Starting Small – Aiming High By Samar Araj Mousa
Why a girls’ team? A girls’ national soccer team under occupation!
The founders of the team, and several enthusiastic girls who love to play soccer, got together in the town of Bethlehem to form the nucleus of the first girls’ soccer club. The goal was simple: Create new opportunities for Palestinian girls. Enhance the concept and practice of equality between the sexes. Raise awareness within Palestinian society about the rights of young girls. Send the message to Palestinian girls that they can do whatever boys can do, and better! And finally the founders hoped to open more venues for girls to have fun/explore new things in life, live their potential, and have the possibility to make their dreams come true.
Occupation or no occupation, Palestinian children have the right to dream. They should dare to challenge themselves. They should and can, amid the spectre of death and destruction, enjoy their youth, act out their dreams, and have fun. Even though the Israeli occupation remains a key stumbling bloc – movement restrictions are still in place, scores of checkpoints separate communities within the West Bank, and the Separation Wall dissects the whole area and divides families and robs dreams – a very small group of involved Palestinians looked beyond the daily dose of humiliation and frustration and laid the groundwork for forming the first Palestinian girls’ soccer team. Though volunteers – the coach, trainers, and support staff are committed and determined to help make the dream become a reality.
The team was formed in early 2002 – a bold new move in Palestinian society. The beginnings came when a couple, a husband and a wife who both majored in physical education in college, decided to help young Palestinian girls take their hobby one notch up. The husband ran the Beit Sahour Youth Club (near Bethlehem). He began to recruit a few young girls who were eager to play soccer and be part of a girls’ team, with a trainer who volunteered his time. Encouraged by the girls’ desire and by the enthusiasm shown by the parents, he started to hold practice sessions for more girls. Meanwhile, his wife, who is in charge of the Bethlehem University Athletic Department, began to train what later became the nucleus of the first Palestinian women’s soccer team. The problem was that the number of players did not amount to 11 – the number needed to form a team, not to mention substitutes! In a conservative society, seeing half a dozen university students coming forward to start an organised soccer practice was similar to breaking a taboo. Despite the difficulties and hiccups, a semi-structured soccer practice took off.
The Sports and Youth Directorate at the Palestinian Ministry of Sports took an interest in and supported the formation of an all-girls national team and lent support to the work of the Beit Sahour Youth Club in its effort to promote the sport among young girls who would train to join the national team. Meanwhile the FIFA Federation encouraged the formation of women’s soccer teams worldwide. The Arab Soccer Federation took up the challenge, and several Arab women’s soccer teams were formed. Because few women showed interest, the first Arab women’s friendly soccer competition was limited to teams of five from the countries that took part in the first tournament of its kind in 2003, in Amman. The same arrangement (five players from each competing country) took part in the 2004 competition. The Palestinian team participated in both. With the increasing popularity of the Arab women’s soccer team, the Arab Soccer Federation decided that from 2005, women’s soccer competitions would take place with full teams (11 players).
The first full Palestinian women’s soccer team took part in the West Asia Women’s Soccer Championship in September 2005. It gave the team the opportunity to play against much more established, better trained, and better equipped teams. It also gave the team management the opportunity to assess the needs, take the team forward, and lay the groundwork for training a full team capable of competing regionally and one day internationally. The team trains on a regular basis in Bethlehem with a capable trainer who volunteers his time and effort. Other players, who do not have Israeli permits to enter Bethlehem, train in Ramallah and Jericho. Intense training sessions enabled the team to take part in the first Arab Women’s Soccer Championship that took place in Abu Dhabi on 20 February 2006. This championship enabled the players to gain a wealth of experience playing against well-structured and well-trained teams who enjoy great support, facilities, and trained staff.
The Palestinian team also participated in the German Protestant Kirchentag in Koln from 2 to 19 June 2007, and played in various other competitions and friendly games in Koln, Koblenz, Lof, and Freiburg.
Recently, the team participated in the 5th International Amman Club Tournament for Women’s Futsal in April 2008, and came in first among 16 international teams. Starting small and aiming high has paid off! And many thanks go not only to Bethlehem University for supporting the creation of the Palestinian women’s soccer team but also to Al Watania for its financial support. Samar Araj Mousa is the Athletics Director at Bethlehem University, the manager of the Palestinian Women’s National Soccer Team, the general secretary of the Palestinian Tennis Association, and a member of the Palestine Olympic Committee. She can be reached at email@example.com.