Going where no one has before:
Salma al-Majidi the first Arab woman to coach a men's football team, taking a training session in Gedaref, east of of Khartoum, 2018. C/o Getty Images.
For the people of Sudan, this month’s AFCON and the party atmosphere that has gripped Ivory Coast will no doubt feel so, so far removed from the realities of life in the war torn country.
As of January 2024, the war in Sudan has claimed 13,000 lives, 33,000 have been injured and 7 million displaced; 9 months later there is still no end to the war in sight. Attempts at organising ceasefires have failed and any that have been agreed to have been repeatedly broken by both sides.
Of the 7 million displaced, 1.4 million have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Egypt, South Sudan and Ethiopia. One of those who was forced to flee was football coach Salma al-Majidi.
Salma is a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. Her journey has taken her to places very few others have been before. The first FIFA recognised Arab woman to coach a men’s team, Salma has loved football for as long as she can remember. Growing up in a working class neighbourhood in the city of Omdurman, Salma explained how her house was always the spot for neighbours to go and watch the Sudan Premier League. Her passion for coaching, however, grew as a result of joining her younger brother at his training sessions. “I frequently went to football school with my brother and I often spoke to the coaches. From then on, the passion for training grew as I already had a broad idea about football growing up in a neighbourhood where the game was so popular.”
Salma instructing her players, 2018. C/o Getty Images
In a country where football is still seen by some as a sport exclusively for men, Salma was one of the first to break the mould. After attending her brother’s sessions for a while, one of the coaches noticed Salma’s potential and spoke to her about getting involved. “He noticed that I had good knowledge and observations about football, especially for a young girl.”
Following the chat, the coach mentored Salma, providing her with tactical information and asking her to help prepare some of the exercises that he would put on. After a year and a half of working with the coach, Salma applied to a football training course offered by the Youth and Juniors Sports Authority.
“When the course was announced a year later, I was among the successful participants. Thank God, I passed the course and obtained my first training qualification, which was a Sudanese C badge.”
Salma started coaching on her own in 2012, a time when attitudes to women’s football in Sudan were far behind where they are even today. While there was no outright ban on women’s football, Sudan’s Islamic Council which had close ties to al-Basher’s government, decreed that the creation of a national women’s team would be an immoral act. Women’s football was forced to go “underground” with unofficial teams playing on makeshift pitches out of sight from the authorities. So with no opportunities to coach in the women’s game, Salma simply carried on chasing her dreams via the men’s.
Nicknamed ‘Sister Coach’ by her players, Salma has gone on to achieve great things since those early days. Holding a CAF B license that allows her to coach teams across Africa, her career has seen her work with both men’s and women’s teams at various levels.
Following the toppling of al-Basher’s government in 2018 and some relaxation in attitudes and civil liberties, Sudan’s football authorities formed a 21 team women’s league in 2019. Salma has been intensively involved in the development of the women’s game in Sudan. The national women’s team, which had only ever played in unofficial friendlies, was then recognised by the CAF in 2021. Salma, thanks to her experience, was invited to form a key part of the coaching staff that led the team in its first official game v Egypt in August 2021. She then went on to lead the team in a series of friendlies against South Sudan and continues to balance the role with her position as manager of Al-Hilal Ladies.
Having fought societal prejudices for most of her career, when the war broke out in Sudan, Salma was forced to take on a whole new battle, one of survival. Under heavy bombardment from multiple directions Salma, forced to leave her mother, father, siblings and uncle behind in Omdurman, made the perilous journey north across the border to Egypt and on to Cairo where she now lives with her husband.
Inspired by her story, I connected with Salma online thanks to the help of a friend in Kenya to learn a bit more about how the war has affected her, the different places her career has taken her and what her hopes are for the future of the game in Sudan…
Salma, 2018. C/o Getty Images.
Ili: Salma, it’s a real pleasure to be able to chat to you. The situation in Sudan is heartbreaking. Can we start off with you telling the readers what the situation is currently like in Sudan and in your hometown, Omdurman?
