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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Al-Nassr will inspire a generation of Saudi children to take up the game, which it is hoped will lead to future success on the international stage for the Green Falcons.
After the exploits in Qatar at the end of 2022 and that famous victory over eventual champions Argentina, the sky is the limit and everyone in Saudi Arabia is now dreaming of a bigger and brighter future.
And everyone means everyone, including the female footballers of Saudi Arabia. In fact, especially the female footballers of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation, under the leadership of president, and newly elected FIFA Congress member, Yasser Al-Misehal, have been bullish in their ambitions for the women’s game.
Over the past 12 months a national women’s team has been established, playing a number of international friendlies and tournaments in order to receive official FIFA recognition and ranking. This saw the team recently host and win their first international tournament on home soil.
At his opening press conference, Ronaldo made a point of highlighting his desire to be an inspiration, not just for young boys but also for female footballers in the country.
“I’m grateful that Al-Nassr gave me this opportunity to show and develop not only the football, but also for the generation, the young generation, the woman’s generation as well,” Ronaldo said.
“So for me, it’s a good chance to change (and) to help with my knowledge and my experience, to help to grow many, many important points. Also, many people probably didn’t know, but Al-Nassr they have a woman’s football (team) as well, and I want to give a different vision of the country, of the football, (and) the perspective of everybody.”
Hearing those words meant the world to Sarah Khalid, the young goalkeeper of Al-Nassr’s women’s team, who lead the league by one point with just two games remaining.
“(It) definitely means a lot hearing that coming from, let’s say, a football legend like Cristiano Ronaldo,” she told Arab News from Riyadh.
“His words were really inspirational to us, and let’s say it fuels us to move forward and achieve the league (this season).”
Also inspired was a national team colleague of Khalid’s, Talah Al-Ghamdi, who plays her club football for Al-Ittihad.
“Of course, Cristiano is a legend, so he always inspires me by his motivation, his determination and his hard work,” she told Arab News.
“So when I found that he talked about women’s football and he wants to support women’s football, I was very happy, very motivated, and getting motivated from a legend like him is a very good thing.”
Women’s football in the Kingdom has undertaken a rapid transformation in recent years with significant investment in grassroots development, as well as the national team and league structures.
The introduction this season of the first national league, with powerhouse clubs such as Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal getting on board, has been a welcome step forward for the game.
For Al-Ghamdi, getting to play for Al-Ittihad, a club that she and her family have supported their entire lives, is a dream come true.
“I was honored when I found out that I’ll play for Al-Ittihad, I was very happy,” she said.
“Playing for Ittihad is such an honor. I couldn’t describe my feelings when I found out, and of course my family, my dad is very happy. My dad is a big fan of Ittihad, so I grew up with Ittihad everywhere, like in every detail in my life.
“Honestly, I used to live two minutes away from Ittihad Club, so every trophy Ittihad won we used to go to the Ittihad club to celebrate and celebrate on the streets . . . so I have a lot of memories,” Al-Ghammdi said.
For Khalid, whose family are all Ettifaq fans, there is a special feeling that comes from being one of the modern pioneers of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia.
“It is very exciting to see the development of the women’s football in Saudi Arabia,” Khalid said.
“And for me, personally, I’m very honored and proud to be a part of that. I hope to inspire the younger generation to pursue this field to start playing and continue playing so the journey can continue and we accomplish more and more.”
That journey, Khalid and Al-Ghamdi hope, will one day involve playing in the Women’s World Cup. Both were fortunate enough, along with the rest of their national team, to be inside Lusail Stadium when the Green Falcons scored their historic victory over Argentina to open the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
While they are just starting on their international journey, and a long way from qualifying for the Women’s World Cup, which this year will be held in Australia and New Zealand, it didn’t stop them from dreaming about their own miracle.
“It was a very special day to witness,” Khalid recalled. “A historical win for Saudi Arabia against Argentina, and that definitely pushes us to chase our dream, which is playing in the Woman’s World Cup . . . and hopefully to win it one day.”
While the World Cup may be a distant dream, the Asian Cup may be just over the horizon with Saudi Arabia officially bidding to host the next edition of the tournament in 2026, which would come with automatic qualification.
While some may question whether that is too soon for a national team very much in its infancy, it follows the natural ambition of Saudi Arabia to turbo-charge its football development at every level.
“The future of women’s football in Saudi Arabia is bright and we are committed to growing the game here and throughout Asia,” Al-Misehal said when they launched their bid late last year.
“More and more young girls are playing football in this country and we want to inspire them further.
“Hosting the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2026 would be a great occasion for our players and would be made memorable by the passion of our fans.”
Monika Staab, the legendary German coach tasked with developing the national team, agreed.
“This is an opportunity to bring the tournament to life, inspire a generation, and turbo-charge the continued growth of women’s football,” she said.
“We see this as a chance to improve technical performance and show the world our homegrown talent.”
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