmarke School, Jumeirah Village Triangle in Dubai felt as if it were 100 degrees, even at 5 p.m. in November. Salma’s boots were laced up, her shin guards strapped on and her hair slicked back. In one natural movement, she rolled the ball onto her right foot and began juggling.

Salma has only been playing organized soccer for a few years, even though she spent her childhood kicking the ball around in her family’s backyard in Dubai and at school during recess. Having grown up in a country that has historically excluded girls and women from sports, Salma currently plays for Alliance Girls Football Club Dubai’s seven-a-side team and the boys’ 11-a-side team.

“The girls would be just sitting around doing nothing [during school recess], and I’d see the boys playing football and I’d join in,” Salma says. “Some of them were nice, but they weren’t going to choose me for the team, so I’d have to wait and just jump in.”

Salma regularly plays with and against boys' teams in Dubai. (Courtesy of Alliance Girls Football Club Dubai)

In order to succeed at a sport dominated by men in her country, Salma has had to take risks. At 15 years old, she’s already been exposed to the top players in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Dubai, there aren’t enough prospective women’s players to form a competitive club team for her age group, so she has to play with boys and girls sometimes more than 10 years older than she is to keep improving.

“It’s a bit nerve-racking playing with the boys or older women because you have to live up to an expectation,” Salma says. “When I get the ball, I tell myself, ‘Don’t stress out. Just know what you’re going to do before you get the ball.’”

Even though Dubai is the most populous city in the UAE, known for its tourism, commercial and financial centers and home to the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, the girls and women’s soccer scene remains small. It took the UAE hosting the FIFA Women’s Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2009, when Barcelona won its first title in club history, for women’s soccer to enter the national conversation in earnest.

During the tournament, it was hard to be in the UAE and miss a game; televisions everywhere aired the matches, people talked about goals and results in the streets, and large groups gathered to watch the best women’s club teams in the world go head-to-head. Shortly after that, the UAE formed a women’s national team, and in 2010 the team competed in its first international competition, the West Asian Championship.

Salma’s fearlessness to compete resembles that of Areej Alhammadi, her role model and favorite player on the UAE women’s national team. Alhammadi joined the team in 2015 after being scouted in a seven-a-side tournament. She also holds the Guinness World Record for completing 86 “hotstepper” football tricks in one minute in August 2020.

“Growing up as a kid in the early ‘90s, there was no such thing as women’s football in the UAE,” Alhammadi says. “To some extent, it was considered somewhat of a taboo for adult Emirati women to participate in it. Nevertheless, I grew up playing with my brothers and cousins until I was too old to play with boys.”

Alhammadi practiced her ball skills alone most of the time because there weren’t any soccer academies or clubs for women. At one point, she tried to form a team at school, but none of the other young women were interested in joining her, a familiar experience for Salma over 10 years later. Eventually, Alhammadi joined a seven-a-side football team that was growing in popularity.

In the United States and other countries, seven-a-side is for players under 9 years old. As they get older, they move up to play nine-a-side and, eventually, the typical 11-a-side. In the UAE, “football 7s” is common among all age groups and, up until now, the only format women’s clubs and academies have used. The goal among the women’s soccer community in the UAE is to create 11-a-side opportunities for future generations.

Girls Football Dubai Director Shauna Duffy came to Dubai a few months ago from the United Kingdom to spearhead that movement. She knew seven-a-side, but only from her early days coaching 16-year-olds. The UAE’s tendency to play a 3-2-1 formation in seven-a-side was just one of several differences Duffy had to get used to after spending the last six years as a coach in Liverpool’s Football Academy.

Shauna Duffy, who came to Dubai from Liverpool a few months ago, speaks with Salma before training. (Courtesy of Alliance Girls Football Club Dubai)

Duffy was setting up her evening session on the 85-degree day in November when she explained what led her here. Duffy has her UEFA B License and is currently completing her UEFA A License. When soccer stopped altogether in the UK in 2020 because of COVID-19, she jumped at the opportunity to get back out on the pitch, even if it meant moving to a brand-new country.

“It was a two-week window of being offered the job to being out there,” says Duffy, who was hired to run the Girls Football Dubai Academy, Salma’s club and a part of Alliance Football Club Dubai. “In the UK, we weren’t even coaching, so it was a no-brainer.”

Duffy, in her short time with the club, has created a technical program for all of the players, started a ladies team that competes in the top seven-a-side league and helped build out the junior girls teams, senior girls teams and other select groups that distinguish the top-performing players every week for league play.

