Last year, as part of its ongoing reforms, Saudi Arabia launched its women’s football league, something that wasn’t only a surprise to a westerner like myself, but to many locals. It’s been clear for a while that change was coming to the KSA, but the sheer pace of it has taken many folks by surprise. I left a teaching job in Saudi just five years ago in 2016, but just five years later the country is unrecognisable in some respects, with women now able to drive, travel freely and – pertinent to today’s blog – play sports competitively.
Due to these changes, we now have the once mind-boggling prospect of two women’s teams (United Eagles from Khobar and Oasis WFC from Qatif, both close to the Saudi-Bahrain Causeway) coming across the causeway to compete in a tournament against a pair of their Bahraini counterparts (Ravens FC and tournament organisers Super Soccer Academy).
Women’s football in Bahrain is growing, but already pretty well-established (the national team is nearly 20 years old now), and there’s been a league for a fair few years. This cross-border mini-tournament provides a good opportunity to see how the two countries compare on the pitch and what level the newly-minted Saudi teams are on.
We’re at Al Najma for this one, on the edge of Bahrain’s Sin City: Juffair. Due to its proximity the US naval base and lax licensing laws, Juffair has long been the pulsating nightlife capital of the country, with the high-end hotels and trashy dives bumping uglies. Skyscrapers – which seem to sprout up in this area like bamboo – overhang this rather modest stadium (a single stand, a clubhouse block – the Bahraini standard for smaller grounds).
This four-team round robin is scheduled to take place on the practice pitches near the main ground, and to be honest they’re in pretty poor nick – the sort of sandy, artificial surfaces that can take a layer of skin off if you leave your feet, but there’s a decent turnout for this Saturday afternoon event. They’ve even set out the obligatory VIP sofas by the pitch, because lord-forbid the higher-ups sully their behinds with plastic seats.
I’ve also got to confess a little favoritism here. I’ve been following Ravens – coached by Dan Grimes of Juventus Academy Bahrain – from afar for a while. My friend Rama Salem is captain, and my niece Noha Barbir has just started playing for them. All impartiality out of the window on this one and I’ll be heading to as many of their matches as I can this year. They’re also fantastic at helping young players develop, with squad members jetting off to academies in Germany and the US (as seen in my article for a regional newspaper).
From the off, the Bahraini teams have the edge. Super Soccer put Oasis to the sword in their opening match, winning 5-0 in a one-sided affair. Their number 29 Asma Mohamed is a tigerish presence in midfield, snapping at the heels of the opposition, breaking up play and driving forward for the hosts, while Hajer Al Ansari provides some great finishing.
Ravens then achieve a much tighter 2-0 win over United Eagles with tidy finishes from Ghada Mudara and Shough Al Aseeri, before Super Soccer beat the same team in a narrow 1-0 encounter.
The Saudi teams are improving with every game, and Ravens have to work hard to defeat United Eagles in the final Saudi-Bahrain clash of the day. They come close several times, hitting the bar (nice one Noha) and forcing some good saves from the Saudi keeper, but it’s a single goal from Shada Samad which sees them eke out the win.
Although it’s been a tough day for them football-wise, I’m really impressed at how both Saudi teams battle and improve after difficult first games. I’ll definitely try to get to some league games over there next year as it’s an exciting time for women’s sport right now. Given the resources and population at their disposal, it’s hard to not see their teams becoming regional powerhouses in the coming years.
First Four Games
Super Soccer 5-0 Oasis
Ravens 2-0 United Eagles
Super Soccer 1-0 United Eagles
Ravens 1-0 Oasis
That leaves the two Bahrain-based teams to battle it out for the top spot. It’s a spirited affair – these two are really going for it and there are a few digs and ruthless challenges, which I’m always down for. In the end though no-one can break the deadlock, and a scoreless draw sees Super Soccer take the tournament on goal difference after some fine displays, with Hajer Al Ansari top scoring.
Super Soccer 0-0 Ravens
Super Soccer win the tournament.
Overall a very successful and competitive evening over at Najma. I’m sure that there’ll be more to-ing and fro-ing across the border in the months and years to come. Thanks to Ravens and Super Soccer for the photos.
Next up we’ve got some men’s international friendlies, as New Zealand and Curacao visit the island. I’m also going to try to visit Al Hala if there are any FA Cup games there as it’s not used much in the league. See you next time.