Lebanese Women’s Soccer between Tradition, Publicity and Politics
Kick-off. Dribbling, passing, scoring: “Run, faster! Close the gap in the defense!” – “Go, yalla, try a header!” – “Allez Sadaka, another goal!” – “Double pass! Give me the ball!” – 1:0. The first five minutes I do not know what to look at. I see a high-speed match, I see female players, I see male players, I see a tribune with children, their parents and grandparents, shouting and supporting their teams. An old lady waves the Lebanese national flag. “See, there is my grandchild, the number 9! I am so proud of her!” Number 9 centers, number 7 passes, number 9 scores: 2-0. Two minutes later, it goes the other way round: Number 9 passes, number 7 scores: 3-0.
It is a soccer match between the women’s team of the Al Sadaka Sporting Club and the Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab, the male team of a school in Jounieh. Sahar, a lady of 77 years, is wearing a black dress and a black headscarf, golden earrings – and a green fanscarf. She claps her hands rhythmically, smiling proudly, eyes on Rabia, her number 9. Sahar came together with her daughter Layla and her son-in-law Ali, they are the same as enthusiastic. Ali, 55 years, and Layla, 48 years, drove the 15 Kilometers from their village in the South of Beirut to watch their daughter‘s match. They always used to come to see the matches together with Sahar and her husband Muhammad, another soccer enthusiast. “We all are so proud of Rabia, and so was Muhammad,” Sahar says. It is his fanscarf she is wearing. “Since his death, we are Rabia’s supporting trio, and through his scarf, Muhammad is still with her.”
Ali, a bank employee, says he was the one who encouraged his daughter to start playing soccer. “I myself played soccer, and why should my daughter not play as well? Now she plays on the best Lebanese team and the national team,” he says proudly. Layla, a teacher, wearing a fashionable headscarf, adds: “I was critical in the beginning. I especially feared my daughter would get injured by playing soccer. But our two sons play as well, and now it has become normal that she plays.” Ali adds that he is an exception among the Lebanese men. “It is being more and more accepted that women play soccer, but people still think it is dangerous for them and not normal that they play. It is a cultural, not a religious matter.”
Tradition, Emancipation and the Role of Families
Tradition and Emancipation are two important poles influencing the societal acceptance of women's soccer in Lebanon. “The less old fashioned and traditional, the more emancipation gains ground,” Sophie, one of the Atletico Beirut F.C. female players, tells me. She started playing soccer with her younger brother - like the majority of women on the team. Once there were several women, they started a women’s team and separated it from the male rest of the club. “The problem is that no one encourages you. You have to tell them that you want to play soccer, and then they react. But action is lacking in Lebanese women's soccer since there are not enough officials who really want to push us forward,” Sophie adds. Atletico came in second at the national championship. At Al Sadaka, Rabia’s team, which is the Lebanese champion, the club pays 200 or 300 US dollars a month for the transportation to external matches. “That is all,” Sophie concludes. For comparison: The male players of the A Division team are granted several thousand US dollars a month.
“Hey, that was a foul!” Ali shouts out loudly. Rabia falls and gets a free kick, and scores again, 4-0. Sahar claps enthusiastically and smiles proudly. Ali comments: “Rabia is still a student, and dreams of a professional career. But as a woman in Lebanon, you either have to do half-time jobs which allow you to still play soccer or you stop playing and concentrate on your job. And if your family and friends do not support you, you will not be encouraged to continue or even begin. Soccer is Rabia’s life, so we will never bar her from playing in a team.” However, he is pessimistic that women’s soccer will ever be professional in Lebanon: “If there are no sponsors, it will remain a leisure time activity.” The majority of the Al Sadaka players works in banks, travel agencies, or stores, despite the fact that the Club is the champion of the first futsal division. “There are Lebanese investors for F.C. Barcelona, but not for Al Sadaka.” Helen Staude, a German soccer journalist, states: “Most Lebanese soccer fans support a club from abroad, because the national soccer league is not professional and therefore not attractive enough for the ones who enjoy watching soccer. It is an exasperating circle.”
Five other families are in the stadium, watching the match of their daughters: a proud father and uncle, a worried mother, a bored cousin, an interested grandfather: it is the Sunday afternoon family trip of a small, personal fan community.
On a different pitch in the south of Beirut, I meet a group of 30 female players of the Girls Football Academy (GFA), training on their home ground. Nadja Assaf, the young founder of the GFA, coaches the under 18s-teams of the academy. “Traditionally, soccer in Lebanon has been a men’s sport in a men’s society,” she says firmly. Assaf is convinced that a successful professional women’s soccer team would contribute to more equality between men and women. “Too many men think that women are inferior. Soccer will serve to change this.”