“Over here, there isn’t a professional league, so on the women’s team you will have 14-, 15-, 16-, 24- and 27-year-olds,” Duffy says. “You wouldn’t get that anywhere else, but over here to field a team and compete in the league, the age doesn’t matter. If you’re good enough, you’ll play.”

The leagues don’t have any regulations stopping 14-year old girls from competing with and against women twice their age.

“We have two girls at the moment that train with the boys as well,” Duffy says, referring to Salma as one of the two. “Because they are at the top end of the girls’ group, we need to keep pushing them and showing them something new. We’ve exposed them to 11-a-side with the boys team. For them, it’s ‘wow,’ because they’ve only ever known seven-a-side, so to even step onto a full size pitch, it’s confusing.”

Salma remembers a tackle she made when she was playing with the boys’ team against the UAE women’s national team. Near the end of the game, she stuck in against an opposing player while playing outside back, and to this day, she can still feel the satisfaction of winning that ball.

“She was the only girl to be selected [in that game],” Duffy says.

The football pathway for young women in the UAE is still developing. Every day, Duffy crafts new playing opportunities for her players and familiarizes them with 11-a-side. She does this by exposing players like Salma to the boys’ training sessions and building strategic practices that evolve into game-like scenarios.

“It’d just be great to see more girls teams,” Salma says.

Fortunately for Salma and Duffy, they are not the only ones pursuing that mission. Last August, French-Portuguese UEFA-certified coach Justine Lafon launched G.O.A.L Academy, Dubai, the first football academy for girls led by an all-women staff.

Justine Lafon (top right) and her G.O.A.L. Academy Dubai players. (Courtesy of Justine Lafon)

“There is so much that has to be done in women’s football that I decided to step up and open my own football academy for girls with 100 percent female coaches,” Lafon says. “Dubai seemed like the perfect place to do so, as it is a forward-thinking emirate and a land of opportunities where impossible is nothing.”

The UAE Football Association plans to develop women’s football in the country with a strategy called Vision 2038, designed to launch a FIFA-registered women’s 11-a-side league this season.

“Grassroots women’s football is at the heart of the project,” Lafon says. “I feel very fortunate that it happened the very first year I am in the region, and we already registered our team. We are very much looking forward to being part of the league and taking women’s football to the next level.”

Now that the women’s game is taking tangible steps toward growth in the country, Salma can finally start to realize her dreams of playing professional soccer. Alhammadi, who remembers when women’s soccer in the UAE was still a far-fetched prospect, has a more measured view of the situation. She, too, can feel the progress being made, but she hopes it’s just the beginning of the revolution.

“Culturally, we have also come a long way in terms of accepting Emirati women as athletes,” Alhammadi says. “But there’s a lot to be done for women’s football in the UAE to reach the potential it deserves.”

Celia Balf is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaBalf.

April 9th, 2021 — Carissa Moore remembers smiling as she stood up on her board. She remembers feeling the cool water on her skin.

It was the WSL world tour quarterfinals at Newcastle, Australia’s iconic Merewether Beach, one of the last big events in the lead-up for this summer’s Tokyo Games. Conditions were perfect as Moore paddled out.

“She is already a Hall of a Famer,” said the live broadcast’s commentator. “She has won almost everything there is to win but is still so young.”

Despite the laudatory introduction, Moore still managed to stun everyone when she launched off the lip of a six footer, spun her board 270 degrees, before grabbing the rail to complete a massive aerial reverse to propel her into the semifinals.

The announcing team went berserk: “What? What?!”

They couldn’t form sentences, while Moore herself, still on her board, held her head in her hands in disbelief at what she had just done.

Moore went on to win first place in Newcastle and is currently ranked No. 1 in the World Surf League’s Championship Tour. The air reverse might have shocked the four-time surfing world champion, but for those who have been watching her surf on the tour for the past 10 years, the performance was just the next step in her evolution.

Moore lands an a monster air reverse in competition. (WSL/Cait Miers)

Moore first fell in love with the sport as a 5-year-old girl, surfing in tandem with her dad off the beaches of Waikiki in Honolulu.

“I loved the feeling of the escape that it gave,” Moore told Just Women’s Sports over the phone on a travel day before the Jeep Surf Ranch Pro competition in June.

”I think I was between 10-12 years-old when I remember having a serious conversation with my dad about how far I wanted to take it.”

