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Tournament Gives Senegalese Women a Turn on the Soccer Field

A championship tournament for female soccer players has brought together disparate elements in support of the women's game, and is giving Senegalese girls more than just a chance to play soccer.

A coach yells instructions to one of his players, in the heat of a competitive soccer match taking place in the Pekin neighborhood of greater Dakar. Tournaments like these are common in all parts of this soccer-crazed West African nation.

But this particular tournament, staged in front of a large crowd on a warm weekend afternoon, is extraordinary for Senegal, in that the participants are women.

The tournament, called Ladies' Turn 2009, will crown a champion among teams from two of Senegal's largest cities, says organizer Jennifer Browning. Browning says the tournament, which she helped finance through a grant from the US-based Huntingdon Public Service Fund, offers much more than just a chance to play soccer.

"We are organizing soccer matches for girls, on neighborhood fields, with some music, but it is so much bigger than that. With that we are able to add on things, leadership activities, other sources, and activities, and basically just go from there," she said.

Browning says no local women's soccer tournaments have taken place in recent years, due to lack of interest and financial backing. But she says there are still a good number of club teams in the region, and countless female soccer players, anxious to compete.

Browning hopes Ladies' Turn will encourage increased participation in girl's youth soccer as well. Leading up to the championship match on the day of the tournament, the program offered a soccer camp exclusively for girls. Peace Corps Senegal volunteer Mandy Kimberley helped out at the camp.

"These girls are having so much fun. They are so much more outgoing than normal. They are really comfortable with their team. And the best part of the day is seeing everyone lined up along the fence and in the stands to watch. These girls are automatically role models, and I think that is awesome," she said.

The matches provide the participants an opportunity not just to play soccer, but to play in front of a relatively large crowd, on a recently installed synthetic field at the stadium in Pekin. Youth player Diabou N'diaye says the field and atmosphere is very different from her usual pitch back home, in the neighborhood where she lives in the northern city of San Louis.

N'Diaye says when given the chance through the Ladies' Turn structure, many of her female neighbors and friends were anxious to play. She says many of the group had never been to Dakar, much less played in a stadium as large as this one, with the capacity for 7,000 people.

Though this initiative is a big step forward, Senegal has a long way to go in promoting women's soccer if it is to catch up to regional powers like Nigeria and Ghana, says Bassouare Diaby, coach of the country's women's national team.

Diaby says women's soccer still suffers from a lack of support among the Senegalese population in general, who turn out en masse for men's matches, but generally do not look at girls as potential soccer players.

If Ladies' Turn proves to be a success, perhaps it will help turn out more players like national team captain Sainey Seck, who grew up playing in the streets of a nearby Dakar neighborhood.

Seck says she acquired her passion for the game the same way most boys do, playing wherever and whenever she could around the neighborhood. She says many of the pitches where Senegalese learn to play soccer are in fact streets or empty lots.

Tournament organizer Browning says one of goals of the preliminary competition for Ladies' Turn was to improve the visibility of women's soccer by setting up matches in the heart of city neighborhoods. She contracted DJs to play music, and bring attention in the community to the women playing the sport.

Browning says one of her ultimate goals is to give girls the same chance she had to play youth soccer. She says she grew up playing soccer in Washington, DC, and for her the game has been a tool for learning many things, including leadership, teamwork, and social interaction.

To assure that girls will continue to have the chance to play, local sponsors and organizers are preparing to meet with international organizations to discuss continuing the tournament in the future, Browning says.

"The final is our last big event for right now, but basically it has gained so much momentum that right after the final, our next step is to have a big meeting and discuss how we are going to assure sustainability, which I think is actually completely possible," she said.

Women's soccer has been slow to catch on in francophone West Africa, where girls, when they participate in sports, more frequently play basketball. Senegal's women's basketball team is a nine-time African champion, and has participated in the Olympic Games.

Nigeria has frequently represented Africa on the international stage in women's soccer, participating in all five FIFA Women's World Cup Finals. More recently, Ghana has qualified for the last two finals, after the field was expanded to include two African sides.