Saudi Arabia women's national team entered Fifa's women's world ranking for the first time in March this year

While stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema have taken men’s football in Saudi Arabia to the next level, the country was already an Asian powerhouse and home to some of the biggest and most successful men’s clubs on the continent.

Yet rapid progress is also now being made in women’s football, although in this field the country really is starting almost from scratch.

Just five years ago, organised women’s football in Saudi Arabia did not exist in a meaningful fashion, but much has changed since a league was created with the aim of boosting female participation in sport in a country where women’s rights are restricted.

The women’s national team – who played their first game just last year – are looking at qualification for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, while the country is bidding to host the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup. And on Friday the new season of the Saudi Women’s Premier League kicks off.

Campaigners say much more remains to be done for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia despite reforms, while human rights groups say sport is being used by the Saudi government to distract from long-standing reputation issues and accuse it of ‘sportswashing’ by investing in high-profile events.

At the same time, those involved in the growth of women’s football in the country are excited by the opportunities ahead.

The national team

Layan Jouhari plays for Jeddah club Al-Ittihad as well as the national team, and she says the thought of representing the country at the World Cup is an exciting one.

“If we do end up qualifying, then it would be crazy, a dream,” Jouhari told BBC Sport. “Whatever challenges there are, then we will face them. There is still so much that we can do.”

Women were only allowed in stadiums in 2018 and the following year the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) established a women’s department.

Monika Staab was the first coach of the national team and in March 2022, after the call went out on social media for players was answered by 400, selected an inaugural squad which went to the Seychelles and won their first-ever game.

The German, who coached for 11 years in her homeland as well as in Qatar and Bahrain, has now moved upstairs to become technical director of the women’s game at SAFF.

“I have been around the world to 90 countries, but I haven’t seen such support from the FA, from the whole country, like I have experienced in the last two years in Saudi Arabia.”

Despite newcomers the Philippines and Vietnam coming from almost nowhere to qualify from Asia for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, Staab is trying to temper expectations of an appearance at the 2027 tournament.

“We have to be realistic that it takes time to develop a good national team,” Staab told BBC Sport. “We are going to have a U15 national team this season and also a U20 national team and we have a U17 team, and it is very important that, first, they compete in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).”

Saudi Arabia's Bayan Sadagah (L) celebrates her goal with her coach Monika Staab during a friendly football match between Saudi Arabia and Bhutan in September 2022
Monika Staab (right) has been involved in women’s football for more than half a century and says her main goal has always been to give women the opportunity to play

Hosting the 2026 Asian Cup would be a big step and, if the country gets the nod from the AFC, a first appearance at a major international tournament.

“When we heard the news [that Saudi Arabia were bidding], it was unbelievable,” said Jouhari, who comes from a “football-obsessed” family.

“I applaud how far we have come but also recognise how hard we have to work to compete at that level against teams that have been around way longer than us.”

The league

Successful national teams need solid foundations. The men’s league has been around for decades and is now reaching new levels.

Al-Hilal are Asia’s most successful club and they have Neymar, Al-Nassr have Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad have Karim Benzema. These clubs also now have women’s teams and there are eight in total in the Saudi Women’s Premier League, which started in 2020.

There is also a 30-team first division in which the winners of the six regional groups play for three promotion places, with one dropping from the top tier.

“It used to be so quiet, there was no platform for us to play,” Jouhari, a defensive midfielder, said. Girls struggled to find clubs and in the city of Jeddah by the Red Sea, the Italian school was one of the few places where they gathered.

“When the big men’s clubs started to create women’s teams, that was the biggest news ever. Everyone was so curious as to who these girls were.”

They are a mix of full-time and part-time players, with many studying at university, though teams train five or six times a week.

With this season the first in which games will be broadcast live on national television, there is also hope the league’s profile will be boosted as attendances have been low and stadiums – the same used by the men’s teams – largely empty.

New overseas talent may help too and there have been some moves in the transfer market.

In September, Nigerian international Ashleigh Plumptre left Leicester to join Al-Ittihad, who also signed Sweden’s Nor Mustafa. Al-Shabab signed Venezuelan star Oriana Altuve from Valencia as well as veteran Nigerian forward Rita Chikwelu.

Staab is working with clubs and the FA to ensure more young girls take up the game. “We started from zero and we had 400 players who wanted to be part of the first national team.

“What is happening now is unbelievable, we had our first school competition and 50,000 people registered, there is so much interest all over the country.”

Alessia Russo of England and Ashleigh Plumptre of Nigeria battle for the ball
Ex-England youth international Ashleigh Plumptre (right) starred for Nigeria at the Women’s World Cup

Women’s rights

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sport in recent years and has been accused of using events to ‘sportswash’ its reputation.

There are concerns over human rights and women’s rights in the country, while same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Saudi Arabia, with the death penalty a possible punishment.

The rapid advancement in the women’s game is connected to Vision 2030, Riyadh’s plan to diversify a traditionally oil-dependent economy.

Women have been entering the general workforce in increasing numbers since 2018.

Daisy Khan, executive director of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, told BBC Sport that Saudi women had already surpassed the government’s projections of women’s participation in the workforce growing from 19% to 30% by 2030.

“Their participation in 2023 already stands at a staggering 37%,” said Khan. “A major shift in mental attitudes toward women’s participation in society is taking place.”

Players of Saudi women's football team attend a training session in Taif on September 21, 2023
Saudi Arabia’s national team in training before last month’s match with Pakistan, which they won 1-0

A relaxation of the male guardianship law means that women now have more freedom than before and can drive and can travel overseas without the permission of a male relative.

However, according to Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, reform has not gone far enough and she has called for the male guardianship system to be abolished entirely, as well as equal rights for women.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia ranked 145 out of 149 in the Global Gender Gap index. A rise to 131 by 2023 shows some progress but also that there is still a long way to go.

Women’s football, with the national team ranked 172, could say the same.

“Taking the leap from zero to 90, you can progress very fast but then to reach another level gets harder and harder,” said Jouhari. “There is still so much that we can do, [but] we are going step by step.”