Algiers: When Fathia was seven years old, she would wait each day for classes to end, throw down her schoolbag and rush to play football with the boys from her neighbourhood.
Now in her twenties, Algerian international Fathia plays for all-female club Afak Relizane, where love for “the beautiful game” has trumped gender stereotypes and even militant threats in the conservative yet football-mad North African nation.
Coach Sid Ahmed Mouaz helped to launch Afak in 1997 in the middle of Algeria’s blood-soaked civil war at a time when armed Islamists prohibited all women’s sport.
“The terrorists sent me a letter demanding that I stop girls’ football,” Mouaz recalls.
But he refused to be intimidated. Midfielder Fathia has gone on to triumph in multiple domestic and regional tournaments with her club.
Mouaz admits that his passion for football verges on the obsessive, but that drive has allowed him to assemble his squad of 15, who play and train despite the social stigma in Algeria of women playing sports.
“The girls have been insulted, people spit at the entrance to the stadium,” he says.
For many families around Relizane, a town in Algeria’s agricultural heartland west of the capital, even today, “a good woman doesn’t play football”.
“Go home and make dinner”, or “find yourself a husband” are refrains heard frequently by players, according to the coach.
The squad meets at the town’s stadium for two-hour training sessions each day.
Despite modest facilities, the sessions are intense, in keeping with Mouaz’s mantra that his recruits must have “football in the blood”.
Ten of the players live full-time in club accommodation, fitted out with bunk beds, wardrobes, a television and stereo system.
A cook prepares meals for the players as freshly washed kits hang drying on the line outside.
When they aren’t training, they enjoy one amenity above all: Wi-Fi. The players stare into their smartphones, earphones in, and communicate with the outside world over Facebook.
Women’s football is an amateur sport in Algeria, with about 10 female clubs. One of the first set up, the Relizane club encourages the girls to study or work when not playing or training.
In spite of the team’s runaway success, local parents are often reluctant to allow their daughters to pursue football into adulthood.
“I’m proud of my daughter but I would be calmer if she stopped playing, got married and wore the veil like other women around here,” says Fathia’s mother, Fatma.
Whenever one of the girls is approached by a suitor, the player faces the same question: “Football or marriage?”
Mouna, a striker, is getting married next month and will probably have to give up the game.
“If they’re motivated, they will continue to play even after they marry,” says Mouaz.
Another restriction is money. Despite a heaving trophy cabinet and the town pride over its club’s successes, few locals turn out even for home games.
The squad, which plays in green and white, has no sponsor or outside financing.
“There are no funds for a women’s football team in Relizane,” is a common complaint among players.
Six club members have represented Algeria at international level but their reward for winning a league game for Afak is the equivalent of 12 euros ($12.7) — “a pittance”, says Mouaz.
After their latest victory, a local official invited the girls for a reception in their honour, where the players were hoping for some financial reward.
Instead, each girl received a sports bag and a tracksuit.
But, as one club member defiantly puts it: “Love of football is stronger than backward attitudes, even after all that’s been done to break up this team.”