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Gaelle Dule Asheri is shown standing with one foot on a soccer ball and wearing an orange uniform.

Sports

Cameroonian girls defy prejudice to pursue soccer dreams

The Women's World Cup is putting a spotlight on the growing global interest in women's soccer. So in a country where many still see soccer as a man's game, there's a glimmer of hope as a first wave of girls in Cameroon are now being trained by professional coaches at an academy in Yaounde.

Gaelle Dule Asheri, 17, who is among the first wave of girls being trained by professional coaches at the Rails Foot Academy, attends a training session of the female U17 team at the RFA field in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

When Gaelle Asheri first started playing soccer in the dirt streets near her home in Cameroon's capital, she was the only girl on the informal neighborhood teams which used stones for goal posts and kept score by chalking results on a wall.

Two young women are shown sitting in the grass smiling.

Asheri and Pouadjeu sit on the grass as they speak after their friendly match with male U15 team.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Asheri, 17, and her teammate Ida Pouadjeu, 16, are now among the first wave of girls being trained by professional coaches at the Rails Foot Academy (RFA) in Yaounde. It was set up in January to foster female soccer talent in a country where many still see the sport as a man's game.

A young woman is shown juggling a soccer ball with two youn men.

Asheri plays soccer with her friends outside her house.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

"I used to train with boys, so with boys there were some exercises I was not allowed to do because I am a girl," Asheri said, describing how she was seen as more fragile than her male counterparts.

"But reaching here it was just another world, I was forced to do abdominal exercises, forced to do all harsh work so you reach a level where tears usually come out with sweat."

A row of people are shown sitting on railroad track with a soccer match taking place in the distance.

People watch a friendly match between boy's team U15, and girls' team U17.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

The academy gets its name from the train tracks that hem the playing ground and turn into informal stands for the local spectators, who gather to watch the girls' teams play all-male sides.

Global interest in women's soccer is growing and FIFA hopes over a billion viewers will tune in to watch the Women's World Cup in June. Cameroon's national side, known as the Indomitable Lionesses, was one of three African teams to qualify.

A small wooden building is shown with a painting of a soccer player on the wall.

Gaelle Enganamouit is depicted on the facade of a hairdressers' shop.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Its star player, Gaelle Enganamouit, was the brains behind RFA — the West African country's first female soccer academy. Her own experience as a young player in Yaounde showed her that it was important for women to have their own space to train, she told FIFA in January.   

A coach is standing in front of his team whom are all sitting on the ground wearing green uniforms.

Biolo talks with his team during half-time.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

The academy currently trains around 70 girls, most of whom come from poor backgrounds and would otherwise not be able to afford even their own soccer boots, said coach Emmanuel Biolo.

"Here they have everything: coaches, jerseys, training equipment, a physiotherapist, and the guidance we give them all the time. Gaelle Enganamouit really wants these kids to be the next generation," he said.

Two young women are shown walking on either side of a young man talking.

Asheri walks with her classmates.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Asheri attends the academy on Saturday mornings and after school on Wednesdays, changing out of her uniform — a belted blue knee-length dress — into her team's matching kit.

She is studying for her final baccalaureate exams, but the dream for her and Pouadjeu is to play soccer at a professional level like their benefactor.

A young woman is shown sitting on her bed holding a soccer ball.

Pouadjeu sits on her bed.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

"I've seen Gaelle (Enganamouit) play on TV. I've never missed one of her matches. She plays so well, I want to be like her," Pouadjeu said.

Both girls initially faced opposition from family members who were worried that the sport was unfeminine. But neither have been deterred by such prejudice.

A group of young people are shown standing around a red pickup truck laughing.

Asheri jokes with her teammates before their training session.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

A young woman is shown kicking a soccer ball directly at the camera.

Asheri plays soccer with her friends outside her house.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

"I picked up the ball, I kicked it and I never looked back," Asheri said, recalling the childhood street soccer games with her male cousins and neighbors.

Two older woman — one seated — are shown on either side of a younger woman wearing a shirt with the word Philadelphia on it.

Pouadjeu and her aunt Rosalie Tchamkou and her sister Kevine at their house.

Credit:

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

By Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters

Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Alexandra Hudson.

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