ALMATY — In Kyrgyzstan, one of the most recognized faces of local soccer is a woman.
Aidana Otorbaeva’s magnetic ball control and penchant for a cheeky trick drew interest from European clubs, as well as from girls across the Central Asian country who might otherwise never have given the sport a second thought.
And her activism away from the sport — particularly during the coronavirus pandemic — has raised the profile of the women’s game even more.
Otorbaeva’s feats as a volunteer during the crisis were acknowledged last year when Fifpro, a worldwide organization representing over 60,000 soccer players, recognized her as a “Fifpro hero.”
Donning a hazmat suit with her favored number seven and the diminutive Aidachka on the back, 27-year-old Otorbaeva was part of a group called Together that distributed food and medical materiel to assist doctors as COVID-19 overwhelmed Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2020 .
“When you are in the red zone and you see doctors mentally, physically, and emotionally done in, you start really feeling the fear,” Otorbaeva told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service shortly after she received the award.
Otorbaeva earned a new award on September 2, this time from Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, for the “popularization of sports,” something that is very much part of her mandate as deputy chair of the national women’s soccer association.
But as she transitions from playing the game to overseeing it, Otorbaeva argues that soccer can be more than a sport for Kyrgyzstan, fostering social change and promoting education as well as on-field success.
Sports are an opportunity “to get it into women’s heads that they can do whatever they want,” Otorbaeva told RFE/RL.
‘Learn To Be The Housewife’
That message can be difficult to convey, especially when Kyrgyz politicians and other influencers are saying the opposite.
When opening a new school in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, on September 28, Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov (no relation to the president), opined that “girls must learn to be the housewife, and boys must learn to earn money, defend their homeland “
That statement caused consternation online but reflects prevalent views about the respective roles of men and women in Kyrgyzstan.
The daughter of a soccer player, Otorbaeva’s rise to fame began with kickabouts as a schoolgirl in the courtyards of residential buildings in Bishkek.
The journey she took enabled her to star for the national team and to establish a private soccer academy, where some young girls play alongside the boys, just as she did when she was young.
“When I was growing up, people told me [soccer] wasn’t a sport for women, that I was wasting my time. I had to hear that a lot,” Otorbaeva recalled.
These days, it is a little less alien to see girls on a soccer field, including outside the capital.
Otorbaeva’s director at the women’s soccer association, Anargul Abdysheva, says more and more young girls are playing the sport, aided by support from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, which has helped fund interschool girls’ soccer festivals across the country.
The seven-team amateur women’s league is also stronger, although turnover on the teams is “a huge problem” as many players drop out in early adulthood due to getting married or finding work, Abdysheva told RFE/RL.
Several women from the national team are performing well in foreign leagues, such as those in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, she added.
The soccer tournaments have sometimes met resistance, whether from school administrations or parents.
Nevertheless, in the region of Chui, just outside of Bishkek, a girls’ team formed off the back of one of the tourneys, while they have also been with enthusiasm in parts of southern Kyrgyzstan, which tends to be viewed as more religiously conservative .
“Because of our mentality, introducing the concept of women’s soccer overnight and in a targeted way is very difficult,” Abdysheva said.
Soccer For A Stronger Community
At present, the association’s focus is on next year’s Asian Cup, where two youth-level women’s teams — but no senior women’s side — will represent Kyrgyzstan.
If a professional women’s league and a national team challenging for major honors seem a faraway dream in a cash-strapped country, the idea that women’s soccer can become a community sport is already in play.
This year and in 2019 women’s tournaments were staged in the Leilek district of Batken, a southwestern province that last month witnessed unprecedented deadly clashes between the armed forces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over their disputed border.
The organizer of the events, Gazibubu Babaiarova, a Prague-based activist of Kyrgyz descent, said she was inspired by a small group of women who were playing soccer on the local field in her home village of Kok-Tash.
“One woman said she had lost 10 kilos and another said her blood pressure had returned to normal [since they started playing soccer],” Babaiarova told RFE/RL.
The debut tournament attended by women and children only gathered 10 teams of seven to 10 women each, who played for a sheep as a first prize and cash prizes for second and third place.
With the pandemic vetoing summer tournaments in 2020 and 2021, Babaiarova said the women were especially eager for this year’s competition and began training with their teams in the spring.
It was to Otorbaeva that Babaiarova reached out to for help arranging a trained referee to officiate the games.
“This time around mothers-in-law, relatives, and husbands seemed more supportive. They were holding the babies and taking care of the children of the women who were playing. Many of the young women were breastfeeding children between games,” Babaiarova said .
The initiative may yet spread to other villages in Batken — the provincial government has offered to provide the setting — and Babaiarova is keen to ensure women from all backgrounds in the multiethnic province can take part.
Yet with the Kok-Tash women having tournament experience behind them, Babaiarova believes they would steamroll the competition.
“They are psychologically and physically better prepared for the next tournament. They already have their own Ronaldos and Messis,” she joked, referring to the international soccer superstars.
NOTE: Gazibubu Babaiarova is the wife of Torokul Doorov, director of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service