Khartoum, Sudan – Under the blistering afternoon sun, two footballers train on a dusty, uneven pitch. Planes heading to the nearby Khartoum airport pass overhead, but nothing can pierce the stifling heat of this shadeless spot of parched, rocky earth.
“We used to hold our training sessions in the grassy outdoor court there,” says Sara Edward, a 29-year-old wearing shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, pointing to a building just metres away. “Then the facility owners accused us of destroying the trees at the side gates of the complex. The actual culprits were some monkeys.”
But Edward knows the real issue here is not trees or monkeys. Sudan has just two women’s football teams, and she is the captain of one of them. Not everyone in Sudan approves of women’s football, she tells Al Jazeera while placing several balls in a pile, preparing for the arrival of her team-mates.
These women are tackling their country’s social taboos in the hopes that they may one day be able to represent Sudan in international tournaments. Forming a national women’s team and competing abroad is what Edward dreams of – and she is not alone.
My family doesn't understand my passion for football; they say it's not a sport for ladies, and I should go back to just playing handball.
The football team, which is not recognised by the international governing body FIFA, was established more than a decade ago. It has lost and gained members in the years since. Some got married and found their husbands to be less than enthusiastic about their commitment to the game; others relented to the disapproval of family members. Today, the youngest member is just 14, while the oldest is 29.
Twenty-seven-year-old Sadiya Hassan wears the number 13. “I have suffered the most in the team,” she says. “My family doesn’t understand my passion for football; they say it’s not a sport for ladies, and I should go back to just playing handball.” But she says she will not give up: “This is my dream. I would do anything to be able to represent Sudan.”
This sense of battling the odds inspired the team’s name, The Challenge.
“We are named The Challenge, because keeping this team going without any funding from the official football association in Sudan is not easy,” Edward says.
Without financial support or recognition from the Sudan Football Association, the team must rely on donations from women’s rights organisations to buy equipment. Other costs are paid from their own pockets.
“We train three times a week in this area, from five in the afternoon until seven,” explains Fatma Osman. “It’s hot, but a few of us live very far away, and we prefer to finish early so we can make it home not too late.”
The Challenge played its first competitive match in 2006 and has played in many domestic competitions since. The only other women’s team in Sudan hails from al-Ahfad, an all-female university in Khartoum. The two teams often play against each other, but they also happily take on men’s teams.
“In the beginning, some of the male teams used to underestimate us,” Edward explains. “But once we play and they see what we are capable of, their respect grows.”
The team’s coach, Ahmed Babikir, says Sudan used to have many women’s teams in the past. “We need to go back to that,” he says. “FIFA should not provide the Sudanese Football Association with any funding until they form more women’s teams and support existing ones.”
Edward hopes to contribute to the bright footballing future Babikir envisions, and believes the key is in introducing girls to the sport at an early age. “I am in the process of starting a football school for young girls, with the support of women’s organisations,” she says. “It’s a dream I’m working very hard for. I just need more funding.”
As their training session draws to a close, the team and their coach form a circle, piling their hands on top of one another while shouting “The Challenge”. The practice symbolises another small step in their journey towards the international arena.