At a match of the first division between the two Beiruti clubs Al Ahed and Al Safa in Saida, among 400 men, I find three young women: “We live nearby the stadium and were just curious. It is the first time we watch a match.” They are not aware of there being female soccer in Lebanon: “I do not know any girl playing, and my school is not offering it.” This is not only a personal issue: even on the FIFA Homepage the national female league is not mentioned. Next to them, a group of male fans is skeptical: “Women and soccer?” They smile at me: “How can you play soccer and have babies?” Even at a female university match one male student is also not convinced: “There is a physical difference between men and women. It is amusing that girls play, but Lebanese society will never accept female soccer as equal to male soccer.”
Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab scores, a volley kick in the right corner: 4-1. The small fan base of the team celebrates, Ali curses: “Khalas! Defense!” The coach of the team reproachfully looks at Ali, Layla, Rabia’s mother, jumps in: “Yalla, Rabia!” There are also three players of Al Sadaka among the visitors watching the match. Among them is Juliet, who is injured . She is a newlywed and tells me that her husband encouraged her to play soccer. “Of course, we both are crazy about soccer. But I am still an exception. Many men do not accept their wives playing soccer.” Another player adds: “My family never comes to watch the matches. They tolerate it, but they do not like it; we are a very traditional family.” I meet families and friends supporting the players, both men and women.
Religion, Culture and the Role of Schools
“Khallas, shou hayda?! What is this?” The coach of Al Sadaka gets upset. One of the players of Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab dribbles, passes, scores: 4-2. Sahar, Rabia’s grandmother, shakes her head. “Yalla, Rabia, forward!” Half of the team players are Muslim, the other half are Christians.
Female soccer builds bridges between the different religions and sects in Lebanon. Hussein Dib, the coach of the national female futsal team, stresses that whoever jokes about religion is dismissed from the team. It happened during the tryouts where one player was immediately excluded from the tournament for this reason. “I do not care whether players are Christian or Muslim or Jewish. Their performance on the pitch interests me, that is all,” Dib adds. All eight A Division teams have players from different religious backgrounds, even if the clubs have sectarian affiliations regarding their history and sponsors. “We do not mind which religion players belong to”, Christina says. Her friend sitting next to her, Rana, is wearing a headscarf, the two study at the same university. “We got to know each other at Al Sadaka, and because of soccer, even our families have become friends. Occasionally after a match, my family invites her family and her family invites mine over for coffee,” Rana says. Her family is Muslim, and Christina’s family is Christian. This also happens among other families of team members. But Rana adds that there is a difference between the generations: “It is easier for our parent’s generation, and even easier for my generation. Our grandparents seldomly attend those coffee afternoons. They never say why, but I am sure it is because they do not like the other religion. The former civil war in Lebanon and the prejudices against religions are still apparent to our grandparent’s generation.” Likewise, the squad of Atletico F.C. and the Girls Football Academy includes Greek-orthodox, Maronite, Christian-protestant, Roman-catholic, Sunnite, Shiite and Druze players. The pitch is considered secular territory.
“It does not matter if you are Maronite or Sunni or Shia or Druze or anything else, it is just a cultural and not a religious matter,” Nadja Assaf says. ”It is a matter of modernization and education. Conservative Muslim parents might not allow their daughter to play soccer, as well as conservative Christians might not. The families have to realize that sports are healthy and good for their daughters,” she emphasizes. And this is just what is happening: “Over the years, more and more families and friends have come to watch the matches,” Mrs. Assaf says. Many girls at school “are afraid of playing with boys”, one of the Université St. Joseph players says. The majority of Lebanese schools do not have a girls’ soccer team. “If they did, especially in the rural areas of Lebanon, female soccer would also become accepted in society,” Nadja Assaf concludes.
Professionalism and Challenges Abroad
Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab scores again, 4-3, Ali lights a cigarette. “Rabia does not run enough, the team must defend better. They play offensively and get too many counterattacks.” Sahar calms him down: “Wait, my son, assabrun dschamilun:” Or: Patience is a nice thing. Fifteen minutes remain.
Al Sadaka trains four times a week, Atletico, the second ranked club, only trains twice a week. Rana has produced a DVD that shows her playing skills. With this DVD she tries to apply to professional soccer clubs abroad in order to leave Al Sadaka. “I still dream, but many others have already given up that dream of playing professionally,” she adds. The eight clubs of the first women's soccer division are financed in different ways. Either a family owns the club (like at Al Sadaka), the municipality (like in Tripoli) owns it, or the club itself earns its money from member fees and renting its pitch to private players. At the university level, the players benefit from reductions on the educational fees. Furthermore, several trainers work without a license.
