Saudi boxer Kalthoum Hantoul sacrifices day job for shot at Olympic boxing glory

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - I feel I have a strong purpose in being in Saudi Arabia, says Ittihad Ladies’ Ashleigh Plumptre

LONDON: Most footballing destinies are shaped in grandiose settings — gleaming stadiums or opulent boardrooms.

However, for Ashleigh Plumptre, the momentous discussion about her life-changing move to Saudi Arabia unfolded in far more ordinary surroundings: A car journey to collect an Indian takeaway for her father’s birthday after Plumptre’s relaxing holiday in Los Angeles.

June 2023 marked a pivotal juncture for the Saudi Women’s Premier League’s new superstar, who on Thursday scored a hat-trick as Al-Ittihad defeated Al-Ahli 6-2 in the Jeddah Derby. That was when her contract with England’s Women’s Super League outfit Leicester Ladies expired.

The cultured central defender, a stalwart at her hometown club for three years as a professional and seven years as a youth player, harbored no specific aspirations about her next move. The looming World Cup in July and August presented a global stage where Plumptre, 25, would excel in the green and white of Nigeria as they embarked on an exhilarating journey to the last 16.

The footballing world was Plumptre’s oyster. The lucrative offers her father and agent, Tim, received from clubs in the WSL, Europe and the US, bore testimony to that.

However, an intriguing call from Nick McCreery of Jobs4Football about his recruitment for Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad Ladies captured his imagination.

“It was weird how it happened,” Plumptre reflected during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “My dad messaged me while I was away in LA right at the end of the season for about a week and a half and said: ‘You’ve got interest from a club in Saudi Arabia.’ And I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ There’s nothing that would draw me there if I haven’t spoken to anybody about it. I wouldn’t just come here for the sake of coming here.”

Al-Ittihad, having finished fifth in the inaugural Saudi Women’s Premier League season, had launched an ambitious recruitment drive. Kelly Lindsey, a former US international and ex-manager of the Morocco and Afghanistan women’s national teams, had taken the managerial reins, with her assistant Myles Smith, a figure with experience at Manchester United and West Ham.

Attracting an international footballer like Plumptre signaled an intent to emulate the men’s Saudi Pro League’s star-studded signing strategy. Notable footballing royalty, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, had recently arrived in the Kingdom.

However, McCreery had emphasized that the overarching aim of signing Plumptre was to help grow the Saudi women’s game.

This resonated greatly with Plumptre senior, who told Arab News that his daughter enjoys giving back and broadening her horizons.

Aged only 18 in 2016, she moved to the US to play college football at the University of Southern California.

Fast forward seven years, and another life-affirming odyssey awaited Plumptre in a Saudi port city.

The unconventional setting and timing for the call — her father had just picked her up from the airport after her holiday — exemplified Plumptre’s instinctive approach to life.

“I spoke to Kelly (Lindsey) and a couple of her staff members for about an hour and I came off the call and I said to my dad, ‘Mm, yeah, this is a feeling I’ve not had before’,” she said. “From that moment, there was nothing that could sway me from this decision (to move to Saudi Arabia).”

Interestingly, the pair’s captivating conversation did not revolve around football tactics or “boasts about what was on offer” but delved deeper, exploring Plumptre’s values and personality.

“Kelly’s always in the background and doesn’t get a lot of plaudits but she’s a very, very powerful and inspirational human being,” Plumptre said. “I don’t think she said anything specifically that drew me in; it was just her honesty and authenticity that I really connected with.

“I naturally gravitate towards people like that, and that’s when I was like, ‘well, yeah, I want this all sorted before I go to the World Cup.’ I actually signed before the World Cup but kept it on the down-low as I didn’t want any distractions.”

Plumptre’s swift and decisive move raised eyebrows in England, where the expectation was that she would join an established footballing force. Furthermore, it was a significant leap of faith as “Leicester meant a lot to me because I grew up there and I was supported by the community there.”

Magnifying the audaciousness of her move is the nascent nature of the women’s football landscape in Saudi Arabia.

To put things in context, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation organized the first unofficial women’s competition in Jeddah only four years ago. Moreover, the Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team played their first match just over two years later, in February 2022.

Plumptre’s knowledge about the brave new world she was entering was scant; she admitted to having done “only a little bit of research” about the Saudi league and her new club.

Plumptre is no reckless adventurer, however. A thoughtful and reflective individual, she is thoroughly engaging during a fascinating and wide-ranging hour-long Zoom call.

