The formation of the new team represents the latest sign of the rapid transformation of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia. Image Credit: Supplied

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia has launched its third women’s national team – the Under-17 squad – with 28 players already underway for a training camp in Riyadh this weekend.

The formation of the new team represents the latest sign of the rapid transformation of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia since the inception of a dedicated women’s football department at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) in 2019. The squad will hope to follow in the footsteps of their senior counterparts who were recently crowned champions on their international friendly tournament debut and are well on their way to officially entering the FIFA Rankings List next month.

Today, there are two active professional leagues featuring 25 clubs and 523 players representing over 20 different nationalities. On an amateur level, almost 50,000 schoolgirls took part in the inaugural schools’ league across 4,700 teams across Saudi Arabia. Off the pitch, over 49 referees are officially registered and officiating league matches, with the first Saudi female referee – Anoud Al Asmari – breaking into FIFA’s licensed list last month. 1,000 licensed coaches are also nurturing young female talent across clubs, academies, schools and training centres in different cities across the country.

Healthy lives

Marking a further milestone in the women’s game, Yasser Al Misehal, President of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) said, "Saudi Arabia has become an ambitious supporter of sport to help inspire its young population to get active and to lead healthy lives. Our investments, which include grassroot facilities, partnerships and hosting global events, reflect the country’s rapid progress and transformation. Women and girls are central to everything we do in sport, and we are working to provide equal access to facilities, opportunities and careers, both on and off the pitch."

He added, "In football that means our national teams regardless of male or female get equal pay in terms of daily allowance while on national duty, they train on the same pitches, stay in the same type of accommodation, and use the same equipment. The establishment of the U-17 team today is yet another sign of our strong commitment to women’s sports, and football in specific. Having been selected to host AFC Asian Cup 2027 in Saudi Arabia, our commitment now lies on our bid to host the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2026. We invite everyone to visit our country to see for themselves how the country’s transformation is impacting daily lives and the role sport is playing across all areas of society."

The new youth age group follows the footsteps of main squad and futsal side. Image Credit: Supplied

All sports have benefitted under Vision 2030, the transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is advancing Saudi Arabia, but sports for schoolgirls specifically have seen a massive boost with thousands grasping new opportunities that previously did not exist. As a result, today 37 federations have a women’s national team, with four female presidents leading them. There has also been a tremendous increase in sports participation across all levels, with over 200,000 girls practicing sports every week.

Mirroring much of the transformation happening across all areas in Saudi Arabia, the strong women’s football movement stems from a long-term strategy and commitment by the federation to grow interest and inspire participation at all levels of the women’s game, with unprecedented investments in grassroots, player development, coaching, refereeing and competitions.

Develop skills

The U-17 squad was chosen following try-outs across the country’s three Regional Training Centres in the capital city, Jeddah and Dammam, that welcome girls as young as 6-years-old, three times a week in an effort to increase participation and develop skills at an early age. The centres saw more than 300 talented players try out for the national selection. Some players were also chosen after being spotted playing in the inaugural Schools’ League launched at the end of last year.

In a boost to future development, five players from the 28 selected are already honing their skills in front of crowds every weekend in the Women’s Premier League. The Under-17 national team’s first training camp has just been completed, with the second confirm from the 9th - 11th February 2023.

Lamia Bahaian, Supervisor of the Women’s Football Department and board member at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation said, "We are fortunate to see such a big turnout for the try-outs and it really shows the passion these girls have for football. They want to play, watch and participate in any way – and while that certainly makes our job easier, it also adds an additional responsibility to give the women’s game the platform it deserves. We’ve been working towards the establishment of the U-17 team for a couple of years now as it’s a very important element in our mission to offer a 360 degrees women’s football ecosystem. It’s great to see that five of the players are already earning minutes in the Women’s Premier League, and is indicative of how the creation of the league has benefited the all-round growth of the women’s game."