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As women’s soccer rises in the UAE, multiple generations come together

Areej Alhammadi of the UAE women’s national team helps coach Alliance Football Club Dubai. (Courtesy of Areej Alhammadi)

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.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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