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.
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.