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RIYADH: Women are finding new territories in various industries as the Kingdom sets diversity and inclusion goals, and football is no different. 

There are currently 1,100 female football players registered with Saudi clubs through the leagues, three regional training centers, and four active national teams. 

Today, the Women’s Football Department focuses on various areas of grassroots development, like five upcoming local competitions including the Premier League. 

The head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s Women’s Football Department, Aalia Al-Rasheed, told Arab News: “Today, we’re witnessing with Vision 2030 a whole transformation when it comes to the country in general. The Ministry of Sports reported a 150 percent increase in women’s participation (since 2015). The game is growing everyday.”

Left to right: Podcast host Mo Islam, CEO of PepsiCo. Middle East Ahmed El-Sheikh, head of SAFF’s Women’s Football Department Aalia Al-Rasheed, Vice President of SAFF Lamia Bahaian, PepsiCo.’s senior marketing manager Anfal Al-Duhilan, Al-Ittihad’s women’s team head coach Kelly Lindsey, Al-Nassr’s goalkeeper Sara Khalid. (Supplied)

Al-Awwal Park Stadium lit up with fireworks Sunday night as Al-Nassr were crowned champions against Al-Ittihad, ending their season on a high with a 1-0 victory.  

As the 2023-2024 Premier League concludes, the spirit of celebration still lingers in the air. Female trailblazers in the football sector came together on Monday to champion the incredible women of the Kingdom who are breaking boundaries in the realm of football at Hiwar, PepsiCo’s signature annual event for women empowerment.  

In the 2024 Hiwar, hosted in collaboration with the SAFF’s Women’s League, industry drivers spoke about their experiences in pushing the boundaries of women inclusion in the sport, during a panel discussion that evening moderated by Mo Islam, featuring Al-Rasheed alongside Al-Nassr’s goalkeeper Sara Khalid, Al-Ittihad’s women’s team head coach Kelly Lindsey, and PepsiCo.’s senior marketing manager, Anfal Al-Duhilan. 

Khalid, one of the Kingdom’s star female football players, reflected on her team’s first-ever international victory last year, winning the premier league twice in a row, and her current, vivid reality in leading the industry into international territory. 

But when Khalid left her day job to pursue a football career, she knew she had an example to set and responsibility on her back. 

She told Arab News: “Today, I can say I’m one of the first players to represent the national team and my country on an international level, and now with us winning the league and participating in the AFC champion’s league, it’s definitely a huge weight on my shoulders.

“Every decision I have to make must be made thoughtfully and in consideration of everything else, and to always inspire and be inspired by the people around me.”

As a coach, Lindsey said the top struggle is creating equilibrium within a team. Her coaching approach blends physical preparation with cultural understanding, acknowledging the importance of nutrition, sports psychology, and family values within Saudi leagues. 

While some Al-Ittihad team members struggled to even pass the ball five times just last summer, they have now managed to compete in the first level of the Saudi football pyramid.

She commended Saudi Arabia’s massive investment into women’s sports, with the SAFF allocating SR49.9 million ($13 million) to women’s football cross-country programs just last year. 

Lindsey told Arab News: “By investing in sports, women are not only out in society, they are front and center for everyone to watch, judge, and support.  

“The dialogue will change about everything that needs to happen around them so that more women can do their passion, live their passion in work and music and art and culture and sport. It will create a natural dialogue and a push for more infrastructure for women to succeed.”

Last October, this support was bolstered even further as PepsiCo. and the SAFF announced that the multinational’s subsidiary, Lay’s potato chips, will sponsor the 2023-24 Saudi Women’s Premier League.

“Our sponsorship is in alignment with the company’s vision, which is to basically drive diversity and inclusion, aligning with the Saudi 2030 Vision. We wanted to make a difference and really give every single Saudi female the opportunity to pursue her dreams in any field and to continue empowering and supporting them,” said Al-Duhilan.

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