It was in the obscure surrounds of Tajikistan that history was made for the UAE women’s football team in April 2017. A 3-0 triumph over Iraq was the UAE’s first ever victory in a Women’s World Cup qualifier. It was followed up by a second win, against hosts Tajikistan, two days later. The UAE didn’t end up reaching this summer’s World Cup in France, finishing fourth in the qualification tournament, but it was a major milestone nonetheless.

Those milestones have been coming thick and fast over the past decade. In 2010, the UAE hosted the Women’s West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) Championship. It was a starting point, a foundation that has been steadily built on in the years since.

One of the chief architects has been Houriya Taheri. A former national team goalkeeper, Taheri was the UAE’s first AFC ‘A’ licensed female football coach and is now both head coach of the UAE women’s team and a figurehead for the game in the Emirates – working closely with Abu Dhabi Sports Council to develop women’s football.

“I look back at that tournament in 2010 as the moment that the level of women’s football in the UAE changed,” Taheri recalls to Sport Industry Insider. “We won the tournament and it was the first key achievement in women’s football – it made people believe in us.

“Suddenly young girls had role models and the media awareness grew, as did the number of spectators. It really helped move the game forward. We won the title again in 2011 and after that our mission changed; it wasn’t just about the national team any more, it was about encouraging participation, coaching at schools and academies – trying to inspire more girls to take up the game.”

Following the success in the WAFF competitions, the UAE launched its first women’s football league in 2012. The sport has continued to grow but while there are now numerous opportunities for girls to participate in football, Taheri’s path was not so straightforward.  

“I remember my brother was playing with me at home and sometimes with his friends at the park,” Taheri explains. “At school we had no football for girls. Then at age 17, I was playing with some friends in the park in Dubai and a coach asked me to join their sports club in Abu Dhabi. I had no ride to Abu Dhabi but I accepted and ended up playing volleyball for both the club there and the UAE national team.

“But my passion was always for football so I decided that I would practice every day after school. As soon as I graduated I managed to find job in Abu Dhabi. I got a car, I got accommodation and I started to play more football. I sacrificed my university education but I didn’t mind because it was my dream to play football.”

Taheri’s interest in coaching was first piqued after a meeting with a female instructor on a trip to FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich in 2007. Inspired by what she heard but with no system in place in the UAE at the time for training female coaches, Taheri travelled to Asia – eventually securing her AFC professional coaching license in Malaysia.

Her prominent role in UAE women’s football means she continues to travel around the continent, and further afield, in search of best practice and new ideas to take back to the Emirates. She was appointed as FIFA’s first Arab women’s football expert in 2018, tasked with growing the sport’s female footprint in the Arab world.

UAE women’s football team players meet Brazilian legend Marta in Abu Dhabi in 2015.

As part of FIFA’s mentorship program, Taheri is now working closely with one of the game’s most respected figures, Vera Pauw. The Dutch coach was one of the first women to serve on FIFA’s Technical Committee and is a former national team manager of Russia, Scotland, South Africa and her native Netherlands.

Having developed her knowledge abroad, Taheri is now focused on working with colleagues at the UAE Women’s Football Committee to hasten the development of the game in the UAE. A number of initiatives have already been implemented, helping to successfully grow Emirati participation from just seven registered players to more than 2,000.

“We have run a lot of grassroots festivals in schools and have promoted the game by using the role models of our UAE national team players, organising different domestic and international competitions across all age groups and, most importantly, ensuring girls can play regularly.  

“There is now a joint-talent program with more experienced countries in women’s football and we send our players to have two weeks of training with high-level clubs. Recently we had players at Levante and Valencia in Spain. And for the first time we now have a professional player from UAE, Nouf Alanzi, playing in the Egyptian league and she won the title.

“We also run workshops and courses for coaches, referees and administrators as it is important to create more opportunities for women across the game. Having more local coaches is vital as there is more cultural understanding and there is also more acceptance from the parents; we need to show them women have a pathway to a career in sport.”

Unsurprisingly, getting the buy-in from schools and parents has been key to improving the women’s game.

“Schools are the main element for development in this region and to be honest, I think worldwide too. It is very important that we start in school for girls here because family and parents accept it more for them to play during school time and we need to have their cooperation. This is great because we can start teaching them basic skills from a very young age and also they are not alone – they have friends and classmates to play with.”

Many professional men’s clubs also run women’s teams but as yet the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League has not followed suit. However, Taheri thinks it is only a matter of time.

“We don’t have women’s teams for AGL clubs yet but we have a lot of really good private clubs and women-specific clubs. We hope that in the future there will be greater co-operation and I think this will be improved by having it as part of professional clubs’ licensing. It would be fantastic to add more teams and more support for women’s football.”

The pace of change has certainly been rapid over the past decade but does that mean the 2023 Women’s World Cup could be a realistic aim for the UAE women’s football team?

“Of course we would love to play at the World Cup but really we are still in the first stage of development of this project,” Taheri says. “Within five or six years we want to be one of the best teams in the region. Then we can target to play in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and after that who knows.

“We are working with young players now and most of these players in our senior national team are still teenagers. It may be tough now but in five or six years they will have great experience and that will also help the next generation to become even better. I feel proud and excited about how far we’ve come and I think the future will be great.”