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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Have you heard the one about the Saudi Arabian businesswoman and US Mexican expat who built a women’s football club in Saudi Arabia?
No, it is not the punchline to a bad joke, but instead an inspiring story of ambition, sisterhood and family.
Maram Al-Butairi, a successful Saudi businesswoman, and Karina Chapa, a long-time expat from Houston, are officially the president and vice-president, respectively, of Shulat Alsharqia FC, or Eastern Flames, the Dammam-based club in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League.
Unofficially, however, they are so much more.
Name a role within the club and you can bet they have done it; from filling the water bottles and preparing the kits, to holding babies and feeding the players. All the while they were also coaching, organizing tournaments and building the club and its strategy. All in a day’s work for this pioneering duo.
Single-handedly, they have transformed the club from its origins as recreational pursuit to the professional club it is today; with youth and futsal teams, and a fully professional structure.
“We’re not an amateur club anymore,” said licensed coach Al-Butairi, who has a bachelor’s degree in finance and recently completed her MBA in Spain, which included an internship with the Spanish football federation.
“We were able to transform a team that met with random girls playing, to a team that competes internationally. Because back then we didn’t have anything locally, and slowly but surely (we’ve) become the leading team in the Eastern Province.
“It’s a professional club now with around 50 employees, whether they’re players, staff or coaches.”
Their shared passion has built a powerful force, and an even more powerful bond between the two.
Al-Butairi and Chapa may come from worlds apart, but to witness the strength of their bond is to witness the power of football to bring people together. Sisterhood does not feel strong enough. Family is how they describe it.
“Everyone knows her in my family,” Al-Butairi said of Chapa. “And I think I know most of her family. My kids call her auntie and I think she’s more than an auntie.
“You were there when I met my husband,” Chapa added with a laugh. “It really is something a little bit more powerful than sisterhood.
“As an expat, you find all different kinds of expats. I’m the type that I want to know and connect (with) where I am. From learning the language, being part of families … as (Maram) said, her family has adopted me years ago, right at the very beginning.”
It is a relationship that was formed from the moment they both joined Eastern Flames which, as fate would have it, was on exactly the same day way back in September 2013.
“My journey here in Saudi Arabia, I really wanted to connect with the the Arab culture,” Chapa, a former school principal, said.
“I had to find opportunities to (connect) and that was the link through Flames. When we started off in 2013, Maram and I connected (straight away).”
Back then, the landscape for women’s football in Saudi Arabia looked vastly different to what it does 10 years on with a professional league consisting of eight teams — soon to grow to 10 — and a rapidly developing second tier with as many as 30 clubs.
“(Women’s) football in Saudi Arabia was there but very low profile,” Al-Butairi said.
“I’m very happy that the vision came and allowed, or I wouldn’t say allowed because it wasn’t prohibited, it was just not organized. You know, it was simply not organized.
“As soon as the the (Saudi Arabian) Football Federation opened up (applications), immediately they had a league and first division with 30 clubs. No one can make that up. It just means that it was there, it just was not organized. That’s it.”
Al-Butairi is a self-confessed dreamer, which partly explains why she earned the nickname “Little Beast.”
She told Arab News: “I got it because it was never scared of anything, and I’d say I was never scared of my dreams.
“Karina calls me the dreamer, and I always dream big, and it’s always scary. But if it doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough. That’s what I always say to myself.”
The dreams she and Chapa had for Eastern Flames, and women’s football in Saudi Arabia more broadly, are playing out in front of their very eyes.
“As Maram said, she’s a dreamer and I always said, ‘OK, you dream, you strategize. My part of my profession is to execute’.
“Even though friends or family would say, ‘what are you all doing? Why are you working this hard?’ That vision was always there, and in 2015 Saudi people thought we were crazy. ‘What do you mean, pro? Come on, like, let it go’.”
But they could not let it go. How could they? They had poured their hearts and soul into creating something special. This is a club for women, by women, as Al-Butairi said.
“Being females and understanding what females need, and being a mom, I have a 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, I understand what being a mom means.
“I say if you have a big family, that’s what you get when you join (Shulat). You come with your whole self, your family, if you have a husband, you have kids, whatever you have, you come and we take you, all of you, and we become part of that.
“I think that’s one of the things that is unique about us, because we understand what it is to be a female with the challenges.”
With the second season of the Saudi Women’s Premier League beginning this weekend, Shulat are looking to build on last season when they finished above only relegated Sama, with just two wins from 14 matches.
Spaniard David Cabildo has been tasked with spearheading the new campaign, while there are a host of impressive foreign signings, among them US-born Pakistan captain, Maria Khan, experienced Nigerian goalkeeper, Tochukwu Oluehi, who was part of the Super Falcons squad at the recent Women’s World Cup, former Blackburn defender, Erica Cunningham, and Tanzanian international, Enekia Lunyamila.
First up for Shulat is a huge test at home against an Al-Ittihad side featuring an exciting array of foreign talent, including English-born Ashleigh Plumptre, who was a teammate of Oluehi with Nigeria at the Women’s World Cup, former Liverpool defender Leighanne Robe, and Moroccan Women’s World Cup star Salma Amani.
Whatever the result, Al-Butairi and Chapa will be there, as they always are, wearing multiple hats championing women’s football in Saudi Arabia. It is the only way they know.
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