Moore didn’t play any other sports growing up. She may have dabbled in swimming and dance, but surfing was always “it.” Despite putting all of her eggs in one basket, Moore never suffered any doubts about her path.

“I think it was my dad’s belief in me and his belief in my potential that really made me believe in myself and the journey.”

Moore’s journey put her in the limelight early; she won 11 national titles during her amateur career and made a splash in the Championship Tour in 2010 when she finished third overall. She was awarded Rookie of the Year at 17 years old, and in 2011, she became the youngest  winner of the ASP Women’s World Tour. Only 18 at the time, she went on to win three more surfing world titles and is now one of two American women competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

“The moment I found out was the very last event in the Maui Pro on the 2019 Championship Tour. It was a huge moment and I was overwhelmed with emotions because I hadn’t let myself think about it, because I couldn’t let my foot off the gas pedal with how well the other girls were surfing,” Moore said. “I didn’t want to get ahead of myself.”

While a four-time World Champion might seem a shoo-in for the Olympics, Moore was neck-and-neck with fellow Americans Caroline Marks and Lakey Peterson. The Americans were the top three surfers in the world, yet only two could go on to compete for Team USA.

Moore ended up qualifying for the Games when Peterson fell in the round of 16 to Australia’s Tyler Wright at the 2019 Maui Pro, eliminating her from the Olympic qualification.

Moore is a four-time WSL tour World Champion. (WSL/Cait Miers)

Moore can’t wait to represent both her country and Hawaii at the Olympics, but she isn’t getting ahead of herself. Instead she’s focusing on being present, whether that’s in the water surfing, scrapbooking at home, or just soaking up any time she can get at home in Honolulu.

“I’m a pretty simple island girl,” Moore says, “ I just love being home — with my husband, my dog. My sister moved home, so I pretty much just jump houses and say hi to everyone every day.”

Moore’s voice is soft, yet confident. She speaks quickly and energetically when she mentions her family and Hawaii. Relaxed as she may seem, the simple island girl still surfs and trains most days and is in full preparation mode for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“My main goal is to be as present as possible and give everything I can to the moment in front of me,” she said. “I think that’s when I’m at my best.”

Moore is one of two surfers who will represent Team USA in Tokyo. (WSL/Kenny Morris)

With surfing set to make its Olympic debut, Tokyo could prove to be a breakout moment for Moore. Already a legend in the surfing world, the Olympics are a chance to shine on a global stage.

Faced with such an opportunity, Moore falls back on old advice from her dad: “‘Go hard and give it everything that you have every time you go out. When you do anything, do it 100 percent.’”

Her iconic air reverse was just that: a moment of trust in both the water and herself. A reward for giving it her all. Both an athletic achievement and a personal statement.

“I hope my surfing shows an expression of how I feel,” Moore said. “I wear my heart on my sleeve and I surf from my heart, so I hope you can feel that.”

In Tokyo, Moore will have a chance to express how she feels to her largest audience yet. There’s a chance she’ll surprise both us and herself yet again.

Caroline Marks was 3 years old when she first hopped on top of her dad’s longboard. It would take her five more years to realize her love of surfing, and seriously begin the journey that would lead her to the Tokyo Olympics at 19, but the athletic spark was always there.

As a young girl growing up in Melbourne, Fla., Marks was first drawn to horse stables. She had a passion for barrel racing, an event that times riders on their completion of a cloverleaf pattern around barrels.

It wasn’t until Marks was 9 that she decided to give surfing another shot. The middle child of six, Marks watched as her four brothers often went out to surf the break right across the street from their house. Marks liked being in the water but always considered surfing her brothers’ thing. Luke, her oldest brother and a former nationally ranked surfer, spent years traveling and competing in the World Surf League’s Qualifying Series.

“I just went out there with my brothers and just kind of got thrown into it,” Marks said, recalling her early memories of surfing in Florida. “My brothers influenced me. That’s why I started surfing, to impress them.”

Marks qualified for the Olympics in 2019 at 17 years old. (WSL/Cait Miers)

From there, Marks’ ascension in the sport was remarkably fast. At 15, she became the youngest female surfer to qualify for the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour.

Two years later, Marks qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as one of four American surfers to compete in the sport’s Olympic debut.

“Oh man, that was one of the biggest, if not the biggest accomplishment of my career,” Marks said.

