by Noor Algadheb
Eastern Flames Club established by Aramco employees is now supported by Ministry of Sports and Saudi Arabian Football Federation
In the past year, the team participated in its biggest tournament — and the first women’s football tournament in the Gulf Cooperation Council in Al Ain, UAE. Supported by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in an effort to expose the Eastern Flames to professional players to leverage their skills, it marked a major milestone for the team.
Dhahran — Women’s sports in Saudi Arabia was very limited when the Eastern Flames soccer team was first founded in 2006. But that didn’t stop Kaye Smith — the founder of the club — from following her passion in forming the Eastern Flames team.
In those 14 years, the team has evolved from a recreational activity inside Aramco’s community into a full-fledged team that competes in region-al tournaments.
Today, women’s sport is encouraged by the Saudi government, as it falls under the Quality of Life Program that is one of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiatives.
From the Beginning
The Eastern Flames started with few members as Smith faced difficulties in finding players and coaches to join the team. Still, the team was able to host tournaments in Dhahran, playing other Saudi teams. In 2009, the Flames participated in their first Rotary Club of Manama’s Charity Tournament.
From the beginning, the players took practices very seriously, with the women — married and single — built their lives around weekly practicing sessions at the Hills Field inside Aramco’s Dhahran community.
Then, in 2010, the Eastern Flames felt the need to level up their performance, joining the Arsenal Soccer School Cup league in Bahrain with a goal to become competitive by playing against more experienced players. As it was their first league, they struggled through the whole season without winning a game. Still, they were strong believers in progress and took their time to reflect on their losses, returning stronger the following season.
“We learned a valuable lesson from our first season, which is never to give up. The Eastern Flames went from losing every game in one season to going undefeated in the next one,” said Karina Chapa, Eastern Flames co-manager and Mentorship Program manager at Aramco.
The Eastern Flames has undergone management restructuring that has pumped new blood into the team and brought bigger goals. In 2014, Maram Al Butairi, a financial analyst at Aramco, became the manager, pumping new blood into the team with bigger goals. In a couple of months, she appointed Chapa as co-manager.
“What neither one of us expected was that we are very different in terms of how we process and operate. We both believe that this, too, has been a key to success,” said Chapa. “We complement each other because she views things from a finance point of view, and I view things as human capital.”
Working Harder, Getting Better
Looking to expand the number of players and the team’s capabilities, leaders recruited more players from the company through word of mouth, The Arabian Sun, and advertisements in the community to build a richer talent pool.
The Eastern Flames, though, faced recruitment challenges regarding the public nature of participation. Because of this, the club tries to raise awareness among the local communities to support the current direction of the Kingdom, increasing women’s participation in sports.
Last year, the team participated in its biggest tournament — and the first women’s football tournament — in the Gulf Cooperation Council in Al Ain, UAE. Supported by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in an effort to expose the Eastern Flames to professional players to leverage their skills, it marked a major milestone for the team by allowing them to play against other teams such as the UAE National Team, Al Ain Football Club, and the Super Soccer Team from Bahrain.
“Despite the fact we didn’t win any of the games, I am proud of our performance, as we were able to challenge the opponents and score goals against professional players who get paid for playing football,” said Mayadah Al Hashem, an engineer at Aramco. “After the tournament, we discovered that stamina is our bottleneck — that when we reach minute 80 of each game, we tire.”
Now, during practice, coaches have players run high intensity laps before stretching to increase stamina. “Coaches always identify our weaknesses and tackle these issues on their development plan,” said Al Hashem.
Although nobody knows when athletic competitions will resume in the Kingdom and the region as a whole, the future looks bright.
As a next step, the team will be able to compete with other Saudi soccer clubs in a nationwide league that was inaugurated by the Saudi Sports for All Federation in February.
“It was a historic step toward building women’s soccer in the Kingdom,” said Al-Butairi. “These type of competitions drive players to perform at their best, which will eventually improve their capabilities. Everyone in the team is excited for the future as we believe there will be additional leagues and football events in Saudi Arabia.”
— The Arabian Sun: August 12, 2020 | Vol. LXXV, No. 31