Salma: The situation now in my hometown is very bad. Everyone is suffering from the shooting and shelling that comes from any direction as well as a shortage of all things: food, medicine, water and electricity. In addition, there is no sporting activity due to the war and destruction that has affected the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Ili: Are you in contact with any players and coaches who are still in Sudan? What are they telling you about their situation and conditions?
Salma: Yes, I’ve been in touch with many players and coaches. Everyone is suffering from the effects of the war and the cessation of sporting activity. Unfortunately, we have lost more than 9 coaches due to the war, and a large number of players from various levels, most of whom died due to shooting and shelling.
Salma with her team in Gedaref, 2018. C/o Getty Images.
Ili: You’ve faced some real challenges to get to where you are today; societal prejudice early on, political turmoil leading to games being called off and now the civil war which has forced you to leave your home. Can you take me back to where it all started for you?
Salma: I frequently went to football school with my brother and I often spoke to the coaches. From then on, the passion for training grew as I already had a broad idea about football growing up in a neighbourhood where football was popular and our house was a destination for people to come and watch football on tv. Everybody in the neighbourhood follows the club and international matches. One of the coaches noticed that I had good knowledge and observations about football, especially for a young girl. “How can a girl be so bold and have such a high understanding of football?”, they asked. Football, especially in our society, was exclusively for men. After a while, the coach began to provide me with more information and asked me to always come in a sports uniform because he would allow me to help with marking and preparing some of the exercises that he put on. I approached training very seriously and diligently until everyone started calling me coach. After a year and a half of continuous work, I applied to the Youth and Juniors Sports Authority to apply for a football training course. When the course was announced a year later, I was among the successful participants. Thank God, I passed the course and obtained my first training qualification, which was a Sudanese C badge.
Ili: In 2012, with no opportunities in the women’s game, you decided to pursue coaching in the men’s game. Which club gave you your first break and what was the reaction from the fans and media?
Salma: The first team I coached was Al-Hilal Al-Abbasiya, a junior team, but my first real experience in the senior game came after with a third division team from Omdurman called Al-Nasr. The media announced me as the first female football coach of a men’s team in Sudan, the Middle East and Africa and the second in the world after the Portuguese coach Helena Costa [who was briefly Head Coach of Clermont Foot]. The media asked: “Will Salma al-Majidi’s experiment continue?”, while someone else asked: “will it will be like milk boiling over and spilling?” But, thank God, since the year 2012 I’m still a coach working with clubs and national teams.
Ili: People trying to do something totally new are often met with scepticism, as you will have found. As a female coach taking charge of a senior men’s team for the first time in a country where a woman working in football was totally unprecedented, how did you overcome the doubters and earn the trust of the fans?
Salma: The most difficult task was how to overcome those in the crowd who doubted that this girl could lead a football team and questioned whether she would succeed, especially the fanatical fans, but thank God, the fans kept coming in very large numbers. In addition to them coming to watch their team, they were coming to see the girl who was leading their team and how she dealt with their players. I found that the way the team performed and good results were always the best response to the doubters and after a short while I gained the love and respect of the public.
Salma explains tactics to one of her players, 2018. C/o Getty Images
Ili: In a country where a man working under a woman is seen as unusual, your husband Ahmed Yekini works with you as your assistant coach and together you both form somewhat of a power couple. What is it like to coach with your husband and what experience does he bring to the setup? It’s a totally unique dynamic in the world of football.
Salma: Yes, it is unique, and I don’t think it exists in the world of football. My husband, coach Ahmed Yekini, has good experience, especially since he trained under a number of local and foreign coaches and played for the Sudanese national team and as a player he had very good potential. We’ve always worked in the same team due to the degree of understanding we have between each other and our coaching philosophies. Every team we work for, my husband brings his experience he acquired as a player.
Ili: Which coaches have influenced your work and how would you describe your philosophy and style of play?
Salma: My influences include professor and lecturer at CAF, Ahmed Babiker, coach Talaat Ismail, Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson. I have certificates from the Confederation of African Football, which is the African B license, a lecturer’s certificate from CAF, a physical fitness certificate, and a first-level certificate from the Sudan Football Association. With these qualifications I’m able to lead any first team. My training philosophy is to focus on one form but its basis is tactics and team play, relying on the skill of my players and being adaptable to the opponents and different in-game situations.
