The fact that FIFA tournaments take place in the Arab world is not new. FIFA organised the men's U-20 World Cup in Tunisia back in 1977. Since then, there have been several events in which the region has proved to be an enthusiastic host. Even Qatar has already been a World Cup organizer; the men’s U-20 World Cup was held there in 1995.
Nevertheless, there was a milestone in 2016 in the Middle East: the first FIFA women’s tournament to be held in the region. Although ‘only’ at the U-17 level, the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan was an important step in the acceptance and progression of women's football. In Arab countries women's football is generally not the top priority; many women's teams were founded just a few years ago or in some cases do not even exist yet. Unfortunately, it is still a reality that female footballers do not receive the necessary support from their national associations. Jordan proves that there are other ways.
Jordan's first national team at a World Cup
Ali bin al-Hussein, President of the Football Association and Prince of Jordan, is a great advocate for women's football. He was the driving force behind the first FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup on Arab soil. Two years earlier, Prince Ali had been campaigning for the abolition of the rule forbidding women to play with headcoverings, such as the hijab. In 2014, the Laws of the Game were amended, and since then, women (and men) have been allowed to play their sport with their traditional headcoverings.
As the host of the U-17 Women's World Cup, Jordan's U-17 women's team automatically qualified for the tournament. It was the first World Cup participation for a national football team from Jordan, men or women. It was with great joy that the players entered the pitch for their first match on the ‘big’ FIFA stage. Being able to play in world championship and showing their footballing skills was a huge success for Jordanian women's football. One expression of the individual freedom that prevails in Jordan was the fact that not all players were wearing headcoverings, but some did, marking the first time this was permitted in a FIFA tournament. Although the team didn’t advance from the group stage to the knock-outs, the rejoicing of the home crowd was exuberant when Sarah Abu-Sabbah scored the first World Cup goal in Jordan's football history against Mexico. Women's football had officially arrived in the Middle East.
Future stars show on the pitch
The tournament showed very good football overall and proved that a lot had happened in development at youth level. Some of the stars of the future were already on the pitch, such as Venezuelan Deyna Castellanos, who was nominated for the FIFA Best Awards a year later. Or Lorena Navarro, Spain's top scorer, who scored a total of eight goals. And finally, the tournament's best player, Japanese captain Fuka Nagano, distributed the balls in midfield like the big number 10s in football history. At the end of the tournament, she was also in the final with her team against the always strong North Koreans, but lost the game narrowly on penalties. North Korea, on the other hand, won their second title – a record for the still young tournament. Castellanos' Venezuela finished a good fourth behind the up-and-coming Spaniards, who were to take the title two years later.
Sustainable changes through women's league
Jordan has made a name for itself as a role model for equality by hosting the first FIFA women's tournament in the Arab world. Later, another tournament was to follow with the organisation of the Asian Women's Football Championship in 2018. With the founding of women's leagues, the image of women in football in the Arab world is changing. Importantly, the first major steps have been taken. The upcoming men's FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 marks the next milestone on the long path of football development in the region. Who knows, perhaps the first senior-level FIFA Women's World Cup will soon follow in the Arab world? Only time will tell.