Women's soccer is growing in popularity around the world. But opportunities for training and financial support still lag behind the men’s game in most places. A program held every summer in Berlin aims to change this. It is called Discover Football, and it brings soccer clubs from Africa and the Middle East to Germany for a week of matches and panel discussions.
Aya El Ammouri, a soccer player from Lebanon, is quite good at the game, having played it for nine years. But who is one of her biggest supporters? She said it is her father.
“He always encouraged me. He actually paid a professional coach to train me," Ammouri noted. "I was really skilled and he was like ‘give her special training sessions. I want her to get better and better.'”
When she was a little older though, she said her father had second thoughts.
"He was like 'you've had enough of football, and now you have to look forward to your education. You have to get married.," Ammouri said, admitting her disappointment.
But she did not stop, and her father eventually came around. Today, Aya El Ammouri is one of her country's top women players.
She and her teammates won scholarships to Discover Football. The week-long program brings about 100 women to Berlin every summer for soccer games and seminars on how to advance women’s football and women’s rights. It is also seen as a networking opportunity for the next generation of female leaders from the Middle East and Africa.
Next to Aya on the bleachers was Nadia Assaf. Nadia is team captain and founder of Girls Football Academy, Lebanon's first women's soccer academy. She said before she founded the academy five years ago, women's soccer was not taken seriously in her country.
"It's like a side thing, just to say that they have a women's 'team.' They never took us seriously," Assaf said. "Women were never the priority. We never really got equipment. We never got field time, coaches, etc. etc."
Nadia said one day she and her partner, who was coaching a boys team, had an idea.
"Why don't we open an academy just for girls? That way they could have priority and we can give the girls what they actually deserve," she explained.
And things are improving for women soccer players in Lebanon and around the Middle East. Zein Zeintwal of Jordan said her family and friends are very supportive of her interest in the sport.
"It's really cool nowadays. But when I started it was like 'you're weirdo' and so on," she explained. "But now it's really famous and people are watching us like men."
"When I started playing, I used to play handball and soccer and basketball in school. But I became more attached to soccer than the others," she added. "I always used to watch people playing soccer and so on, and liked it the most. That's it."
Discover Football is sponsored by the German government and the European Union. The event serves as the cultural program for the Women's European Cup. But it has not been free of controversy. That is because European soccer's governing body, UEFA, scheduled the games during Ramadan. As a result, women's teams that had attended in the past, like Saudi Arabia's, sat out this year. Still, six teams from the Middle East and Africa attended the most recent program.