Only two surfers per gender can represent their nation at the Olympic Games. Marks, who earned her spot after qualifying for the WSL’s final Maui Pro event in 2019, and Carissa Moore will lead the way for Team USA this summer.

Marks, now 19, knows a thing or two about making history. She will never forget being just 13 years old and making it into a Championship Tour event by way of a wild-card invitation to the Swatch Pro at Trestles in 2015.

“There were a lot of nerves involved,” Marks said. “I got the call at the very last minute, the night before, which in a way I’m really grateful for because I didn’t have a lot of time to overthink it.”

Growing up in a big family helped Marks learn not to take things too seriously, a trait that allows her to compete at the highest level against surfers much older than she is.

“I think with surfing, you have to be good at adapting,” she said. “Growing up with five other siblings, you never really got your way and you had to go with the flow and roll with the punches.”

Marks is known in her family as the “surf rat” — she looks at home in the water, cutting through the waves and completing each aerial maneuver with ease. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports across the world and postponed the Olympics until 2021, Marks’ daily routine and training schedule didn’t change much.

“Thankfully, surfing is a sport where you can be socially distant very well,” she said. “I’ve been doing the same thing. The only thing different is that I wasn’t really traveling, but I stayed ready so I didn’t really have to get ready.”

(WSL/Matt Dunbar)

Marks’ training regimen paid off when live competitions resumed. She won a WSL competition in April and is currently ranked sixth on the Women’s Championship Tour.

When asked what ideal conditions would be for the Olympics, Marks said “four to five feet, really rippable, fun, clean, and tons of waves and opportunities so we can surf it out.” She knows many people will be watching surfing for the first time this summer, and she wants them to enjoy it as she does, in all of its unpredictability.

“I just want all of us to put on a great performance at the Olympics,” Marks said. “Hopefully we get great waves, and people see it’s a unique and different sport in the way we have to rely on mother nature.”

Trinity Rodman can still feel the jolt she received from Brooke Hendrix in the first minute of a bruising NWSL game last month.

Rodman, 18 years old at the time and playing in just her second professional game with the Washington Spirit, received a through ball from Ashley Sanchez in full stride toward Louisville’s backline. Looking to slide past Hendrix with her speed, Rodman took a touch and got a shot off just as the seasoned Louisville defender knocked her off balance.

Instead of a breakaway goal, it was a “welcome to the NWSL” moment for Rodman.

“Being so young and being so new to all of this physicality, I was going against her, trying to run behind and she gave me a big bump,” Rodman says, her voice soft and reflective while recalling the play from the May 21 game. “That’s when I realized there’s a lot of strong players in this league and I obviously need to learn to become a bigger body and be able to maneuver out of it.”

Many of those lessons for Rodman have come in real time. Since the Spirit selected her with the second overall pick in January’s draft, making her the youngest player ever drafted into the NWSL, there’s been no easing into the professional game.

Even before Rodman touched an NWSL field, people knew her name. She’s the daughter of five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman and a teenage phenom who essentially bypassed college for the pros, where the expectations have only intensified. Rodman scored in her debut for the Spirit during the NWSL Challenge Cup and has started four of five games in the regular season. She’s ranked second in the league in shots (16) and fourth in shots on goal (8).

What Rodman has accomplished in just four months in the NWSL doesn’t surprise Spirit coach Richie Burke. Rodman first came onto his radar in 2019 through Laura Harvey, Rodman’s coach with the United States U-20 team.

“She said to me, ‘Look Richie, she’s legit, absolutely legit,’” Burke says. Following that conversation, Burke had one of his assistants pull some clips so he could watch Rodman in action, including at the 2020 U-20 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, where she scored nine goals and made her case to be nominated for the U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year award.

“You can’t teach that innate instinct, that feel for the game, when the ball is going to get to certain places, or you get there a little bit before the ball arrives,” Burke says. “Her football instincts are just fantastic.”

Rodman made her professional debut for the Spirit on April 10 against the North Carolina Courage in the Challenge Cup. Entering the game in the 55th minute, she needed only five minutes to make her mark on the match with a textbook, two-touch finish. She used her pace to slice through the Courage’s backline and her technique to bring the ball down in the air and place it into the near post.

It’s those types of plays that have Rodman not only on NWSL scouting reports but on U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski’s watch list.

