Egyptian role model Sarah Essam raises the bar for Arab female footballers

With the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing, Sarah is looking forward to return to the pitch. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 September 2020

Egyptian role model Sarah Essam raises the bar for Arab female footballers

  • The Stoke City Ladies forward is the only Arab female currently playing professionally in Europe
  • Sarah Essam says she isn’t interested in Middle East women’s football for her yet

DUBAI: For Sarah Essam, the only female Arab footballer playing professionally in a European league, the long wait to score her next goal is almost over.

The Egyptian forward has not taken part in a competitive match in the English FA Women’s Premier League (North) since the Covid-19 pandemic brought all sporting fixtures to a halt in March, and she is now itching to get back onto the pitch. On Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, she will be looking to pick up the form that has made her one of Stoke City Ladies’ top scorers when they take on Sheffield in match day 1.

And training remotely has been tough, she admits.

“We had twice-a-week meetings and we use to train together on Zoom,” the 21-year-old Essam said. “They gave us a lot of workouts and we would record our numbers and stats and send them back. It’s been a very long pre-season. We’ve been training since Covid happened in March and we then started the pre-season proper on Aug. 10.”

“When they decided that we were going to come back to training on the pitch there were a lot of letters that we had to sign and we had to take part in track and trace, every training session,” she added.

Essam moved to the UK in 2017 to study engineering at the University of Derby, and in her own words went “knocking on the doors” of clubs that would consider taking her on. There were several interested parties but it was Stoke that gave her her big break. And they did not regret it as she went on to become the team’s top scorer two years ago.

It’s a long way from the days she would stay up late to watch UEFA Champions League action and play street football with her brother and his friends.

“The most important thing for me was to work hard every day and keep improving, and learn from my mistakes,” Essam, who started her career at Wadi Degla club, said. “This is something that I always do and hopefully I can keep doing well with the club, giving more and learning more about English football. Who knows, maybe I can get another challenge in the future. I’ve got other offers and I’m still considering them. I always like to take a step up in my career, I don’t like to stay where I am. I always like to find new challenges and new ambitions.” 

As a 16-year-old, Essam suffered a major disappointment when she was dropped from the Egyptian national team ahead on the eve of 2016 Africa Women Cup of Nations in Cameroon. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) member team has barely played since, but she remains hopeful of representing her country in the coming years.

“I’ve heard that it’s been brought back,” said Essam. “We haven’t participated in anything since 2016, so I’m very optimistic for the upcoming period regarding women’s football because as you can see CAF’s strategy is very good regarding women’s football in Africa. They’ve held meetings for member countries as well and I was one of the lucky players invited. So I’m happy and optimistic that I can be successful with the national team as well.”

Her outspoken views on sporting and cultural issues has made her a prominent female voice in her country and FIFA’s official website ran an interview with her in April in which she recalled the sacrifices she has taken to follow her dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Sarah has also featured as a commentator on the BBC. (Supplied)

Interest in women’s football has exploded over the last two decades. The last two World Cups, in Canada in 2015 and France last year, have been hugely successful and elevated the women’s game to new levels. Sadly, no Arab nation, including Essam’s Egypt, are expected to qualify for the 2023 edition taking place in Australia and New Zealand. 

“The World Cup has been growing massively, and that is great for women’s football,” she said. “Football associations should believe in the women’s game, because some countries have the talent, girls that are very passionate about football, who want to represent their countries and do something positive. We have to learn from other countries, we have to look up to Brazil and England, where they have new rules that girls must get paid as much as men for the national team, because both are representing their country. There is no difference. We should take the next step and it’s time to make us look better in women’s football, and all sports as well.”

For now, Essam is focused on Stoke City and the next steps of her career in Europe. There are no immediate plans to return to the Middle East yet as a player or in another capacity in the game.

“I haven’t really thought about playing or coaching in the Middle East, I have ambitions now that I am planning to achieve,” she said. “Who knows, maybe when I retire, I will decide to focus on my engineering job, all I’m focusing on right now is to take steps one, two, three of my plan. At the moment these points don’t include playing in the Middle East in the future because I want to step up and the Middle East doesn’t have professionalism like European countries.”

“I want to do what’s best for me,” Essam added. “I hope that we become more like European football and improve in the future, but I don’t think it’s going to be soon because we’re still starting out. It’s good that many Arab countries have started women’s leagues but there’s still a long way to go.”

Essam’s profile has spiked in recent years. She took part in commentary duties for the BBC during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the men’s AFC Africa Cup of Nations the same year.

