Philadelphia helps nurture UAE soccer dream

Val Henderson is a goalkeeper for the Philadelphia Independence of Women's Professional Soccer. In July, the United Arab Emirates government sent a delegation of 20 women's soccer players to the East Coast for training, including a stop in Philadelphia to work with the Independence. Henderson, struck by the country's effort to develop soccer, shares her impressions with espnW.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been completely absorbed with the women's World Cup in Germany. I get a sense of pride in watching the players, knowing they are the world's elite and I've been on the field alongside them. With that pride comes a longing and a dream of taking part in an Olympics or World Cup. Growing up in the United States, that vision for the future has seemed ever-present.

But young women from the United Arab Emirates have not had the privilege of that dream. The lack of cultural acceptance of women as athletes in the Arab world has left Arab women largely absent from the world soccer stage.

The UAE is decades behind what the U.S. and other parts of the world now nurture. Growing up in the UAE, Emirati women have had no youth program, no role models to look up to, no women's national team, nothing like what we have in the USA.

But that is changing, and fast.

A few years ago in Abu Dhabi, the only formal outlet for girls to play soccer consisted of an annual school festival. While that was enough for some, one small group of girls desired more. They tried to play pickup with boys whenever possible, and when that wasn't enough, they got together to form a team. With nothing but raw talent and a need to compete, they gathered to train and just play, nothing official.

It started to grow. More and more young female talents arose, wanting to be a part of it, hinting that there was more of a future for UAE women's soccer than the conservative culture had previously allowed.

Now, with the support of the government, including the encouragement and favor of a sports-minded brother of the country's president, a women's Emirati soccer team has taken shape. An initiative of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, the new professional team trains year round and competes in 5-on-5, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 games throughout their region and in Europe, winning many of those games.

Their setup still leaves much to be desired. The team lacks largely in depth and has very few outlets inside the UAE to support the development of its players.

The Emiratis traveling to the United States came seeking inspiration and guidance -- a template for how to set up a successful youth development program and a chance to train with our nation's top-level players, while sharing their culture and learning about ours.

Prior to their arrival, we were gently warned of the differences between our cultures. We were told to be ourselves but not to be surprised if the young women were extremely shy and conservative.

Shy, however, they were not. These girls came off the bus with fire in their eyes, ready to take on the USA, to get the most out of their trip, to make friends, learn and enjoy this amazing opportunity. Full energy and fun, they gave their all on and off the field.

For several practices, the UAE players were put to the test, subjected to coach Paul Riley's famous intensity and brutally honest criticism as well as our team fitness and weights sessions.

"I've seen this on TV, and it looks easy, but I think I'm going to die," one player, Deema Fahad, said.

Despite the difficulty, they fared well. I was pleasantly surprised to train beside 26-year-old Houriya Taheri, one of the five from that original group of girls in Abu Dhabi, and see her determination and skill. Although she has only played competitively for the past three years, she held nothing back and showed she had some true keeper colors.

These girls want to play, and they have the makings and the spirit to become great players.

In addition to playing with us, the UAE players got a chance to see Philly's City Hall, to tour the streets of New York and to check out the White House. They even joined our team for a barbeque on the Fourth of July and dressed up in red, white and blue, ate watermelon and cracked open some fresh Maryland crabs (although some of the UAE players didn't partake in any meat, as it wasn't "halal," meaning permissible under Islam).

They ran clinics with some of our youth programs and got to compete against several club teams, giving the Independence team a chance to see their skill and call out: "yalla, yalla," the Arabic words of encouragement they had taught us, which mean roughly, "go, go." They returned the favor for us, starting the whole crowd in chants during our game against Sky Blue.

This may have been fun for them, as the idea of having everyone thrown together in the stands is not yet fully accepted across the Middle East. In the UAE, each stadium typically has a section for men, another for women and a third for families.

Not too long ago, it was only acceptable for the men to watch the games, because unmarried men and women do not generally gather in public in their culture. With the help of this new team, families have accepted that many unmarried men and women want to go to the games solely for their love of the game, and it is no longer taboo.

In addition to their progressive taste, these women have a lot of pride for home. Before playing the U.S. national anthem at our game against Sky Blue FC, we played the UAE anthem, and you would have thought the stadium was filled with Emiratis. The small group of players sang at the top of their lungs, showing their regard for their country amidst their desire to blaze a path of soccer for their future.

After the game we exchanged jerseys. We imprinted their last names on the back of Independence kits, while they put our names in Arabic onto uniforms they had for us.

To culminate the three-week visit, both teams dined at the Embassy of the UAE in Washington, D.C., where Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba complimented the UAE team's spirit during its time here saying, "You've made the city fall in love with your spirit. You've accomplished more in three weeks than we've accomplished in three years."

When we finally had to say goodbye, I asked Hamda Abdulla Al Falasi what her favorite part of the trip had been: "I love everything about it here, even the bathrooms!"

We all had a laugh, but then she told me seriously: "We miss home, but we're not ready to leave yet." She explained how great it had been for them to see us competing at a high level and to learn from watching us and playing alongside us.

For me, it has been amazing to meet these women and see the amount of energy they put forth, the excitement and willingness to be the pioneers of female soccer in their country, to step out when others haven't in the past. They came here to learn from us, but we certainly learned from them as well.

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