Five must-see films on the overlooked champions of women’s football

These powerful stories of women breaking ground on and off the pitch are the best antidote to World Cup withdrawal.

Women's World Cup closing ceremony
A performer during the closing ceremony of FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 at Stadium Australia, Sydney [Hannah Mckay/Reuters]

The FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has broken records for ticket sales and TV viewing figures, lighting a spark of enthusiasm for the women’s game in a way no tournament had done before.

The final whistle may have blown, but that doesn’t need to mean the end of your immersion in women’s football. If you’re one of the millions of newfound fans, broaden and deepen your exposure to the sport as it exists out of the limelight and away from the fanfare with these short films from Al Jazeera’s award-winning digital documentary strand – Close Up.

From the homeless teen in Bangladesh who scores a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Qatar for an alternative World Cup to the Afghan sisters who fled the Taliban and now coach male players in Iran, a common thread weaves their stories together – all the women have endured hardship and tackled patriarchy to pursue their love of football.

Sudan’s Coach Among Men

Football is on the ascendancy in the Arab world, following last year’s historic World Cup in Qatar and the Saudi Pro League’s record spending on Europe’s star players. But it has taken a long time to get here.

In Sudan, women’s football was effectively banned for 30 years under the country’s strict criminal law, which was in force from the 1980s until a revolution deposed Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

But Salma al-Majidi never let that stop her from being involved in the sport she grew up loving. Instead, she began coaching men’s teams. She may not have realised it at the time, but she had shattered an enormous glass ceiling by becoming the first Arab woman to ever coach a men’s team in the Arab world.

Unfortunately, her success has not prevented people from making dismissive or disparaging remarks about her role. “Don’t you have a male family member to control you?’” she recalls being asked one day.

Our film follows al-Majidi’s team through a championship. Will they finally get a step closer to breaking into the country’s first league?

Since this film was produced, Salma has sadly been forced to flee Sudan for Egypt after fighting broke out between rival military factions in April this year, with violence and arguably the egos of male generals having thrown the aspirations of Sudanese people like al-Majidi into disarray.

Daring to Dream in Iran

In Iran, women have been allowed into football stadiums only on a handful of occasions in the past four decades. And while such restrictions are reportedly meant to be relaxed this year, it is still a place where women continue to strive for the same rights as men.

As Afghan refugees in Iran, Rozma Ghafouri and her sisters have had to strive for recognition and acceptance as they coach a men’s football team and use to sport to get vulnerable refugee boys off the streets of Shiraz. They work with young refugees and undocumented Afghans, children who remind them of their own past.

Ghafouri fled Afghanistan as a young girl with her family when the Taliban seized power in 1996. As children, she and her sisters had to work to support their family.

“No one supported us … Now, I like to be the one to help these kids,” she says.

Now a 30-year-old football manager who coaches the men’s team Ariana, she is always seeking ways of using football to bring ethnic minorities together.

“I’m trying to eliminate discrimination. Football is a way to communicate. It’s a bridge,” says Ghafouri.

Italy’s Unbreakable Goalkeeper

Mother, migrant, and Maradona Jr’s oldest goalkeeper; Doris Castro works as a housekeeper in a wealthy neighbourhood in the Italian city of Naples, where she saves money for her family back in El Salvador. In her time off, she saves goals for a five-a-side women’s football team called Napoli United.

At 51 years old, she is twice the average age of elite women’s football players.

“I’ve heard stories of people worried about getting older. I think it’s the wrong word: I call it growing up.”

Castro’s own mother was the voice in her life, telling her she belonged in the home, not on the pitch. Add to that age discrimination in sport, and Doris’s story is one of defying expectations and never giving up.

“I’ve been waiting for so many years to play the way I am doing it now. As long as my heart beats, I will be out on the pitch.”

One of the team’s coaches is the son of Argentinian footballing legend Diego Maradona, who played professionally in Naples and brought the club unprecedented success in the 1980s. It makes Castro extra proud to play in a city where a fellow South American has almost mythic status.

The film follows Napoli United kicking off their season and Castro’s efforts to establish her place in the team.

Brazil’s Black Pearls

Twenty-seven-year-old Samantha lives and plays football in the City of God, a notorious favela in Rio de Janeiro where gangs and police fight for control of the streets. She credits football with saving her from going down the wrong path.

“I had every reason to go the wrong way,” she says. “But I didn’t want to, because I knew the path was the way of football.”

She is one of two dozen girls from Brazil’s slums who have been given a shot at a better life by the Black Pearls football academy, which doubles as a training centre and home away from home for at-risk youth.

This film follows Samantha, a left-back called Reis by her teammates, as they attempt to make it into the national football championship. Will these young women from the favelas be able to turn their fortunes around?

Qatar’s Other World Cup

For many athletes, there is no higher honour than representing one’s country. So when a homeless teenager from the fringes of society is scooped up to represent Bangladesh, her sense of pride is palpable.

The story of 13-year-old Eti is ultimately uplifting, but she faced countless tragedies along the way. Until recently, she was one of nearly 1.5 million children living on the streets of Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world.

Eti left home when she was eight years old. “Nobody loved me in my family. I survived by begging. I used to beg all day on the train and I’d often get beaten because of begging,” she says as she recounts what life on the streets of Dhaka was like for her.

Things turned around for Eti thanks to a local NGO which provided shelter, kindness and an opportunity of a lifetime: to represent Bangladesh on a football pitch in Qatar at a World Cup with a twist.

The Street Child World Cup is a charity-run football tournament that happens every four years and takes place just days before the kickoff of the FIFA Men’s World Cup. The event aims to give “street-connected” girls and boys a sense of identity, basic human rights and to help them dream.

In Eti’s own words: “I was a drug addict and there was no hope in my life. Now I’ve come to Qatar to represent my country in this World Cup. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. I’m happy about the journey.”

Like what you see?

For more award-winning short films about extraordinary people, check out other outstanding Close Up documentaries and be sure to keep up to date with Al Jazeera’s sports coverage.

Source: Al Jazeera