Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 11 News List

FEATURE: Sudan’s ‘sister coach’ takes love of soccer to the field

AFP, GADAREF, Sudan

Salma al-Majidi, left, coaches a player during a training session of the al-Ahly al-Gadaref club in Gedaref, Sudan, on Feb. 17.

Photo: AFP

In Sudan, where a women’s national soccer team remains a distant dream, Salma al-Majidi knew the only way to take part in her beloved sport was to coach — and that the players had to be men.

Al-Majidi, 27, acknowledged by FIFA as the first Arab and Sudanese woman to coach a men’s soccer team in the Arab world, is a pioneer in a sport that dominates the region.

“Why football? Because it is my first and ultimate love,” al-Majidi said, clad in sports gear and a black headscarf, as she led players of the al-Ahly al-Gadaref club at a practice session in the town of Gadaref, east of the capital, Khartoum.

“I became a coach because there is still no scope for women’s football in Sudan,” said al-Majidi, who is affectionately called “sister coach” by her team.

The daughter of a retired policeman, al-Majidi was 16 when she fell in love with soccer.

It came about as she watched her younger brother’s school team being coached. She was captivated by the coach’s instructions, his moves and how he placed the marker cones at practice sessions.

“At the end of every training session, I discussed with him the techniques he used to coach the boys,” al-Majidi told reporters, as she watched her own players practicing on a hot day at a dusty ground in Gadaref. “He saw I had a knack for coaching ... and gave me a chance to work with him.”

Soon al-Majidi was coaching the under-13 and under-16 teams of the al-Hilal club in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the west bank of the Nile River.

Questions such as whether she understood soccer or had the skills to coach men were all put to rest over time, al-Majidi said, speaking in a soft, but confident tone.

Named in the BBC’s 2015 list of “100 inspirational women,” al-Majidi has coached Sudanese second-league men’s clubs of al-Nasr, al-Nahda, Nile Halfa and al-Mourada.

Nile Halfa and al-Nahda topped local leagues under her coaching.

She holds the African “B” badge in coaching, meaning she can coach any first-league team in the continent.

The only other woman to have gained recognition in Sudan’s soccer world was Mounira Ramadan, who refereed men’s matches in the 1970s.

Sudan joined FIFA in 1948 and established the Confederation of African Football along with Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. It won the confederation trophy in 1970.

Women’s soccer has faced an uphill battle since the country adopted Shariah law in 1983, six years after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir seized power in a coup.

There is no legal ban on women’s soccer in Sudan, but a conservative society coupled with the Muslim leanings of the government have left it in the shadows.

Women do play soccer, but there are no competitions or women’s clubs, and they do not play much in public.

“There are restrictions on women’s football, but I’m determined to succeed,” said al-Majidi, whose dream is to coach an international team, as her players kicked up clouds of dust practicing free-kicks.

Al-Majidi’s journey has not been easy.

“Sudan is a community of tribes, and some tribes believe that a woman’s role is confined only to her home,” said al-Majidi, a university graduate in accounting and management.

“There was this one boy who refused to listen. He told me he belongs to a tribe that believed men should never take orders from women,” she said.

It took months before he finally accepted her as coach.

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