Thu, May 23, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Cameroonian girls defying prejudice to pursue their soccer dreams at academy

Reuters, YAOUNDE

Gaelle Asheri, center, plays soccer with friends outside her house in Yaounde, Cameroon, on May 3.

Photo: Reuters

When Gaelle Asheri first started playing soccer in the dirt streets near her home in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, she was the only girl on the informal neighborhood teams that used stones for goalposts and kept score with chalk on a wall.

Asheri, 17, and her teammate Ida Pouadjeu, 16, are now among the first wave of girls being trained by professional coaches at the Rails Foot Academy in Yaounde. It was set up in January to foster female soccer talent in a country where many still see the sport as a man’s game.

“I used to train with boys, so with boys there were some exercises I was not allowed to do, because I am a girl,” Asheri said, describing how she was seen as more fragile than her male counterparts.

“But reaching here it was just another world: I was forced to do abdominal exercises, forced to do all harsh work, so you reach a level where tears usually come out with sweat,” she said.

The academy gets its name from the train tracks that hem the playing ground and turn into informal stands for the local spectators, who gather to watch the girls’ teams play all-male sides.

Global interest in women’s soccer is growing and FIFA hopes more than 1 billion viewers will tune in to watch the FIFA Women’s World Cup next month.

Cameroon’s national side, known as the Indomitable Lionesses, were one of three African teams to qualify.

Their star player, Gaelle Enganamouit, was the brains behind the academy — the west African country’s first for women.

Her own experience as a young player in Yaounde showed her that it was important for women to have their own space to train, she told FIFA in January.

The academy trains about 70 girls, most of whom come from poor backgrounds and would otherwise not be able to afford even their own soccer cleats, coach Emmanuel Biolo said.

“Here they have everything: coaches, jerseys, training equipment, a physiotherapist and the guidance we give them all the time. Gaelle Enganamouit really wants these kids to be the next generation,” he said.

Asheri attends the academy on Saturday mornings and after school on Wednesdays, changing out of her school uniform — a belted blue knee-length dress — into her team’s matching outfits.

She is studying for her final baccalaureate exams, but the dream for her and Pouadjeu is to play soccer at a professional level like their benefactor.

“I’ve seen Gaelle play on TV. I’ve never missed one of her matches. She plays so well, I want to be like her,” Pouadjeu said.

Asheri and Pouadjeu initially faced opposition from family members who were worried that the sport was unfeminine.

However, neither have been deterred by such prejudice.

“I picked up the ball, I kicked it and I never looked back,” Asheri said, recalling the childhood street soccer games with her male cousins and neighbors.

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