Ashleigh Plumptre at Al-Ittihad: How Big Can The Women's Game Truly Get In Saudi Arabia?

Published on 20 September 2023 at 19:00

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Neymar to N'Golo Kante, some of football's biggest names currently ply their skills in Saudi Arabia having made the move from Europe's most established elite leagues. After a Summer transfer window full of shocks and surprises, one move that perhaps went under the radar could be the catalyst for more and more growth and development in the women's game. 


Ashleigh Plumptre, having already amassed years of experience within both the college soccer system and the Women's Super League, made the big move earlier this month from Leicester to Al-Ittihad Ladies based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The men's outfit currently employs the aforementioned Benzema and Kante, and came 5th in the 8 team league in its inaugural season. 


Plumptre may be the very first name to make the move from the WSL to the SWPL, but the league already boasts some reputable names both on the pitch and at the touchline: Al Ittihad's manager is former USWNT player Kelly Lindsey, who herself is a trailblazer for her work with the Afghan and Moroccan National Teams. This Summer alone has seen talents like Nor Mustafa, Rita Chikwelu and Oriana Atluve, and could be a sign of greater things to come for women's football in the region.  


Football in Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East as a whole, has seen a surge in interest and popularity since the start of the decade. The Qatar World Cup is widely heralded as one of the best tournaments of all time from a quality perspective, with Herve Renard's Saudi Arabia causing one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history when they beat eventual Champions Argentina 2-1 in their opener. 


State-owned outfits like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Newcastle United have also seen their influence and prominence on the continental footballing stage grow since they were taken over. Now focusing on domestic football efforts, the PIF and other owners investing in the women's game could go a long way in boosting the sport's regional and global popularity akin to what we during EURO and World Cup years. 


Read More: What Is The Best Saudi Pro League Transfer XI?


Naturally, there will be ethical and legal limits to what's achievable with women's football: where the WSL has succeeded in captivating both female and male audiences, there's still hurdles to fully embracing the women's game in a more socially conservative part of the world: attendance figures for the men's game haven't hit the heights that many expected them too either, particularly at big spending clubs like Al-Ettifaq, so it might take a monumental effort to get the fans attending the women's games in their droves like we have seen in England and America. 


Whilst there will always be allegations of 'sportswashing' and valid criticisms of each Middle Eastern government and regime utilising the popularity of football for their own agenda, only time will tell how Ashleigh Plumptre's transfer and other future moves help grow the women's game, and whether this is actually a sustainable venture. Here's hoping that Plumptre is the first and certainly not the last big name in women's football to go to Saudi Arabia to showcase their skills and help grow the beautiful game.

By Jaspar Shepherdson

(@jasparshepmedia on Instagram and X/Twitter)

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