Free kick for Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab, two meters before the penalty area. Ten minutes remain, Rabia’s family is holding its breath. Rabia fouls one of the other players, the referee shows her the yellow card. She is a woman and one of three female referees in the Lebanese Soccer Association. Two of them are active, and one is retired. All of them started by playing soccer and moved up to a referee level when the Federation started offering referee courses. All of them are well accepted among their male colleagues. “We are referees; we do not differentiate between women and men. Our performance on the pitch is the only thing that matters” one of the male FIFA referees, Hassan Salman, emphasizes.
Why does Al Sadaka play against a men’s team? “As the futsal league has not started yet, we look for challenges for the women’s team, and sometimes those are men’s teams,” the coach of Al Sadaka says. Several teams also take part in international tournaments.
Publicity, Politics and the National Team
The ball breaches the wall, but is caught by the goalkeeper. The score still is 4-3, tension is in the air. Seven minutes remain. Ali lights another cigarette, Layla stares firmly at the pitch, Sahar takes her scarf and waves it enthusiastically.
“The media does not care enough about female soccer” Christina states. Nadja Assaf agrees saying, “The only way forward for Lebanese female soccer is publicity.” And publicity is generated by success: “The national team and the league need positive headlines, only that way, women’s soccer will be more popular and common,” she adds. And more popularity will attract more sponsors. Furthermore, money for financing further pitches is lacking. It is rare to see children playing in the streets of Beirut or rural areas, because public pitches are rarely constructed. Most pitches for playing street soccer are privately paid. There is no active support from politicians to fund women’s soccer teams in Lebanese schools. In men's soccer, many soccer clubs depend on a patron, and this patron often is a politician. In women's soccer this rarely happens because there are only two clubs, Al Ansar and Atletico, which both have a women's and a men's first division team. Regarding the influence of those patrons, “the players do not care,” Christina says. “Besides, there is no political motivation for the players to join a certain team,” she adds.
It is Ali’s third cigarette within 15 minutes. The score is 4-4, Al Sadaka tries scoring the fifth goal, attacks, Rabia hits the post, another counterattack, cross, dropkick, Saint-Coeurs Kfarhbab equalizes. Two minutes remain. Then, a player of Al Sadaka is fouled, and the team gets a free kick, again. Again before the penalty area, but this time it is Rabia who kicks the ball. The whistle sounds, Rabia takes a run-up and – scores, it is an unstoppable ball. 5-4. “Yeah! Mabrouk! Yalla, I knew it!” Ali kicks the cigarette pack away, and pulls up his arms; Sahar and Layla hug themselves, as the other family members do. The final whistle sounds, and the match is over.
The Way Forward
Rabia hugs her parents. She has changed into, blue jeans, wears make-up, a fashionable headscarf and is apparently proud of the victory and her three goals. “It was a tough match. They did not give anything away for free”. Then she asks me politely: “Are you a journalist? I thought they only come in for the national matches, but it is good that you came, we need more of them!” Rabia played in the national team as well, and tells me about the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Women’s Futsal Championship in 2012, where the national team reached the semifinals. “We were eliminated just in the semifinals and lost against Iran, having one of the best Arab women's soccer and futsal teams” she says with a proud smile. She adds: “That performance in Bahrain shows the huge potential of Lebanese women’s soccer.”
Rabia is confident about the future of women’s soccer in Lebanon: “It can be more successful than the men’s, because the gap between the different countries’ soccer levels is still much smaller than in male soccer.” And if she cannot become “a well-paid professional soccer player in England”, she wants to work in a bank: “I like mathematics. Besides, the banks close early so that I can play soccer.” Sahar, Ali and Layla leave the place content. Rabia stays in town, because she wants to go to the cinema with Christina and Rana and all of them are invited for lunch by Ali and Layla. It will be the first time that Sahar also takes part, even if Christina is Christian. “Muslim, Christian - of course there are differences, but tomorrow we will have dinner together with Rabia’s friends and teammates,” Sahar, Rabia’s grandmother, says. “And we will celebrate Rabia’s final free kick”: Free from prejudice, and still without a salary, full of a sense of modernization and emancipation, and still in the triangle between tradition, publicity and politics. The Lebanese women’s soccer is on its way and has huge potential to be more than just a Sunday coffee event.