The glow appears again and again and again: from the mother on the bench, the father by the car, the father by the fence. It’s the kind of beaming unmistakable on parents’ faces at a million soccer practices around the world, but there’s a distinction.
When these parents welcomed their daughters into the world, they never could have imagined gathering here night after night — around a fenced-in turf field at the King Hussein Sports City, near the equestrian center and the national stadium, with a view across a field to a pretty green light atop a minaret.
They never could have guessed they would watch daughters not only practice soccer, and not only practice for Jordan’s Under-17 national team, but for an Under-17 World Cup coming in September in Jordan, the first female soccer World Cup in the region.
“What we're really focusing on is the legacy we'll leave behind.”
“Jordan can be a catalyst not only for ourselves but also for our region,” Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who led the push for the World Cup and is a member of FIFA, the world soccer governing body, said in an interview. “Women are 50 percent of our society. They should be involved in everywhere.”
Mervat Abdullah, seated on a bench with a neighbor who came along, married at 15. She had seven children, five girls, the last one Rama Hamed, nowadays 15 and obsessed with the world’s game. It has “absolutely” changed life unforeseeably, Abdullah said through an interpreter. “We were conservative, too conservative,” she said. “Now it’s more open. Since five years ago, we have witnessed a major change in society.” Of her daughter’s athleticism, she said, “Mentally, and fitness-wise, it’s good for everything” — including schoolwork — “and I’ve noticed this.”
Naser Bustanji, out beside his car, drives 37 miles each way daily from his home in a village near Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport to watch his daughter Rand train as a goalkeeper. Another daughter, Dalia, 9, fetches coffee for visitors from the thermos on the passenger-side floor, as Bustanji boasts that Dalia is quite a runner. The father never imagined saying, through an interpreter, “I feel a lot of joy just coming to drop her off, and watching the trainings.” He just knows she started at 7, “and she loved the thing, so I told her, ‘If you stay focused on studying and training, then there will be no problem,’” he said.
Then he glowed.
“She’s excellent in school, first in her school,” he said.
Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, a supporter of women's soccer, chats with members of the U-17 Women's soccer team during practice in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday, May 4, 2016. Jordan will host the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in the Fall.
Building The Nation's Program
Ismail Bazadough, at the fence, thought it odd when his daughter, Mira, came to him at 13 with a wish to play soccer.“I said, ‘What? Are you sure?’ ” he said. He figured it wouldn’t last. “She surprised me,” he said. A former midfielder himself on Jordan’s Army team, he practically burst when he said, “My daughter plays for the national team. I’m very proud of that.”
At Mira’s birth in 2001, Jordan had no women’s national team, let alone the five female teams (senior, Under-19, Under-17, Under-16, Under-14) of today. With the determined backing of Prince Ali, a national team began in 2004 when there were, according to former players, 35 players . . . in the country.
“We were very new, new players,” said Nisreen Al Khazaaleh, a former defender and a marketing coordinator for the Under-17 World Cup organizing committee. “We were very young. We played against Japan and China. We went to the Asian Games and we lost, 9-0. They [Japanese players] said, ‘How old are you?’ We said. ‘We’re only three months.’ They said, ‘Oh my God,’ and they started laughing because they had been 13 years together.”
The Under-17 manager now, Maher Abu Hantash, was the senior manager then. “When I start with the women’s team, it was very, very, very difficult because the families here, the people are, ‘How do girls play football? Maybe they play volleyball, maybe they play tennis,’” he said. Players lacked utterly “the football way of thinking, the understanding of the game,” the “technical mentality and skills” — and fitness. “Now there’s a special coach just for fitness,” he said.
Things have bustled since 2004. Girls’ soccer began turning up in schools, and at 13 grassroots centers Prince Ali spearheaded. By 2011, if you watched Jordan take a 3-2 loss to Iran in a tournament in Abu Dhabi, so expectant were Jordan’s players that you could hear them wailing in the locker room. “We were dying,” said Yasmeen Khair, a personable defender doubling these days as a World Cup ambassador.
By 2014, they aspired to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, but fell short at the Women’s Asian Cup in Vietnam. By May 2016, even the Under-17 team had returned from training in Portugal, with players both born at the right time and elated.
“I think it’s really special that we’re the first team that’s going to be playing in the World Cup,” said 17-year-old right wing Jeeda Al Naber, “and that we’re going to be hosting the first World Cup in the Arab region, which is something big. And we feel proud that we’re actually going to represent the whole country, the big country, big in pride, small in size.”
“It’s very huge,” her teammate, Anoud Ghazi, said through an interpreter.
“The commitment and the effort and the technical ability is very good; what’s lacking is quite simple: time, time to evolve,” said Stuart Gelling, a former Liverpool player and Japan assistant manager who has joined as a technical director. “If you go back in the U.K. or Germany or France, maybe 15, 20 years ago, it wasn’t as developed. So it’s just time.”
