"As long as you’ve got girls and a ball you can play it," said Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs Ann Stock, one of the leaders of the initiative.
In addition to the health and happiness benefits of the game, Stock touts the experience as a way to equalize the playing field down the line.
"It shows girls at a very young age how to be part of a team and work together, which directly translates later in life to being a team player in school, in a job or in a marriage," said Stock.
Of course, even in the United States, women’s soccer is not yet the epitome of equality, despite the substantial gains made by Title IX. Though soccer remains one of the most widely played youth sports, but few opportunities exist for women -- or men, for that matter -- at the elite level.
The fledgling Women’s Professional Soccer league, the reincarnation of the Women’s United Soccer Association, which folded in 2003, struggles to stay afloat financially despite filling its rosters with Olympic and World Cup medalists. On Thursday, when one of the exchange girls asked Glenn Crooks, the local development team’s coach and head coach at Rutgers, if women players in the United States got paid for playing, he replied proudly, "They can." But many female professional soccer players earn so little that they save money by living with host families during the season, a practice that imitates low-level minor-league baseball players.
A host family is minor inconvenience, however, compared to some of the cultural barriers that can exist for aspiring female athletes around the world, a reality Clinton hopes her initiative will shift.
Linda Hamilton, a former member of the U.S. national team that won the World Cup in 1991, has traveled to the Philippines, the Ivory Coast and soon to Brazil on State Department-sponsored soccer training trips. Through her travels, she has seen firsthand how sports can serve as the front lines of broader gender wars.
"In the Ivory Coast, they [the girls] asked a lot very personal questions," Hamilton said. "They asked if I was married, if I had kids, if girls that play soccer in the U.S. are considered homosexuals … 'Boys won’t have girls that play soccer as their girlfriends,' they said. So they were fighting that gender battle in some ways."
In Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, Abiha Haider said she has experienced little direct opposition to her training. Still, she is careful to don the appropriate three-quarter-length pants, such as the red, shin-length ones she wore on Thursday, and high knee socks to keep her legs covered. In the villages, she said that tribal conflicts and gendered assumptions about sports keep more potential athletes shuttered inside.
"In the villages, they don’t think football is good for the girls," said Haider. "Sometimes it’s like, 'Oh my God, girls are on the ground.'"
Thaljieh confronted far more resistance when she kept playing soccer in the streets of Bethlehem past her girlhood.
"It was very difficult to begin with. People were talking about my family; my parents were pushing for me to stop," said Thaljieh. She kept playing, helping found a scrappy national team in 2004 and finally expanding the women’s field into a full-fledged league with about a dozen indoor squads and half a dozen outdoor, 11-on-11 teams. The national team’s first international home game in 2009 against Jordan drew 16,000 fans—10,000 of them women.
In the spirit of Clinton’s initiative, Thaljieh sees soccer as a way for the Palestinians to establish bonds with the international community.
"It’s not only about playing football. It’s about living in Bethlehem, the city of peace, and delivering the message that we are humans and that we have rights," Thaljieh said. "Through football, we can change the world because football is a language that everyone understands."