“Vlatko and the national team staff have been coming to games. She’s very much on the radar,” Burke says. “I was telling Vlatko when we were in Louisville talking about her a little bit that when you play with her and you’re around her, you realize how quickly she closes you down. She’s unbelievably fast and unbelievably quick across the ground, so when you’re in there playing with her, she changes your mind. You’re like, ‘Bloody hell!’ She’s on you like a flash.”

Running fast, cutting hard, defending until the ball is won and scoring goals have always been hallmarks of Rodman’s game. Even when she was 4 years old, growing up in Newport Beach, Calif. and just getting started in soccer, she couldn’t wrap her head around the kids who wanted to pick flowers and chat with their parents rather than attack the opposing defense.

“I would get so frustrated and try to gather the whole team while the game was going on,” Rodman says. “That’s when I knew soccer was going to be my thing.”

Rodman played for the fabled SoCal Blues soccer club her entire youth career, leading the team to a five-year undefeated streak and four ECNL national championships.

“Being on such a good club team, I got to experience the real competitive side of it,” she says. “When we started winning, my competitiveness started taking over and I was like, yeah, this is the sport I want to play. I feel the most confident and at home when I’m on the field.”

Rodman, the No. 1-ranked forward coming out of high school, intended to play at Washington State last fall. When the season was pushed back to the spring because of COVID-19, Rodman used the downtime to reconsider her priorities, eventually deciding to declare for the NWSL draft.

“I started getting impatient in a way, and I had pushed myself so hard and done so much extra work that I wanted to be at that level that I had been working hard to be at my whole life,” she says.

In her first practices with the Spirit, she realized just how much more work she had to do, starting with her strength and conditioning.

“I don’t think anyone could really be prepared for it being 18 years old,” Rodman says. “Every time at practice I got beat to the ball. I got pushed off the ball. I missed shots. Every single mistake I made, I learned from it, being around such talented and experienced players.”

Rodman has shined for the U.S. U-20 team and caught the attention of Vlatko Andonovski. (Brad Smith / ISI Photos)

Burke recalls one practice early in training camp when Rodman was having a hard time finding her rhythm in a passing square drill. As coaches examined every first touch and players whipped passes around, Rodman heard Burke’s commentary and assumed he was mad at her.

After practice, Spirit forward Ashley Sanchez spoke with Rodman and told her not to take Burke’s words so personally, that they were just his unique way of welcoming her to the team. That became official after a preseason game when Burke made up a song for Rodman, an annual tradition for his first-year players.

Rodman’s humility and constant drive to get better have endeared her to her older teammates. She mentions Andi Sullivan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett as her biggest mentors on the team.

“I think that she could have come into preseason so big-headed — didn’t play in college, drafted high. But she’s been so professional in her approach to training and learning more,” Sullivan says. “For someone like her, she’s not just a star — she’s studying, she’s working hard and she’s showing up.”

Watching film has been integral to Rodman’s progress as a rookie. She’s noticed, for example, that her runs in the final third have been too slow and straight, making them predictable and easier for the defense to pick up, and she’s adjusted accordingly.

In the first minute of the Spirit’s game against the Orlando Pride on June 6, Rodman received the ball with her back to goal. She took a touch with the outside of her right foot and chopped it behind her back, spinning out of pressure and finding space down the right wing. She then whipped the ball across the box to Hatch, giving the Spirit their first scoring chance of the game.

“I think the greatest thing for Trinity is that she’s holding her own right now,” Harvey says. “For someone at her age to just be able to hold her own is a huge compliment right now.”

Although she’s improving and growing more comfortable with every training session and game, Rodman still calls her mom, Michelle, many times a day. When she has a practice that’s not up to her standards, she knows her mom will always say the right thing.

“You’re doing the best that you can do,” her mom will tell her. “If in your head you’re working your hardest, that’s all you can do and you just have to take it day by day because there’s nothing you can do about the practice you had an hour ago. Think about the next practice and how you can get better.”

The advice has stuck with Rodman, who turned 19 last month. Only five months have passed since she made history at the NWSL draft, and she feels like a different player now when she takes the field.

“I have already learned so much, and I think being able to see how much progress has happened in a short amount of time gets me excited for what’s in the future,” she says. “Before I was like, ‘Wow, I’m good.’ Now I’m like, ‘Wow I wasn’t that good.’”

Even Rodman can see she is just cracking the surface of her potential. And as her work continues to translate to the field, she’s making a name for herself.

“I’ll play the hardest I can ever play for my team,” she says. “I’ll do anything and put my body on the line so my team can succeed.”