KHARTOUM: In Sudan, where a women’s national football team remains a distant dream, Salma al-Majidi knew the only way to take part in her beloved sport was to coach… and that the players had to be men.
Majidi, 27, acknowledged by FIFA as the first Arab and Sudanese woman to coach a men’s football team in the Arab world, is a pioneer in a sport that dominates the region.
“Why football? Because it is my first and ultimate love,” said Majidi, clad in sports gear and a black headscarf, as she led players of the Al-Ahly Al-Gadaref club at a practice session in the town of Gadaref, east of Khartoum.
“I became a coach because there is still no scope for women’s football in Sudan,” said Majidi, who is affectionately called “sister coach” by her team.
Daughter of a retired policeman, Majidi was 16 when she fell in love with football. It came about as she watched her younger brother’s school team being coached. She was captivated by the coach’s instructions, his moves, and how he placed the marker cones at practice sessions.
“At the end of every training session, I discussed with him the techniques he used to coach the boys,” Majidi told AFP, as she watched her own players practising on a hot day at a dusty ground in Gadaref.
“He saw I had a knack for coaching… and gave me a chance to work with him.”
Soon Majidi was coaching the under-13 and under-16 teams of Al-Hilal club in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the west bank of the River Nile.
Questions like whether she understood football or had the skills to coach men were all put to rest over time, said Majidi, speaking in a soft but confident tone.
Named in the BBC’s 2015 list of “100 inspirational women”, Majidi has coached the Sudanese second league men’s clubs of Al-Nasr, Al-Nahda, Nile Halfa and Al-Mourada.
Nile Halfa and Al-Nahda even topped local leagues under her coaching. She currently holds the African “B” badge in coaching, meaning she can coach any first league team across the continent.
The only other woman to have gained recognition in Sudan’s footballing world was Mounira Ramadan, who refereed men’s matches in the 1970s.
Sudan joined FIFA in 1948 and established the Confederation of African Football (CAF) along with Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. It won the CAF trophy in 1970.
Women’s football has faced an uphill task since the country adopted Islamic sharia law in 1983, six years after which President Omar al-Bashir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup.
There is no legal ban on women’s football in Sudan, but a conservative society coupled with the Islamist leanings of the government have left it in the shadows.
Women do play football but there are no competitions or women’s clubs, and they do not play much in public.
“There are restrictions on women’s football, but I’m determined to succeed,” Majidi, whose dream is to coach an international team, said, as her players kicked up clouds of dust practising free kicks.
Majidi’s journey has not been easy.
“Sudan is a community of tribes and some tribes believe that a woman’s role is confined only to her home,” said Majidi, a university graduate in accounts and management.
“There was this one boy who refused to listen. He told me he belongs to a tribe that believed men should never take orders from women,” she said.
It took months before he finally accepted her as coach. “Today, he is a fine player,” said Majidi, who works full-time and receives a salary that is equivalent to that of a male coach.
At first, “people in the streets used to call us ‘Salma’s kids!'” said Majid Ahmed, a striker and an ardent fan of Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.
“In school, we have female teachers, so what’s the problem having a female coach?”
Majidi said her entrance to what was a male preserve is just a start.
“My message to men, in general, is to give women a chance to do what they want,” she said as she prepared tea after a gruelling practice session.
Coming from a traditional family, it was a challenge for Majidi to prove herself to their relatives, recalls her father, Mohamed al-Majidi.
“Then one day, her uncle who used to criticise her saw crowds shouting ‘Salma! Salma!’ during a match,” he told AFP at the family’s mud-and-brick home in Omdurman.
“These same relatives now pray to Allah to support her.”
From early on, Majidi’s mother knew her daughter was different.
“She always preferred wearing trousers… And even when crossing the street, she would watch the boys playing football,” said Aisha al-Sharif.