Asked if she ever imagined such an event even back in 2010, Khair said, “No, no, no, no, never.”
Members of the Under-17 Women's soccer team are shown during practice in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday, May 1, 2016. Jordan will host the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in the Fall.
Focusing On A Legacy
In the offices of the organizing committee, the staff is 75 percent female, said CEO Samar Nassar, who swam in the Olympics for Palestine in 2000 and Jordan in 2004. Nassar served as head of mission for Jordan’s Olympic team at the London Olympics in 2012, and Nadin Dawani, a former Olympian in taekwondo, will have that same job at Rio de Janeiro this summer. During the Under-17 World Cup, Al Khazaaleh will become the first female stadium manager.
“What we’re really focusing on,” Nassar said, “is the legacy we’ll leave behind.” With FIFA’s ban on headscarves lifted in early 2014 (with Prince Ali’s strong backing), Nassar revels in the representative mixture of the team — from families that never imagined this, to families more similar to that of the former defender and assistant Under-17 coach Sawsan Al Hassaseen, whose brothers sometimes would iron or wash her uniforms.
“You see them from all walks of life,” Nassar said. “You see the covered girl who’s actually doing this for a living, who is getting that money and supporting her family. And I think maybe it was a social taboo for her to play, but now when they see her on the pitch and excelling, and actually bringing money for that family, all of a sudden it becomes acceptable. And then you see a girl from the upper class, and private schools, and playing.”
Said Prince Ali, “The reason for doing an Under-17 Women’s World Cup is to start at the base, at the grass roots, and also to be a model for the region. It’s going to be a tough challenge, a tough battle. Not many people from sort of official capacities have that kind of belief in the fact that young girls can progress in this way. But you have to start at the grass roots, and that’s the emphasis behind doing it.”
Bazadough, the father at the fence, reckons about 70 percent of the public supports the concept. Nassar and Al Khazaaleh guess the number might be closer to 50-50.
“I’ll give you an example,” Nassar said. “When we started building the infrastructure, the training sites, we said we’ll go to football clubs that do not have training fields, and we’ll tell them, ‘In return for the grounds that we’ll provide, you have to establish women’s football teams.’” Some clubs agreed; others demurred. “ ‘We really want that pitch,’ ” Nassar recalled one club saying, “ ‘but we’re not going to start a women’s team.’ And, ‘Why?’ He was like, ‘We don’t approve of women playing and we don’t approve of men watching women play football.’
“So you get both sides,” she said, soon adding, “We want to try and change the culture, and by bringing the World Cup, I hope it sheds light more on the abilities of women, both on the pitch and off the pitch.”
Said Al Hassaseen, the assistant coach, through an interpreter, “There’s always going to be someone who’s against this. That’s never going to be gone. It’s not always like people think, that it’s about culture and religion. It’s about studying as well, about studying in school.”
“...And I think maybe it was a social taboo for her to play, but now when they see her on the pitch and excelling, and actually bringing money for that family, all of a sudden it becomes acceptable.”
Said Khair, the defender and ambassador: “Everything is different. Women are stronger. They can participate in many things, in work, in sports. Even with work they either go with the flow, or they just stop. It depends on the woman. And then the husband.”
As they spoke, Jordan had just finished hosting the final of a different tournament: the West Asian Under-14. As the Jordan-Bahrain title match began, teenaged boys carried out the flags while teams lined up for national anthems. About 1,000 spectators showed and made the familiar soccer cacophony of drums, horns, songs.
Some players practiced global arts such as diving or grabbing their heads after missed chances. All players showed a skill level unforeseeable 20 years ago. One Jordanian player scored, then ran clear down the pitch to hug her manager. As Jordan’s 6-2 win finished, a Bahraini player fell to the ground, crying. Jordanian players ran over en masse to thank the crowd. Players lined up for medals. Opponents embraced.
As the crowd trickled out, players hugged families, and three men gathered around for a photo with Jordan’s Tala Al Barghouthy — and with her trophy for being top scorer.
A bystander wondered: Were those uncles, cousins?
No, it turned out.
Those were fans.
Mervat Abdullah, at left, and her neighbor watch her daughter practice with members of the Under-17 Women's soccer team during practice in Amman, Jordan, on Monday, May 2, 2016. Jordan will host the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in the Fall.
The Female Muslim Athlete
Muslim countries from the Middle East might send an unprecedented number of female competitors to the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the support of other women and a growing number of men, they have widened the cultural possibilities about the role of women in their societies, including standards about when they should marry, how soon they should start a family and what they should wear while competing. This series is about the courage and perseverance of female athletes in one of the last regions on Earth to celebrate them.