7 February 2018

From kicking a ball in secret at her local beach to becoming captain of the Lebanon Women’s National Team and Head Coach of the U17 and U19 squads, 31-year-old Hiba El Jaafil has achieved some remarkable goals. To do so, she first had to kick societal norms out of the way. As a Sports Coordinator at the National Evangelical School south of Beirut and a football3 coach throughout the region, she today helps others to also find their place on the pitch. This is her story of perseverance and determination.

 

A car heaved its metal frame around the corner of the road towards the Lebanese coastal town of Sidon, sounding its horn repeatedly to warn children playing in the road to dash to safety. One young girl pricked her ears for a different reason. 10-year-old Hiba El Jaafil was playing football at the beach with her older brother and neighbouring boys. The driver of the car was her father. For girls, he had told her, football was strictly “haram”. But she couldn’t help herself. Football had become her passion. So she attuned her ears to distinguish her father’s car horn from the cacophony of tooting that incessantly resounds from Lebanon’s roads.

 

“My father didn’t realise that it was my warning,” Hiba says today, smiling at the memory. As soon as she heard it, she would rush home to avoid the beating for disobeying his orders. But sometimes, in the heat of the game, or when she was just about to score a goal, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the improvised beach pitch quickly enough. “He told me a 100 times not to play football with the boys,” Hiba said. “When I was 10 or 11, he said ‘You have to start thinking about how you cover’. His thinking was I will get married from 16 or 17.” Hiba’s father was concerned about his daughter, his mind full of how to correctly observe religious and cultural demands. All Hiba could think about were football tactics.

 

TRAGEDY STRIKES

 

Four years later, the car horn ended its warning broadcast. While working on the construction of a friend’s house, Hiba’s father lost his footing and fell from a height of three metres, hitting his head fatally. Hiba was devastated. “For 25 days I was sitting at home crying,” she remembers. She remained absent from school until her teachers, who came to her home every day, finally persuaded her to return. She had always been a good student, but due to her distress, her grades suffered and, even years later, she only just managed to pass her final exams.

 

Hiba’s father may have been strict and a forceful opponent of her footballing aspirations, but she loved him dearly and the two had had a close relationship. Though she was the most boisterous of his five daughters and the only one who refused to wear hijab, she was the favourite. It was indeed he who introduced her to the beautiful game, often taking her to watch derby matches. “It’s his problem not my problem. He made me love football!” Hiba laughs. She regretfully admits that “maybe if my dad was still alive, I wouldn’t play football, I wouldn’t be a coach, I wouldn’t be here now.”

 

OPPORTUNITY IN CRISIS

 

A few months after her father’s death, a neighbour approached Hiba and asked: “Why don’t you go and play on a team.” She hadn’t even known there was one. He told her that he had seen a girls’ team playing on a small court. “Please take me!” Hiba demanded. But her mother refused. Her brother Hassan, six years her senior and player on the National Beach Football Team, backed his sister up. As Hiba recalls: “He listened to his friends who were saying ‘Oh your sister is very good at football!’ and he’s like ‘Yeah, she’s my sister!”

Her brother’s support, Hiba’s unrelenting determination and the realisation that football offered a ray of hope in the gloom of grief over her father, made her mother finally relent.

 

Al Majed were playing the American University team from Beirut. At half time, Al Majed’s coach asked for a demonstration of her football skills. “You stay,” he said. The side were losing 3-1 and needed all the support they could get. Hiba seized her chance. She controlled a pass and scored. At the end of the game the teams tied 3-3. Hiba had won her place on the team. In the following years she played on a number of different football and futsal teams as a midfielder and captain in Lebanon and Abu Dhabi.  

 

BECOMING A COACH

 

To make ends meet Hiba took an office job. It was there that she was inspired to drive her football career in a further direction. One day, a colleague told her about the C coaching licence. She had never heard about it before. It seemed like a great opportunity. Hiba persuaded her boss to give her 15 days’ leave to attend the course.

 

She arrived full of enthusiasm but was soon overcome with shyness. 23 pairs of male eyes gazed at her quizzically. Hiba was the only woman on the course. Then a few of men began asking for her number. Hiba was far too intimidated to join them on the pitch when they played football and didn’t dare to raise her voice in the theory sessions, though she knew all of the answers. She was frustrated, convinced that she would have to quit the course.

