If you happen through Amman right about now, the sports focus is on Jordan’s men’s national team, as it readies for a home-and-home early this month against Uzbekistan, the winner playing a South American club for a World Cup slot. In that, Jordan will join eyeballs all over the world in the rough, rowdy whittling to a final 32 for Brazil. Yet a visible undercurrent here involves the women, who got good newspaper and TV publicity as they made off to Laos, to train for a tournament in Myanmar.
BY: CHUCK CULPEPPER
AMMAN, Jordan — Root for them. Do it. Add them to the teams you follow ardently, the teams you follow occasionally, the teams you follow randomly when you’re aimless on the Internet.
They have untold guts, an unusual chance at real historic significance and the unlimited appeal of demonstrating that the human will to play a game might just trump bigger forces, such as culture. Circle the planet at this moment, and they might be just about the best thing going.
They’re the women’s soccer team of Jordan, and if they can reach the 2015 World Cup in Canada, the effect might be incalculable. They would become the first Arab or Middle Eastern team to reach a Women’s World Cup, and imagine the impression on generations of girls seeking big dreams and good health.
Actually, you don’t have to imagine much, because Jordan, just for one country, has established grassroots programs for teen-aged girls. Rema Ramounieh oversees them nowadays and calls their pupils “lucky.” Ask her how these days compare to the last generation, and she says, “Actually, we didn’t have a last generation.”
They began only in 2005 when, Ramounieh said, “It was 35 players in the whole of Jordan. We were really so happy that we had a national team … At that time, nobody knew anything about women’s football.”
With Ramounieh as goalkeeper and captain, positions she would hold until retiring after this momentous June, the fledgling Jordan team up and won the West Asian Football Federation tournament and, she said, “saw that we had a future.”
The future found a hilt in June in Amman when, for the first time, Jordan qualified for the Asian Cup, which in May, 2014, will funnel five teams toward Canada. They did so in Jordan, on Jordanian TV. They did so in an environment that shows a fresh generation, thinking freshly about these matters.
“That’s for sure,” Ramounieh said. “Yeah, I see that back in past generations, it’s quite difficult, because people in the past used to think we’re not allowed to play football, and football is not for women. Now we find 25-year-old Jordanian men come and watch. They really respect us, and we see now our friends, our family, everybody coming to watch us.”
It’s embryonic — about 2,500 fans saw them beat Uzbekistan to qualify — but it’s compelling in its nascence. Meet Arab women who play football, and you’ll meet people uncommonly alive. You might end up thinking nobody loves a game any more. As pioneers, they’re alongside women I met during a two-year stint in the United Arab Emirates, such as the Kuwaiti triathlete who trained in a jellyfish-ridden lagoon at a construction site, because she could not get access to a pool; Omani women who reported dramatic health improvements from taekwondo; and an Iraqi woman who trained for an endurance event by ignoring the stares along the roads of Mosul. All make a serious bucking of their cultures with, in most cases, the serious backing of their fathers, another fresh cultural wrinkle.
Said the Asian Football Confederation President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, “The rapid development of the women’s game in Asia has been shown in the success of teams like Japan, DPR Korea and China on the world stage, but what we have seen from the four qualifying groups for the women’s Asian Cup this year is how teams from West Asia are starting to show significant improvement.”
Palestine, Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon also have qualified among the 16 teams for Vietnam, but Jordan holds the highest seeding, at No. 5.
It also holds the highest expectations, on vivid display one night two years ago in Abu Dhabi. There, Jordan lost a regional tournament semifinal to Iran by 3-2, and the press-conference room happened to share a wall with their dressing room, making audible their extraordinary — and commendable — wailing.
How they did care.
As the aching sounds drifted almost uncomfortably into the next room, their Dutch then-coach Hesterine de Reus said, “They are used to being the best team, so they are used to winning.”
As she told the FIFA website when she left for Australia, “It is a young and skillful side and a promising team,” adding, “There is great support from the federation.”
“We really did some hard work,” Ramounieh said, “and really wanted to do something about women’s football in Jordan. We believe in it very much … We still need more, but it’s getting better.” As in: “When you’re walking down the street, people are talking to you about it and saying, ‘We’re very proud that you qualified for the final.'”
It’s all because of something so simple, something mandatory when you’re considering that some players double as students. As de Reus said, “The girls really love the sport, which is a powerful thing in itself.”
Yeah, root for that.