Sarah Essam, Stoke City's Egyptian queen
Lifelong football enthusiast Sarah Essam has sacrificed a lot for the game
She moved to England to sign for Stoke City
Egyptian star combines football with engineering studies
Sarah Essam hit the headlines in 2017 after becoming the first Egyptian and Arab woman to play in the FA Women's Premier League. The gifted player more recently earned public acclaim on her return to Egypt after responding strongly to domestic criticism and praising the health measures taken by the Egyptian authorities in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, she showed that living abroad has in no way diminished her love of Egypt.
While in quarantine in Cairo, where she recently celebrated her 21st birthday, the first Egyptian woman to play professionally in Europe opened her heart up to FIFA.com, talking, among other things, about her bourgeoning career and how she ended up playing in England.
Challenge and choice
Asked about the genesis of her football journey, Essam said, “Growing up, I’d play football with my brother. I was the only girl among a group of boys taking part in kickabouts. I liked football even though I was very good at basketball, but I naturally like a challenge and so I didn’t hesitate to opt for football over all other sports.
"Over time I gained more skills in competing with boys until I became even better than them. It was a beautiful feeling to get the boys' recognition of my football ability, especially in a society that has always considered football a 'boys’ game'. I faced some resistance from my family who initially thought football wouldn’t be the right environment for me."
Sarah continued to tread that difficult path and decided to join the Wadi Degla club, where she was soon promoted to the first team. She then received a call-up to the Egyptian national team, who were preparing for the 2016 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. “I felt everything was going well. I’d get up at five in the morning to start training in order to be physically and technically prepared, but I was shocked when I was omitted from the final squad list for the tournament."
The first steps
However, Sarah did not give up, believing her efforts would ultimately pay off. Two years later, she packed her bags and decided to accompany her sister to England in order to look for trials with English clubs. "I knocked on every door and ended up having trials with several different clubs, until finally I signed for Stoke City in 2017 in what was the best moment of my career. I was very happy to reach a point where I could show my potential."
Despite the enormous differences between life in Egypt and England, Sarah knew that adapting to her new surroundings would be a prerequisite for success.
"I knew it was going to be difficult, but I was psychologically and mentally motivated to make this major transition. I have to admit that this quick adaptation wouldn’t have been possible without the help I got from my team-mates. They supported me in training and games. They’re not only team-mates, but also close friends with whom I stay in touch when I’m in Cairo."
Essam is enjoying her experience in England, where the excitement of the Women’s Super League reminds her of the thrilling Premier League action she used to watch on TV growing up in Egypt. "Yes, the women's game has come on remarkably in recent years. All the players know that many fans are watching them and expect to see quality on the pitch. I think we work very hard and demonstrate our great abilities in games, which in turn motivates fans to come out and support us."
Ambitions and dreams
Once professional, players have to dedicate most of their time to football. But Sarah, who made enormous sacrifices for the game and her club, has not abandoned her academic goals. "I’ve put a lot of effort into football, but I never gave up on my university studies. I’m studying civil engineering in England despite many people telling me it’d be difficult to reconcile football and college. I decided to take up the challenge and I continue to do my best on both fronts. I want to serve my country by playing professionally, and I also want to earn a college degree for my future."
"My day starts early. I prepare my meals for the whole day at six in the morning and then take the train to university, which is located in another city. From there I then go on to Stoke. I usually have breakfast on the train, where I also study. I’ve decided to devote my life to my passions. Even on holidays, I’m not on my sofa watching TV, but rather exercising to stay in good shape. I don’t think of this as a sacrifice, as I’m doing what I love."
Reaping what you sow
A year after the move to the UK, Essam’s hard work began to pay dividends, including being given the 2018 Arab Woman of the Year: Achievement in Sport award by the London Arabia Organisation.
"I’m very proud to have won the award, especially since I’m the first Egyptian to receive this honour. My performances drew attention from many individuals and institutions. I even got an offer from the BBC to provide commentary on the 2018 CAF Award ceremony that saw Mohamed Salah win the best African player prize. I was also part of the commentary team for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations staged in Egypt. These experiences make me more confident to continue working in a variety of fields."
2019 could hardly have been better for the young Egyptian, as she scored 12 times in 12 games to become Stoke’s top scorer. "Just playing in England would’ve been a great first step in the career I aspire for, but becoming my team and the league’s top scorer is huge and will motivate me to keep working hard."
"I also hope to capitalise on these accomplishments and experiences and pass them to the other players in Egypt. Hard work over a long period will bring us success, and I hope my team-mates and I can realise the ultimate feat of getting Egypt to the FIFA Women’s World Cup."
Birthday to remember
Even though Essam’s 21st birthday came while she was in quarantine, she still had cause to celebrate. "I wasn’t expecting anything on the day as I was isolated in my hotel room. I thought I’d celebrate it with the family when all this is over, especially since they sent me some birthday cards.
"However, I heard a knock on my door and when I opened it, I saw a group of employees carrying a cake in the shape of a football pitch. There was also a gift of training equipment to use in the room. I was so happy that I don’t think I’ll ever forget that experience."
The Egyptian Queen
Asked about her nickname and an Instagram photo she shared of herself posing with a large outdoor chessboard, Essam explained: "Mo Salah and I moved to England in the same year – we even signed for Liverpool and Stoke during the same month.
"After Liverpool’s Mo chant became very popular, the Stoke fans started a similar one for me that goes, 'Oh Sarah, the Egyptian queen'. They considered me the female version of Mo, which is great. Nothing beats being called 'the Egyptian queen'."