Monika Staab dreams of Saudi Arabia’s women’s national team being among the best in the world over the next decade.
For the German coach, it could first be in an Asian competition and then hopefully in the World Cup.
And when that happens, we will look back to 2022 as the year that changed women’s football in the Kingdom forever.
In February, under Staab’s leadership, the national team played their first-ever international matches against the Maldives and Seychelles in Male. And earlier this month they made history by playing their first two home internationals, both against Bhutan in Riyadh.
“It was another step to get a good experience for domestic players, because that’s what’s missing,” Staab said. “They don’t have many games, or they haven’t had many in the past. So we have two wonderful opening matches in the Maldives against Seychelles and Maldives, both of which we won 2-0. So we wanted to play in Bhutan but because of COVID-19 we couldn’t enter the country, it was difficult.
“So we decided to come to Saudi Arabia and play those two games in Abha. And, of course, Bhutan were very strong opponents, they had just played the South Asian Football Federation Cup. They came right after that tournament and played those games, and it was a real challenge for our team to play against them.
The first match saw Saudi Arabia overturn a two-goal half-time deficit to draw 3-3, while the second ended in a 4-2 victory for Bhutan.
“I have to admit that Bhutan were really strong, knowing our strengths and playing a very good game. And our team wasn’t as competitive as in the first game, but in the end they lost 4-2, and I believe that every defeat, every defeat, you can learn more. And I hope it was a good lesson for the national players, on what we still need to do to be truly competitive in the AFC championship.
Lack of in-game practice was another factor in both matches, an issue Staab hopes to resolve in the months and years to come.
“The biggest problem was that when we finished our games in the Maldives, which was the end of February, (at the time), they hadn’t played a game since the end of September. So we’re talking about almost seven months. They didn’t play at 11,” Staab said.
“Twelve players participated in the GCC Futsal Tournament in Kuwait and then in the Western Arab Countries Championship in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where they won the silver medal, which was a great success for them as well. But they weren’t playing 11 so we had a good training camp in Austria for almost 16 days and then for about 15 days we were in Abha preparing for the two international matches. But in the end, if you’re not playing the real game, at 11, that means the experience still isn’t there.
The match experience will no doubt increase with the launch of the eight-team Saudi Women’s Premier League earlier this month, alongside the 17-team Premier League (formerly the Regional Women’s League).
“So now I’m very, very happy the league has started, we’ve seen some amazing games in Jeddah and here in Riyadh. So that’s where most of the national players (are), they play at their clubs, which is great, so that’s where they gain experience week after week, to learn how to last 90 minutes, to have at the last minute enough strength and stamina to play the game for 90 minutes.
The establishment of these competitive league structures should lead to the emergence of more talented footballers across the country, she believes.
“It’s amazing,” Staab said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for our coaches, assistant coaches to observe the players every week, the performances of the players that we have selected. And also players will be looking for, especially young players who I think will come. I saw in Al-Yamamah already two players who are very young, 15 years old. So that’s what we’re looking for in this league, to have new players coming in every weekend, and especially the younger ones, because I think that’s the future.
Staab also highlighted the role played by the Saudi Football Federation, in particular head of women’s football department Aalia Al-Rasheed and supervisor and board member Lamia Bahaian.
“And I’m so thrilled and so happy that this league has finally started under Aalia and Lamia, they’ve made everything possible, that this league is going to be played in a real league format, not just a tournament like we did l ‘last year.”
The level of the new league has been boosted by the participation of five of the biggest clubs in the country – Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli.
“It’s a big development because now we are looking for (teams) who can have the facilities, who work very professionally, who are already established in Saudi Arabia thanks to the men’s team. And now they are ready to put set up the women’s game. I mean, it took more than 40 years for Germany before that happened – for a very, very strong men’s team in the first division to set up a women’s team.
“It’s just amazing what these women have done,” Staab said. “Adwa Al-Arifi, of course, from the Ministry of Sports, she is also involved. They played the game, Adwa, Lamia and Aalia, and they know what they are doing, and it is such a pleasure to work with them.
Staab says having a foreign player quota, which leaves room for the development of Saudi players, is positive for women’s football in general and should raise the level of local players.
Staab also recommended the creation of three regional training centers in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam which will seek to unearth national talents, aged between 5 and 17. The aim is to produce Saudi national teams by age group in the future.
For now, the Saudi senior team’s schedule is also about to get a lot busier.
“I made a calendar for the whole year. So we will have around 10 games per year (2023),” Staab said. “That’s what we tried to incorporate, that’s what (the) normal FIFA schedule gives.”
Several fixtures will soon be announced for the start of the new year ahead of another historic date expected for Saudi women’s football.
“On March 31, 2023, you will see the Saudi woman in the ranks of FIFA and it is yet another milestone, another great achievement for women’s football in Saudi Arabia. I just spoke to President Yasser (Al-Misehal ), he was very supportive, he said we have to play these games, they are all very supportive (for the) women’s game.
Staab also proposed the creation of a GCC Cup for women.
“I think it will happen soon because Kuwait is now working on a young national team. We had Oman… with their futsal team coming to Jeddah, UAE have been very strong in recent years. And also Bahrain since I started the national team in 2007 so they have grown so it will be fantastic to play the GCC men’s cup as well as the GCC women’s cup.
Saudi Arabia is also a candidate for the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which would mark the Kingdom’s first appearance in the 21st edition of the competition.
“It will give us another four years to have a strong team competing there, if they get the offer, so we will have to wait until April next year for that decision to be made.
Staab’s long-term plan is to play enough competitive international matches for his national team to be competitive by 2026. Ambitions go beyond that, however.
“I am not only in charge of the Regional Training Center, I want the young players to rise, because it is your base, it is your foundation. I also took care of the training of coaches,” said Staab.
“We have now trained over 135 C license coaches, 10 B license coaches. Good coaches, especially female coaches, mean you will have better players,” she said. “So I’m really, really keen to have good coaches, Saudi coaches, one day to take it all back, so we don’t need all of them from abroad. That they get experience, that they are watched, that they acquire a kind of capacity to develop as a coach because I still believe in women’s football and that you need female coaches. It’s also for your culture, for your parents.
“Officials dream of going to the World Cup,” she added. “Of course, it’s a big dream. I know Aalia, Adwa and Lamia would like to leave as soon as possible, but probably not (in) 2027. We have 2031 or 2035, we have to see how development goes, but I can see now that we are running so fast. ”
Staab says a five-year foundation period will eventually pay off.
“That’s how you can achieve something,” she said. “If you work hard, if you are determined, if you are committed, and have that passion and all those people, and also the national players have that passion for the game. Let’s see how far we get in the end.
“I think everything will be possible here in Saudi Arabia.”