Two years ago, when her husband’s job change meant a move to Saudi Arabia, Port Allen native Wendi Monson imagined a lot of things. Playing soccer wasn’t one of them.
First of all, she had never played the game. More significant, she would be in Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to drive vehicles, much less run around in clothes that reveal skin above the ankles or wrists.
“You would never see a Saudi football game of women playing out in public,” Monson said.
But, as Monson discovered, that doesn’t mean women don’t play the game — or, in her case, victoriously.
This spring, Monson was a member of a team that won the Arsenal Ladies League regular season and postseason tournament, traveling to the nearby nation of Bahrain to play its league games. But they’ve also managed to have a game against a team of women from Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, who, against long odds, have managed to keep alive their dream of playing the sport.
For Monson, soccer had never been a dream. But that’s not to say she didn’t enjoy athletics.
“My husband (Shaun) and I, we’re very into sports,” she said by telephone from Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shaun works for the Saudi Aramco oil company. “When we were living in Baton Rouge, we played coed softball at Drillers. We did beach volleyball at Mango’s in Baton Rouge.
“I had two babies since we moved out of Baton Rouge, and when we got here my second son was 8 months old and I was just looking for something to do different that would kind of get me back into pre-baby shape, so I figured I’d give soccer a whirl. It’s really big here. It’s big in Europe and the Middle East, too.”
Actually, it’s the world’s most popular sport almost everywhere but the United States and Canada, and the Arabian Peninsula’s oil industries draw workers from around the world, as well as locals. About 12,000 people, mostly foreigners, live at the Saudi Aramco compound.
“Honestly, I didn’t think there would be any game-playing outside of camp,” she said. “I wasn’t aware that you could play in Bahrain. Now, inside of this compound there is a school and there’s a lot of sports for people because there’s mostly Americans and British and Australian people here. So, I did know I would have some opportunity to play some sports here, but I didn’t know that the Saudis would participate, and I didn’t know that their families would allow them to travel, which is kind of a neat thing.”
Monson’s team, the Eastern Flames, began in 2006 and is made up of women from Great Britain, Canada, Saudi Arabia and her as the only American. Monson is 36, and most of the foreigners are about her age, but the Saudi women are younger.
All of the others, however, had played the sport before. Monson plays middle defender.
“It was OK learning the game,” she said. “I was definitely the only one of the team that has children, that’s married, so, of course, I’m not the fastest on the team. A defending position is probably a good position for me for now.”
In December, the Flames played a nonleague game that was almost as memorable as their championship. Al Attahadi, a team of Saudi women from the capital city, Riyadh, came to Dhahran for a game.
It is rare for Al Attahadi, which won 4-0, to play a game in its own country, where local Islamic custom and national laws restrict women’s activities. Saudi women on the Flames team, and other Arab women who play in Bahrain wear head coverings and other clothes so as not to offend public sensibilities.
“This team from Riyadh, they all have to practice in people’s backyards and that kind of thing because they can’t go reserve a field and play there because they’re women,” Monson said.
Although Monson could have played where she grew up, it never occurred to her to try. That has changed.
“I kind of fell in love with it,” she said.