Friday, April 11, 2014

New SAFF chief best man to help female athletes

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 10/1/2013

My good friend Ahmed Eid Al-Harbi was elected last month as president of the General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF).
In a 32-30 vote, he beat out Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Muammar in SAFF’s first-ever election for a four-year term.
Sepp Blatter, president of the International Federation of Association Football, also known as FIFA, which supervises SAFF, said Ahmed’s election was an “achievement and an example to other Gulf states” and a “wonderful example” of how “democracy can work in the Kingdom.”
I can’t think of a better person than Ahmed to run SAFF. And I am less enamored with this moderate exercise in democracy and more impressed with the quality of the man elected to the post.
Ahmed was a top athlete in his playing days as a goalkeeper for Al-Ahli SC and served as the team’s president in 1987. He was never one of those testosterone-fueled guys strutting their stuff on the pitch, but humble, quiet and who always talked about his family first. With Ahmed, there was no tunnel vision of football as the one and only in his life. He had an expansive view of the world and what it could not only offer to athletes in general, but specifically women athletes.
Some people in the world of football see Ahmed as a reformer, but I don’t think the label does him justice. I see him as a visionary.
He is probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running, and competing against international teams.
Ahmed recognizes that SAFF is much more than the umbrella group for football leagues, but can be an agent of change in Saudi society. And what I like most about these efforts to change the way the sport is played and perceived by football fans throughout the Kingdom is that the new president does it all under the radar.
His habit is to respond to any invitation to visit female universities in Saudi Arabia and help them develop women’s football teams.
He taught university administrators and instructors how to qualify for trainer positions with big-name football unions in the United States, England, Brazil and Germany. While vice president of SAFF’s player status committee, he had the federation help establish women’s physical education curriculum as an early step to combat obesity and provide a comprehensive physical education training program that will be beneficial to future athletes.
He told my husband in 2011 that he helped a female basketball and volleyball group at a Jeddah college. And by organizing women’s football teams, universities can organize leagues with an eye toward future competition in the Olympic Games.
This is real progress. While women are a long way from FIFA recognition or even hitting the playing field against a team from another country, I see the shelf life of underground female training and games having an expiration date. There will be a time when women’s leagues will be competitive, Teams like the King’s United Football Club in Jeddah will no longer play in the shadows.
Ahmed is faced with a tough sell with religious conservatives to get Saudi recognition for women’s football that will ultimately lead to international recognition. He believes the infrastructure needs to be in place to make it practical for women to play. That means new playgrounds and stadiums equipped to handle the requirements of a segregated society. The Ministry of Education should also participate to protect women’s sports while at the same time maintain our Islamic principles.
These are the obvious paths to take to ensure that women get a crack at participating in sports. But as a practical matter, women still must contend with attitudes among some Saudis that they should not be playing in front of male audiences and certainly not on television.
Ahmed recognizes these obstacles and possesses the diplomatic skills to negotiate with various parties to reach a compromise, while at the same time do not offend the sensibilities of the more conservative elements of our society. This does not come as a surprise to me or to those who are close to him because he is a strong believer in the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal’s philosophy of sport and wisdom.
Ahmed has a full plate. Perhaps developing women’s sports programs at the SAFF level is not his priority. But if anybody can effect change, it’s Ahmed.

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