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Lamia Bahaian: ‘Sky’s the limit’ for women’s football in Saudi Arabia after Premier League launch

Last Thursday football history was made in the Kingdom when the first-ever Saudi Women’s Premier League fixture took place between Al-Nassr and Sama at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium’s reserve pitch in Riyadh.

Over the following two days, six other teams — Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, Al-Yamamah and Eastern Flames — made their bows in the new competition organized by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.

Arab News spoke exclusively to Lamia Bahaian, SAFF Women’s Football Department supervisor and board member, to get her thoughts on the landmark moment for Saudi sport.

Arab News: Tell us what this launch of the Women’s Premier League means to the federation and Saudi football?

Lamia Bahaian: I can confidently speak on behalf of everyone at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation that we were all extremely proud to finally see the moment come to life. The start of the premier league marked another historic milestone in the women’s game in Saudi Arabia. It is another step on our transformative journey. Thursday the 13th of October 2022 will go down in history for all the players and everyone who works tirelessly behind the scenes.

AN: In 2020 there was the Women’s Football League by Sports For All and in 2021 there was the Regional Football League. What lessons were learned from those two competitions that led to setting up the premier league?

LB: The 2020 Women’s Football League was organized by our dear friends at the Sports For All Federation. It set great foundations for what was to come next. It was the first of its kind and while it wasn’t considered “professional,” it still welcomed over 600 players from 24 teams, which are massive numbers.

We then organized our first league, the SAFF Regional Women’s Football League, last year, but it was a different experience in terms of logistics and operations as it was spread across three cities. We adopted an interesting format where we crowned three regional champions, and then hosted the national championship in an eight-team knockout competition in Jeddah with Al-Mamlaka claiming the title. It was a massive success and saw 450 girls compete across 16 teams.

Thanks to the Kingdom’s unconditional support and trust in the future of women’s football, we were able to grow a community league in 2020 and a semi-pro league last year to the premier league in just over two years, something which took many countries decades to achieve.

Lamia Bahaian says the ‘sky’s the limit’ for Saudi women’s football. (SAFF)

AN: How much of a benefit is it getting the established Saudi clubs like Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab involved in the new league?

LB: The impact is huge on every level and cannot be underestimated. It represents a massive sign of commitment and trust from the wider game that women’s football is well and truly here to stay. And of course, the clubs help attract greater audiences and promote the women’s game to the masses which will hopefully inspire many young girls along the way to take up football as a profession.

AN: How do you rate the standard of players in the new premier league?

LB: The players have shown a fantastic level of football in the past couple of years and continue to surprise us each time. Whenever I speak to our technical staff, they are always full of praise of the standards being set every day. Our girls are extremely passionate about the game and it clearly shows on the pitch as they progress week in, week out. I believe with all the support we have, and the more minutes players get under their belt, the standard will continue to grow. Today, the league even attracts overseas players, whether from neighboring countries in the Middle East and even Colombia, Brazil and Germany. They will undoubtedly positively impact the overall level and competition of the league.

AN: Tell us about the programs that the SAFF have set up to produce local coaches and referees?

LB: We are establishing a 360-degree ecosystem for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, and referees and coaches are an integral part to this transformation. In a short period, the results are staggering with over 900 D-, C- and B-licensed coaches and 49 qualified referees. Earlier this year, we hosted our first AFC B-License Coaching Course. Our national team head coach Monika Staab is playing a massive role in this growth. She arrived (in) Saudi Arabia last year with a wealth of experience growing the women’s game across the globe and everyone is learning from her on a daily basis.

AN: What sort of resources and facilities for training and matches can the new women’s football teams expect in the coming years?

LB: There has been rapid growth in women’s football, which mirrors much of the transformation across the Kingdom in many areas of life under the country’s leadership. All the foundations (are) laid for an exciting future ahead built upon a long-term strategy with clear player pathway, strong governance, competitions for every level, embracing technology and empowering people within the ecosystem.

Today, we established three regional training centers for 6- to 17-year-olds in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam that will hopefully nurture the future stars of Saudi women’s football. The centers will support their physical, technical and mental development, and will help prepare them for the national team. We were extremely happy to see that the recent tryouts earlier this month welcomed a staggering 400 registrants.

AN: Thanks to the rise of women’s football clubs in Saudi, as well as the role of coach Monika Staab, the Saudi women’s national team is improving rapidly. Please comment on the recent historic matches against Bhutan in Saudi?

LB: While the matches against the Maldives and Seychelles (in February) made waves and captured the world’s attention, I think the two friendlies against Bhutan last month were equally as significant and impactful. I cannot put my feelings into words, but all I can (say) is that playing on Saudi soil was a massive source of pride for everyone involved in the women’s game across the country.

The matches were even exciting to watch. We came back from a 3-1 deficit in the first match to snatch a draw in the final minutes, in a true showcase of the team’s passion and hunger. We came up against a tough Bhutan team in the second encounter, and while we conceded a 4-2 defeat, the girls left the pitch with their heads held high following their strong performances.

AN: Will the Women’s Premier League have foreign players in it?

LB: We are proud the league is now welcoming interest from players (all) over the world. We were blown away by this and it really shows the great progress we’ve achieved over the past (few) years. We now have players from different parts of the world representing the clubs, from the Gulf and Middle Eastern (region), and we already have some from Brazil, Colombia and Germany.

AN: What does the future hold for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, both at club level and for the national team?

LB: I always say, the sky is the limit for us. We have limitless ambitions and want to give women’s football the platform it deserves. Our main aim is to inspire girls along the way and we are proud of what we’ve achieved so far. We are continuously recruiting world-class female experts in coaching and refereeing so we can compete on the biggest global stages. We are living in truly exciting times for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, and the best is yet to come.

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