Lamia Bahaian: ‘The sky is 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 match took place between Al-Nassr and Sama at the reserve ground of Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium in Riyadh.
Over the next two days, six other teams – Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, Al-Yamamah and Eastern Flames – bowed out in the new competition organized by the Saudi Football Federation.
Arab News spoke exclusively to SAFF Women’s Football Department Supervisor and Board Member Lamia Bahaian for her thoughts on this historic moment for Saudi sport.
Arab News: Tell us what this launch of the Women’s Premier League means for the federation and Saudi football?
Lamia Bahaian: I can confidently say on behalf of everyone at the Saudi Football Federation that we were all extremely proud to finally see this moment come to life. The start of the Premier League marked another historic milestone in women’s football in Saudi Arabia. This is another step in our transformation journey. Thursday, October 13, 2022 will go down in history for all 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 these two competitions that led to the creation of the Premier League?
KG: The 2020 Women’s Football League was organized by our dear friends from the Sports Pour Tous Federation. This laid a good foundation for what was to follow. It was the first of its kind and even though it was not considered “professional”, it still hosted over 600 players from 24 teams, which is a huge number.
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 over three cities. We adopted an interesting format where we crowned three regional champions and then staged the national championship in an eight-team knockout competition in Jeddah with Al-Mamlaka claiming the title. It was a huge success and 450 girls competed in 16 teams.
Thanks to the Kingdom’s unconditional support and confidence in the future of women’s football, we have been able to develop from a community league in 2020 and a semi-professional league last year to the premier league in just over two years. , which took decades for many countries. reach.
AN: To what extent is this an advantage for established Saudi clubs like Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab involved in the new league?
KG: The impact is enormous at all levels and cannot be underestimated. It represents a massive sign of commitment and confidence from the wider game that women’s football is here to stay. And of course the clubs help attract a bigger audience and promote women’s football to the masses, which will hopefully inspire many young girls to take up football as a profession.
AN: How do you assess the level of players in the new Premier League?
KG: The players have shown a fantastic level of football over the past two years and continue to surprise us time after time. Every time I speak to our technical staff, they are full of praise for the standards set every day. Our girls are extremely passionate about the game and it shows clearly on the pitch as they progress week after week. I think with all the support we have, and the more minutes players have under their belts, the standard will continue to grow. Today, the league even attracts foreign players, whether they come from neighboring countries in the Middle East and even Colombia, Brazil and Germany. They will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the overall level and competition of the league.
AN: Tell us about the programs SAFF has in place to produce local coaches and referees?
KG: We are establishing a 360-degree ecosystem for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, and referees and coaches are an integral part of this transformation. In a short time, the results are staggering with more than 900 D, C and B licensed coaches and 49 qualified referees. Earlier this year we held our first AFC B-License Coaching Course. Our national team head coach, Monika Staab, plays a major role in this growth. She arrived in Saudi Arabia last year with a wealth of experience in developing women’s football around the world and everyone learns from her on a daily basis.
AN: What kind of resources and facilities for training and matches can new women’s football teams expect in the coming years?
KG: There has been rapid growth in women’s football, which reflects 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 based on a long-term strategy with a clear path for players, strong governance, competitions at all levels, embracing technology and empowering people within the ecosystem .
Today, we have created three regional training centers for young people aged 6 to 17 in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam who will hopefully train the future stars of Saudi women’s football. The centers will support their physical, technical and mental development and help them prepare for the national team. We were extremely happy to see that the recent trials earlier this month had an impressive 400 registrants.
AN: Thanks to the rise of women’s football clubs in Saudi Arabia, as well as the role of coach Monika Staab, the Saudi women’s national team is improving rapidly. Please comment on recent historic matches against Bhutan in Arabia?
KG: While the matches against Maldives and Seychelles (in February) made waves and captured the world’s attention, I think the two friendlies against Bhutan last month were equally meaningful and impactful. I can’t express my feelings in words, but all I can (say) is that playing on Saudi soil was a huge source of pride for everyone involved in women’s football across the country.
The matches were even exciting to watch. We came back from a 3-1 deficit in the first game to snatch a draw in the dying minutes, in a true showcase of the team’s passion and hunger. We faced a tough Bhutan team in the second encounter, and as we conceded a 4-2 loss, the girls left the pitch with their heads held high after their strong performances.
AN: Will the Women’s Premier League include foreign players?
KG: We are proud that the league is now welcoming interest from players (of all) around the world. We were blown away by this and it really shows the great progress we have made over the last (few) years. We now have players from different parts of the world representing the clubs, from the Gulf and the Middle East (region), and we already have some from Brazil, Colombia and Germany.
AN: What future for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, both at club level and for the national team?
KG: I always say, the sky is the limit for us. We have boundless ambitions and want to give women’s football the platform it deserves. Our main goal is to inspire girls along the way and we are proud of what we have achieved so far. We are constantly recruiting world-class female experts in coaching and officiating so that we can compete on the world’s biggest stages. These are truly exciting times for women’s football in Saudi Arabia, and the best is yet to come.