In Sudan, where a women’s national football team remains a distant dream, Salma Al-Majidi is the first Arab and Sudanese woman to coach a men’s football team in the Arab world. Salma Al-Majidi, 27, is a pioneer in a sport that dominates the region.
“I became a coach because there is still no scope for women’s football in Sudan,” Al-Majidi, who is affectionately called “sister coach” by her team, told an AFP reporter in eastern Sudan’s El Gedaref where she trains players of the El-Ahly El-Gedaref club.
Sudan joined FIFA in 1948 and is one of the founding members of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) along with Egypt, Ethiopia and South Africa. It won the CAF trophy in 1970. There is no legal ban on women’s football in Sudan, but the sport has faced challenges since the country adopted Islamic sharia law in 1983, and in 2012, endured a fatwa banning the formation of a national women’s football team in the country for reasons that it is an ‘immoral act’ by Sudan’s Islamic Fiqh Council.
While the order has made most Sudanese women abandon their dreams of becoming professional footballers, Salma Al-Majidi went around it instead by becoming a football coach for an all male team.
The daughter of a retired policeman, Al-Majidi was 16 when she fell in love with football. 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,” Al-Majidi said. “He saw I had a knack for coaching… and gave me a chance to work with him.”
Soon she was coaching the under-13 and under-16 teams of El Hilal club in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the west bank of the River Nile.
The university graduate of accounts and management, who had to convince her family first before she could proceed with her dreams, said “Sudan is a community of tribes and some tribes believe that a woman’s role is confined only to her home.”
“There are restrictions on women’s football,” Al-Majidi said, “but I’m determined to succeed.”
Questions like whether she understood football or had the skills to coach men were all put to rest over time, leading to Al-Majidi coaching Sudanese second league men’s clubs: Al-Nasr, Al-Nahda, Nile Halfa and Al-Mourada.
Nile Halfa and Al-Nahda have both topped local leagues under her coaching. and 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.
“My message to men in general is to give women a chance to do what they want,” Al-Majidi was quoted saying as she prepared tea after a gruelling practice session.
Ahmed Babikir, the coach of the Women’s Challenge Team, Sudan’s only women’s football team, told Al Jazeera in 2015 that Sudan used to have many women’s teams in the past. “We need to go back to that,” he said. “FIFA should not provide the Sudanese Football Association with any funding until they form more women’s teams and support existing ones.”
The team, established by a group of young Sudanese women in downtown Khartoum in 2001, continues to lack recognition by FIFA even after playing its first competitive match in 2006.
Al-Majidi is determined to succeed, and looks forward to coaching an international team someday. Her participation in football is already sending a strong message to men and women in Sudan.
In December 2015, she was noted in BBC Arabic‘s 100 inspirational women of the year and was acknowledged by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) as the first Arab and Sudanese woman to coach a men’s football team in the Arab world.
“There was this one boy who refused to listen,” said Al-Majidi, who works full-time and receives a salary equivalent to that of a male coach. “He told me he belongs to a tribe that believed men should never take orders from women.”
It took months, but he finally accepted her as coach. “Today, he is a fine player.”