RIYADH: It is rare for a young, aspiring footballer in the Middle East to catch the attention of European clubs. And it is almost unheard of if they happen to be a woman.
But then again, few have been as good as Fay Al-Qaimi, the 17-year-old British-Iraqi who was born and raised in the UAE.
From kicking a ball around her Abu Dhabi home as a child, to being invited to train with Arsenal and Tottenham, and playing in men’s teams because she was too good for her female contemporaries, she has always stood out.
Al-Qaimi said: “My earliest memories were kicking the ball at the age of three. My parents would always take me to my older brother’s training sessions, just to kick a football on the side.
“I’d always beg my parents to take me. I think just from a young age, there was always a clear love for the game. Being in a family that loves football definitely helped. But I think my kind of passion for it came naturally, like it was never forced upon me, from my family.”
Her father, Waiel Al-Qaimi, recalled that at one of the sessions his daughter joined her brother and his teammates as they did a jog around the pitch, and long after the boys stopped, she was still going.
“I don’t think I ever ran out of energy. My parents always told me when I was younger, I just wouldn’t stop. I would continuously ask them to take me to my brother’s training or just to the park. I don’t think I stopped running,” she added.
From the age of seven, she started attending her own training sessions, and by 10 she was one of the standout players at The British School Al-Khubairat.
She said: “It was definitely my dad who encouraged me to take football seriously. He was the one who got me into it from the beginning. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today in terms of football without him. I think it was around maybe 13 or 14 years old that I began to realize that football was not just a hobby, or something to do for fun, you know, it was essentially becoming my life.”
Similar to her father, Al-Qaimi quickly became a Manchester United supporter and a huge fan of the game.
“I took interest from it from the beginning, whether that be United games, World Cup games, Champions League, it was always on the TV. I was happy to sit and watch. And even nowadays, I’d say probably my whole schedule revolves either on my football training or watching games. I refuse to miss a United game or a top game,” she added.
Dimitar Berbatov, Cristiano Ronaldo and, more recently, Jadon Sancho, feature among her favorite players, and she is also an admirer of Chelsea women’s forward Fran Kirby and Barcelona captain and female Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas. Al-Qaimi now tries to follow women’s football as much as the ubiquitous men’s game.
A competitive edge was honed at school as Al-Khubairat’s girls’ team very often dominated their competition.
“We were always winning, every competition, every tournament, every league, even when we took part in more international competition, like COBIS Secondary Games.”
Her rapid progress meant she was invariably promoted to older age groups ahead of schedule. She credits those transitions to several coaches: Faissal Chehade, her first and most influential mentor; Firas Khalil, her one-on-one instructor; and current coach Saleck Nejib.
“All of them definitely played a part in my development, they all have their different coaching styles, different pieces of advice, different session styles. Faissal was my coach when I was 13, 14, and he’s currently the director at CD Leganes in Madrid. He’s the one who really helped me realize that this dream of mine can actually come true,” she said.
She noted that whenever she doubted herself, Chehade would be there to raise her spirits and get her back on track.
On Al-Qaimi, he said: “An ambitious girl with a big dream who expresses her love of football every day by her hard work and great attitude toward the beautiful game.”
In 2016, Al-Qaimi took part in Manchester City’s Football Schools program and drew praise from Gary Challinor, girls football coordinator for the UAE.
He said: “Fay is a creative thinker with the technical ability to influence games. Her game understanding has continued to improve, and she can now impact games from a variety of positions as she outlines her tactical awareness during training and games.
“Fay has the ability to take on new ideas quickly and responds well to challenges in a range of roles within the team. She is a very popular member of the group, showing enthusiasm, energy, and excitement in everything she faces. These characteristics make her a joy to coach and support.”
Al-Qaimi’s progress drew attention from Houriya Al-Taheri, the UAE women’s national team coach, and her continued improvement saw her join Regional Sports in 2017. She now plays the majority of her football in men’s teams.
“Ever since COVID-19 (the coronavirus pandemic), almost all of the girls team here in Abu Dhabi disappeared. And I wanted to stay at my club, Regional Sports, and they let me train and eventually compete with their under-18 boys’ team.
“I do prefer to play with the boys because, they made me tougher, they make me want to perform even better, just to prove to them that I can play.
“I know that they all respect me, and they know that I can play football. When you’re placed in an environment where almost all the players are better than you are physically and technically, it just makes me want to work harder to reach that level. I think when I go back to playing with women, I’ll be very interested to see how that’s affected me,” she added.
Al-Qaimi’s journey has not been without disappointment, and having attracted attention from several European clubs, her expectations had to be put on hold after the pandemic.
She said: “In the summer of 2019, I went to trials in Madrid with Alcorcon, and after a week of basically doing pre-season with them, the director asked if I was interested in moving on a permanent basis. But in the end, my family and I decided it was probably better that I finish my education here, and then move on. But I’m still in contact with them.”
Then, in February 2020, she had trials with Arsenal and took part in training sessions with Tottenham. She impressed at both north London clubs.
“Both offered me an open invitation to train with their under-21 team and under-18 teams the next time I was back in the UK, so they could have a better look at me and see where I would fit.
“But then obviously COVID-19 happened, and it was difficult to get back in touch with them after a year or so. The pandemic definitely disrupted things.”
At 17, she is months away from starting university, and not surprisingly, is heading to the UK where she hopes her academic studies will go hand-in-hand with her football ambitions.
“I’m hoping to study Psychology at university, but at the same time, I want to get integrated into the WSL, the women’s premier league. Whether that means me getting into a team that’s at the bottom of the league, or top of the league, honestly, it wouldn’t bother me, everyone needs to start somewhere. Even if I just start off in the university team, because obviously not everything is going to happen straight away,” she added.
Al-Qaimi hopes that she will continue to stand out among her peers, as she has done in the UAE, and maybe provide an example for other players in the region of the levels that can be attained with hard work and perseverance.
She said: “In the UK, there’s scouts everywhere, so it’s going to be a lot easier there than here to get noticed for top teams. So, my ambition, I guess you could say is just to play for one of the best teams in Europe.
“Again, whether that be in England or somewhere like Spain, you see teams like Barcelona, and Lyon dominating in women’s football, but obviously for the next three years, it’d be easier just to be in England.”
Al-Qaimi’s ultimate ambition is to one day represent England.
But first things first, and she is happy to be enrolling at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, often cited among the best institutions in the world for sports programs.
She remains cautious in her quest to become a professional footballer, despite all the praise and encouragement that has come her way in recent years.
“I think it’s definitely going to be a good eye-opener for me to see that level, to see if I actually fit in. Because here, I might be the best player, but then when I go there, I might come to the realization that maybe this isn’t possible.
“But hopefully that isn’t the case. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the level is like out there,” Al-Qaimi added.