Ili: As a pioneer who has shown what women are capable of in football, you’re an inspiration to girls and women across Africa and the Arab world. In 2015 you were recognised by BBC Arabic as one of the most inspirational women in the Arab world. Did the recognition have any impact on your career?
Salma: In the year 2015, I was recognised, but frankly, it had only a moral impact on me and my family. I did not receive more attention, but I was happy with the fact I was included on their list.
Ili: What are your career goals? Would you like to try and coach outside Sudan?
Salma: My goals are many and great, the most important of which is to continue my development and to work with different clubs, whether that be in Asia, Africa or Europe.
Training in Gedaref, 2018. C/o Getty Images
Ili: Let’s turn to football culture in Sudan. Can you help build a picture of the football landscape in the country? Who are the biggest most successful teams, what is the culture like?
Salma: Football is considered the number one sport in Sudan. Everyone loves football and looks forward to watching it, whether at the local, African or international level. The English and Spanish leagues enjoy a large audience in Sudan. Football has maintained its popularity over the years throughout different places, ethnicities, circumstances and cultures in Sudan. The largest clubs at the present time are Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh, and these days we’re seeing Al-Hilal compete in the African Champions League group stage after Al-Merreikh’s exit from the previous rounds.
Ili: How has the war affected football? The league has been cancelled and a lot of foreign players have fled back home but the best teams like Al Hilal are still playing in continental club competitions, right?
Salma: Since May 2023, sporting activity has completely stopped in Sudan. This has had a major impact on the levels and performance of the players, and it was also the reason for Al-Merreikh’s exit from the African Champions League. Al-Hilal is still competing in the African Champions League, but the Sudanese players are competing in complicated psychological circumstances. We hope that the crisis will be resolved soon.
Ili: The war has spread throughout most of the country but I'm interested to know if the game continues to survive and be played in pockets. Do you know of any areas where football is still being played at any level?
Salma: There are some areas that have been spared from some of the major violence, such as Kosti, Gedaref, and Kila , Port Sudan, whose people play football in the form of mini-tournaments, as a memorial to former players in the region, or as a tribute or event.
Salma and the Sudan national women's team before a friendly v South Sudan in Khartoum, 2022. C/o AFP.
Ili: Organised women’s football has only existed in Sudan since 2019 but there was a lot of progress made in a reasonably short time. Can you bring readers up to speed with where the game is at and where you think it’s heading in the future?
Salma: In 2019 the launch of the women’s football championship in Sudan was announced, and in 2020 witnessed the formation of the first national team, and I had the honour of being among the team’s technical staff. After that, we witnessed two seasons of the women’s league, but before the war, there was a decline in interest in organising the competition and assembling the women’s team.
Last September CAF announced that for the Women's African Nations Championship qualifying, Sudan would face Angola, but we were disappointed to learn that the games had been cancelled. At this moment, the future of women's football is unknown and we do not know what will happen later down the line considering a number of female players have headed to Cairo and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and South Sudan to join the teams in those countries.
Ili: When the war ends, what, in your view, is needed to help the sport develop in the country? From the perspective of both men’s and women’s football.
Salma: Football today has become an industry and investment, with the football sector considered one of the most important and popular in sports. Therefore, it is necessary to reshape the project for developing football in Sudan, establish a national strategy focusing on enhancing the system, training qualified personnel capable of success, and embracing challenges. This starts with responsible leaders throughout the sport, associations, coaches, and players. Attention should be given to the environment, sports infrastructure, and stadiums – addressing significant issues faced by Sudanese stadiums. Additionally, emphasis on television broadcasting and collaboration with sports-oriented companies is crucial. We must elevate football as an industry, moving away from prolonged periods of partisanship promoted by some.
I'd like to give my thanks to Salma for being willing to and taking the time to take part in this interview. I've got to know her over the last 3 months and look forward to keeping up with her career. The images featured are from 2018 as there is very little current photography of Salma given the current situation- which is understandable. I'd also like to thank Alsanosi Adam, a friend and documentary maker based in Kenya, on helping me get in touch with Salma. You can watch his documentary on the coach, filmed before the war, on Al-Jazeera's youtube channel here