Dubai: There is little doubt that the Saudi league has risen to the international stage in recent months. Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nasser FC ‘kick-started’ what has been described as the ‘catalyst’ of inbound transfers to Saudi Arabia including notable players such as Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Paris Saint Germain’s Neymar.
But what impact is this having on women’s football in Saudi Arabia? According to recent figures, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation saw an 86 per cent increase in the number of registered players in 2022. In 2021 there were 374 players and in 2022 there were 694 players.
Lamia Bahaian, herself the first female vice-president of the Saudi Arabian Football Association previously told a Fifa women’s convention in Australia, “When it comes to women’s football in Saudi Arabia, we are breaking records.”
Maria Khan is just the latest affirmation of Bahaian’s statement. Being the captain of the Pakistani women’s national team, she has carried the torch for football in the Middle East and South Asia, even receiving praise from high profile figures such as Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shabaz Sharif. Khan was most recently signed to the Damam-based Eastern Flames FC, a member team of the Saudi Arabian Women’s Premier League which was established in November of 2020.
In a post on their social media, Onyx FC, a UAE-based women’s football club of which Khan was involved with, bid farewell to her saying, “Maria has supported Onyx FC since we began and shared our vision to grow women’s football in the region.”
Born in Colorado to Pakistani parents, she started to play football at the age of six. Realising this was a passion, she began to pursue the sport as a career, and maintains that being a product of grassroots soccer allowed her to know what her next steps were. “The good thing that the US has is their collegiate system where you can do athletics at a high level but also get your education”, she said. “Football enabled me to get a very good education, to learn a lot of life skills and to be challenged.”
Move to UAE
Shortly after this milestone, Khan moved to the UAE in 2013 in order to complete a masters of business administration. According to Khan, the UAE’s female football community at the time was a very small one, thus making it easier to be involved in the sport. In addition to pursuing her passion recreationally, Khan began playing with one of the first female professional teams in the UAE, Al Wahda.
She elaborated on her latest achievement in the Saudi women’s premier league. “I think it’s really great to start to bridge the gap between athletes in this region”, Khan says. “When you have these big transfer deals that are happening on the men’s side, it just brings awareness because it’s not like these leagues are easy by any means”.
On this note Khan emphasises that the women’s premier league in Saudi is a competitive one. “This is a challenging league, they’re really focusing on growing the women’s game and again, I think it’s great that it’s starting to bring awareness to athletes in this part of the world, both male and female.”