In her native Egypt, she has been, alongside other superstars from the world of entertainment, one of the faces of a high-end campaign for a women’s brand, and she has lent her voice to CAF campaigns against domestic violence in Africa. Essam also has a growing following on Twitter (13.1K) and Instagram (16.5k) and appreciates the importance that social media plays today, especially in setting an example for aspiring young footballers.

“I’m the type of person who was very low key [on social media] before I played in the UK,” she said. “Even now I still don’t share everything. But sometimes I have to, and I feel good when I share things that may inspire some girls. I don’t give it 100 percent attention because not everything is for social media, but I do enjoy interacting with young girls because I remember how I was at their age and I wanted just any positive signs or any support from someone who plays abroad.”

Esaam may not have set out to be a role model, but she has become one. Indeed, many now call her the Egyptian Queen, a nod to her countryman Mohamed Salah, who has become one of the world’s finest players since joining reigning English Premier League champions Liverpool in 2017. 

On Saturday Saleh scored a hat trick as Liverpool beat Leeds United 4-3 in their opening fixture of the 2020-2021 season.

After the longest of waits, don’t bet against Essam doing the same this weekend.

Late Fernandes penalty earns Man United 3-2 win at Brighton

Updated 26 September 2020

Late Fernandes penalty earns Man United 3-2 win at Brighton

  • Solskjaer: ‘Spirit and character of the boys I don’t question. The fitness and form will come’

BRIGHTON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted Manchester United were lucky to escape with a 3-2 win at Brighton thanks to a penalty from Bruno Fernandes, awarded on a VAR review after the final whistle had blown.

Brighton hit the woodwork five times and thought they had earned a deserved point when Solly March headed home to equalize five minutes into stoppage time.

However, Neal Maupay’s handball was penalized by referee Chris Kavanagh after he consulted a pitch-side monitor, having already blown for full time, and Fernandes converted from the spot in the 100th minute.

Pre-season hopes that United could mount a title challenge to their biggest rivals Liverpool and Manchester City dissipated after a dire display in losing 3-1 to Crystal Palace last weekend.

And Solskjaer’s were not much better on the south coast with Brighton boss Graham Potter lamenting “life is not fair” as United scored with their only shots on target.

“We got away with one. Maybe one point we deserved, we didn’t deserve more,” said Solskjaer.

“We’ve got to be honest enough to say they created the most chances. They had loads of shots, they had big chances and that’s not what we want. We need to improve a lot in the few weeks coming forward.”

Solskjaer again pointed to a shortened pre-season for his side’s slow start as United had just a month between the end to last season and starting the new campaign.

“The spirit and character of the boys I don’t question. The sharpness, fitness and the form will come,” added Solskjaer.

“We have a few weeks to catch up and the more games we play, we’ll get better and better, and sharper and sharper.”

Leandro Trossard hit both posts with shots from outside the box, while Adam Webster’s looping header came back off the crossbar as Brighton made the brighter start.

The hosts finally got their reward when the tireless Tariq Lamptey burst into the box from right wing-back and was clipped by Fernandes.

The United midfielder was lucky to escape a second yellow card, but Maupay ensured they did pay the penalty with a cheeky chip down the middle of the goal as David de Gea dived to his left.

However, the lead lasted just three minutes as from a fiercely driven Fernandes free-kick, Nemanja Matic turned the ball back across goal and Lewis Dunk turned the ball into his own net.

VAR came to the rescue of both sides within the first 10 minutes of the second half.

Brighton thought they had a second penalty when Paul Pogba was penalized for pulling back Aaron Connolly. However, Kavanagh overturned his initial decision when he saw a replay of the incident.

At the other end, United’s front three was beginning to click as Marcush Rashford swept home Mason Greenwood’s low cross but this time VAR ruled against United with the goalscorer marginally offside.

There was no stopping Rashford moments later when he raced onto Fernandes’s ball over the top and left Ben White trailing on the ground before his deflected effort found the top corner.

Brighton’s bad luck continued when March became the next player to hit the woodwork as his low shot across De Gea came back off the inside of the far post before Trossard smashed against the bar with just the Spanish number one to beat.

The Seagulls seemed to finally have their reward when March ghosted in at the back post to head home Alireza Jahanbakash’s cross.

But in a chaotic finale, Harry Maguire’s header from a corner struck Maupay’s arm and to Brighton’s dismay, a penalty was awarded after Kavanagh had seemingly blown for full-time.

“Sometimes life isn’t fair and it feels like that at the moment,” said Potter.

“The performance level was amazing from us, I’m so proud of the players. It’s a sore one.

“I don’t know what the shot count was but we were dominant. We deserved something from the game to say the least.”

Fernandes has never missed a top-flight penalty and stayed cool under the pressure to ensure Solskjaer’s men escaped with all three points.