How many young female footballers would candidly admit to routine pre- and post-match tears, expressing the visceral emotions that consume them? How many would reject the lure of the Lionesses, England’s national women’s football team, and opt to represent her paternal grandfather’s birthplace instead?

“I’ve never been somebody who conforms,” Plumptre said. Her mantra, the “fulfillment of the soul,” exemplifies this unorthodox modus vivendi. Plumptre prioritizes personal happiness over conventional footballing goals.

“The decisions I’ve made in life have always made me feel good because I’ve done what I wanted to do, not what society or friends or family have said, ‘Oh, this is what you should do.’ I have a very strong intuition, I think.”

The “blend of cultures” and the prospect of mutual learning at Al-Ittihad is evidently fulfilling Plumptre’s soul.

Al-Ittihad’s summer player recruitment also included Morocco’s Women’s World Cup star Salma Amani, former Liverpool defender Leighanne Robe and young Swedish striker Nor Mustafa, who recently played for West Ham.

Their synergy with Saudi internationals such as Bayan Sadagah has translated into impressive results on the field.

At the time of writing, Al-Ittihad lie second in the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League after six matches. Plumptre, living up to her status as the league’s highest-profile player, embellished her debut with a remarkable hat-trick in Al-Ittihad’s 3-0 win away to Eastern Flames in Dammam, before adding the second treble in Thursday’s defeat of Al-Ahli.

Plumptre acknowledges that the Saudi Women’s Premier League “in its infancy” is completely different from the WSL, one of the best leagues globally. However, she steadfastly refuses to “stagnate” and is consistently challenging herself in myriad ways.

“There are so many things I’m learning even with my game as it’s given me an opportunity to work on things that I probably wasn’t brave enough to do when I was in the WSL.

“Here, I can almost try different things, like I’m a left-footed player and I don’t want to be solely left-footed. I want to be able to know that I can do the same kind of passes with my right foot, which I’m brave enough to now step into doing here.

“So, even though the game isn’t necessarily as fast-paced, I cover a lot of distance because sometimes I’m allowed, as a center-back, to get myself in a higher position.

“That’s why I scored my goals (on the opening day).”

How does she feel about being labeled a trailblazer? “It’s not really trailblazing for me because I’m stepping into something that I believe I was always meant to do,” she said.

While she is “fiercely competitive” and has a burning desire to win games and trophies — she won the 2020-21 FA Women’s Championship with Leicester City — Plumptre’s ultimate success would be seeing her teammates developing physically and emotionally.

“For me, it’s about winning in a way that would make me feel fulfilled,” she said.

Plumptre, a habitually “smiley” person off the pitch, said she can appear aggressive on it given her intense will to win.

She has enjoyed having some “incredibly powerful conversations” with some of her Saudi teammates about this and their Muslim faith.

Plumptre is ostensibly the ideal person to galvanize Saudi women’s football’s exciting growth; the number of registered female football players between 2021 and 2023 has risen by 86 percent.

She is actively brainstorming ideas about grassroots projects to ensure the women’s game continues to flourish. She also envisions going to schools, encouraging self-expression and fostering a supportive environment.

“It would be cool to do a class where I can just encourage kids like I’ve done with my younger siblings to just draw themselves or write their names and the things they’re passionate about,” said Plumptre, who is an ambassador for Menphys, a Leicestershire charity supporting young people with disabilities — including her autistic brother Lewis. “It doesn’t have to be football; it could be art, it could be music. But I think your hobbies say a lot about you and allow you to express yourself in some way, which I think is really important.

“I feel I have a strong purpose in being here, and that always goes beyond football.”

Would she encourage other stars to follow in her footsteps?

Al-Ittihad’s assistant manager Smith told Arab News in October that the club had been in talks with “five, eight-times Champions League winners, World Cup winners, some of the best players that have kicked a ball in women’s football.”

Plumptre would welcome such “high-caliber” signings, provided they share her philanthropic motivations.

“I think it’s really important that while the league is new, and there are so many Saudi players who are trying to learn and take things from us, that we come here not just making it about ourselves. These girls haven’t necessarily had the opportunities that I have had, for example, being able to play from the age of four.”

Seven and a half years ago, Plumptre was among the Leicester City supporters celebrating the Foxes’ miraculous Premier League title success (the club had odds of 5,000-1 at the start of the 2015-16 season to achieve such a feat).

Today, Saudi Arabia’s women’s footballers may find themselves indebted to her for helping them script another extraordinary footballing narrative.

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