The CAF Women’s Champions League is part of a wider ambition to expand women’s football in Africa
A new chapter in African women’s football is being written with the kick off of the first CAF Women’s Champions League on Friday in Cairo, where eight of the continent’s best teams gathered for the inaugural edition.
Divided into two groups, clubs from Egypt, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya participate in the tournament from November 5 to 19, the top two from each group. qualifying for the semi-finals (November 15).
Egyptian midfielder Noha Mamdouh etched her name in the history books when she scored Wadi Degla’s first goal in her 3-1 win over AS Mande on Friday to become the competition’s first goalscorer.
“Our goal is to win the Champions League. Yes, it’s a tough competition and there are strong teams that include more experienced players, but we aim to win this competition, ”said Wadi Degla head coach Wael El Sayed. The National ahead of his team’s second group game against the Malabo Kings of Equatorial Guinea on Monday (kick-off at 6 p.m.).
“We got off to a good start. Of course the first game there were some nerves. Some of our players were experiencing the international experience for the first time. So some of them were touched by that, but luckily we got over that and won the game. “
Egypt’s most successful women’s football club, Wadi Degla has won the national championship 12 times and has been chosen to represent the hosts of the inaugural Champions League.
The remaining seven teams have gone through zonal qualifying on their way to Cairo, where the action takes place at two venues: the June 30 Stadium and Al Salam Stadium.
CAF, the governing body of African football, is aware that it has a long way to go when it comes to women’s football. European football’s governing body UEFA launched its Women’s Champions League two decades ago and women’s football has exploded in popularity in recent years.
“The people of African women’s football are very happy that this competition has finally taken place. It is very, very long awaited ”, declared Safia Abdel Dayem, responsible for the development of women’s football at CAF.
“Women’s football clubs can finally see a bigger goal. What is their investment used for? That ugly (domestic) league? It’s not that anymore, it’s bigger than that.
“In addition, everyone outside of women’s football will find out about women’s clubs in Africa; this has never happened before.
“These clubs are not Ahly and Zamalek. We have teams like Vihiga Queens, River Angels. These are clubs that don’t have men’s teams, so this will shed some light on these permanent women’s clubs.
“So it’s very instructive also on women’s football. It will highlight local African players who play on the continent but do not play abroad. It is positive in all aspects.
Professionalize women’s football
The CAF Women’s Champions League is just one part of a larger strategy developed by Abdel Dayem and his colleagues, aimed at professionalizing women’s football in Africa. For the first time, clubs had to adhere to strict licensing criteria to compete in zonal qualifiers.
In total, 34 clubs from 34 member associations have successfully passed the licensing process and Abdel Dayem believes this is a crucial first step towards further development.
“I believe that now, more than ever, more funding will go to women’s football now because there is a real continental structure,” she said.
“Fifa is working on a women benchmarking report and the numbers have shown that with the establishment of club licensing criteria, clubs are doing better financially than others, there is no way to get around that.
“More competitions means better football quality, more competitions means more playing time for the players, it is a cycle and this cycle has to go on and on and we add more elements to it so that the product of the women’s football just gets better and grows and attracts sponsorships, makes money and attracts broadcasters.
“A psychological boost”
The CAF Women’s Champions League has indeed aroused some interest from broadcasters, with beIN Sports broadcasting the matches in the Middle East, North Africa, the United States, Canada and Asia-Pacific, while that SuperSport and Canal + broadcast the action in sub-Saharan Africa. The other regions can follow the matches on the Fifa Youtube channel or on the CAF website.
“It is extremely important to be on television, it allows everyone to watch women’s football, to watch Wadi Degla, to watch the competition,” said Wadi Degla coach El Sayed.
“It gives the players a huge psychological boost, it helps spread the game, it increases media interest in women’s football. It is very positive to see African women’s football on television.
“It’s a start. Once this competition gets bigger, more money will come into women’s football, we can get more sponsors, more TV commercials, it will become a bigger business.
Room for growth
The idea for this version of the CAF Women’s Champions League was proposed almost a year and a half ago. For so long the only women’s football competition on the continent has been the Africa Cup of Nations, and over time it became clear that more needed to be done. This inaugural edition is a two-week event, taking place in a host city – a departure from the round-trip format typically associated with other Champions Leagues.
“We offered the competition as a closed tournament because we wanted the quality of football to be good,” said Abdel Dayem. “In 10 years, I have absolutely no idea what that will look like.
“This is the first year, we have to go year after year. Yes, eventually we want the competition to grow, but what is the best thing for this women’s club competition? It is too early to tell. Maybe not necessarily at home and outdoors, maybe it won’t be attractive enough. At the moment, we don’t know.
According to Abdel Dayem, all teams participating in the competition will receive some sort of cash prize, but with the arrangements being made for the event in such a short period of time, it looks like the budget is still on. Some local sponsors have expressed interest two weeks before kick-off, but the event is being held behind closed doors.
Male game support
Another initiative taken by CAF recently to strengthen women’s football has been a mandate sent to all African clubs, informing them that any men’s team wishing to participate in the CAF Champions League from the 2022-2023 season must also have a female team within its configuration.
In a country like Egypt – one of the continent’s greatest footballing nations – giants like Al Ahly and Zamalek have yet to field women’s teams in the national league, although Ahly has recently launched an academy for girls.
In fact, only Wadi Degla and the newcomers El Gouna and National Bank have male and female teams in the respective high-flying Egyptian divisions.
“We want to use club licensing regulations to promote and professionalize women’s football. It’s another way to give women’s football an extra boost, it’s to pass it through men’s football, ”said Abdel Dayem. “Women’s football is happening whether they like it or not. It happens.”
El Sayed, who was on the Wadi Degla coaching staff for 12 years before taking up his post as head coach two years ago, believes that the membership of clubs like Ahly and Zamalek in the league female would be huge for the match.
“It will definitely help. If a club like Al Ahly creates a women’s team and enters the league, it will have a huge impact on the spread of the game across the country, ”he said.
“It’s a club that already has a huge following and people will want to follow their women’s team and be part of their women’s team as well. Their games will no doubt be shown on TV which would be great. I really wish Al Ahly and Zamalek would launch women’s teams, and all the other Premier League teams in Egypt. We thank God that CAF considers this a club license mandate. “
A cultural change
Abdel Dayem used to play for Wadi Degla and has witnessed a big change in mentality towards women’s football in Egypt. It has become more culturally accepted for girls to learn about the sport and academies are popping up across the country with hundreds of young players signing up.
“There is now pressure on the clubs from the younger girls and their parents,” she said. “Young girls want to play football. Al Ahly Academy already has 100 girls and it was just launched a few months ago. There is obvious growth.
“A long time ago that wasn’t the case, I was the only one in the class playing football, and everyone called me a tomboy and said, ‘Why is she dressed like this?’ I was the only one. I was having a blast but the reaction was like this. Can you imagine now? This is not one, I know so many girls who play soccer and it is no longer unusual and their parents are proud of them and they want to find ways to help them. It’s not like the old days when parents feared their daughters would gain too much muscle or this or that.
“Now it’s more like, ‘I’m so proud of my daughter, she plays football, how can I support her? Our mindset has changed, the growth of international women’s football has made people here to believe in football. We have so many good female role models in the world of international football it makes parents believe their daughters can play and can make a career out of it. “
The CAF Women’s Champions League has deployed the hashtag “#itsTIMEitsNow”. An appropriate slogan for a continent with so much potential in sport; this new competition is just the start.
Update: November 8, 2021, 11:52 a.m.