 

The following day, the instructor took her aside: “The participation on the court gives you more marks” he said and proceeded to encourage her. His words succeeded in helping Hiba’s more characteristic determination triumph over her intimidation. “You know when you are in jail and someone opens the door and you start running, running, running? From the second day until the 15th day, I did not stop answering and playing on the field,” Hiba recalls.

 

The effort paid off: she came 2nd in the overall ranking. In 2014, she gained the B licence – again as the only woman – and took first place. Instead of congratulating her, the men on her course showered her with insults: “Hiba is not a good girl,” they said, “She’s a female and she’s taking the first place!” When Hiba later again got first place for her A licence, she confronted them: “What did I do this time? The problem is with you and not with me.” Finally, they saw reason and apologised.

 

Hiba’s first place was justified even further when she later led her team to victory as coach of the U17 national squad at the 2015 Arab U17 Women’s Cup. For Lebanon it was the first international football title. Hiba looks back at this chapter in her life with gratitude and says that she is particularly grateful to the Lebanese Football Association for the opportunities they offered her.

 

Hiba was keen to explore how the beautiful game could have an impact beyond professional football. She secured a position as Sports Coordinator at the National Evangelical School in Mieh Mieh, some 40 kilometres south of Beirut, and stumbled across a different side of her favourite sport: football for good.

 

A DIFFERENT SIDE TO FOOTBALL: ENTERING THE FIELD OF FOOTBALL FOR GOOD

 

Attending a workshop in Beirut at the German Embassy with the Goethe Institute and the Deutsche Fußball-Bund (DFB), Hiba met a representative of streetfootballworld and was introduced to the world of football for good. “The German Embassy in Lebanon was the door to everything I am doing in Germany,” Hiba smiles, “I am very grateful to Mr. Raymond Tarabay from the Embassy, but also to the DFB for all their help and support!”

 

She was eager to get involved and thrilled when she was subsequently invited to attend Festival 16 in France the following year. It was her first taste of football3. Curious to find out even more, she procured a football3 handbook and read it from cover to cover. At the time, she was working on a project in Lebanon with 900 Syrian refugees and Lebanese children from a number of state schools to promote social cohesion and gender equality. She decided to give football3 a trial run and began to instruct the coordinators. “It will never work here,” they first said sceptically. After witnessing how the young players began communicating in a better way on the pitch and not shouting at each other as before, they revised their opinions. “football3 has taught me that nothing is impossible,” Hiba says, adding that she particularly values its effectiveness at fostering self-confidence, trust and that it promotes reflection on the way the game is played. “You have to be smart in choosing the rules,” she notes.

 

Meanwhile, Hiba has become one of the leading football3 coaches in the region, after first being approached when streetfootballworld was looking for a suitable person to conduct train-the-trainer sessions for a project together with Beirut-based organisation American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). She has since worked on a number of further programmes in Beirut, Southern and Eastern Lebanon, as well as in Jordan where streetfootballworld teamed up with the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP) and the Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA) to support refugees and foster social cohesion in the country.

 

Most recently, Hiba travelled throughout Lebanon for a three-month ANERA-lead project funded by the German Federal Foreign Office with a main focus on social cohesion and women’s empowerment. “The German Foreign Office has also been pivotal to my work,” Hiba says, “enabling such projects but also allowing me to travel to Germany.”

 

COACHING 4 GOOD

 

Working towards sustainable standards in sports and facilitating access to football for girls and young women are some of Hiba’s main goals both in sports education and sport for development.

 

Being a coach and enabling others to follow in her footsteps goes beyond creating better footballers. Even when coaching national teams, Hiba states, she was engaged in many other aspects of the players’ lives: “You need to listen to the girls outside the pitch, not just on the pitch,” she says, adding: “For me as a coach in Lebanon I have to be her doctor, her psychologist, her mother, her father, maybe sometimes her boyfriend.” One of her most important tasks in her mentoring role is often simply listening. You can tell her anything, Hiba says. She has just one demand: “don’t lie to me!” Honesty is one of the values she most fiercely defends. When her father was still alive, she often found it hard to live by. But when, after his death and at a more mature age, she battled with her mother to allow her to play the sport deemed so “haram”, she never lied. “I never said I am going to see friends,” she states to give an example.  

 

Hiba fought and fights hard for football, but the battle is worth it: “Football changed my life 180 degrees,” she enthuses. It has helped her overcome grief, has given her confidence, opportunities to travel, and above all: a purpose. It is something she wishes to continue sharing with others in future, as for her: “Football is life.”   

 

This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 5/February 2018. Read more stories here from the field of football for good here.

 

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