"I knew that I'd improve on the first match and what happened was fantastic." Historic scenes unfolded on Monday at the Al Hassan International Stadium in Irbid, in northern Jordan. Just a few minutes after kick-off, Sarah Abu-Sabbah picked up the ball on the right, surged towards the penalty box at pace and then unleashed a strike that sent ripples through the opposition net and triggered pandemonium in the crowd. She then raised her hands to the sky in delight, surrounded by equally elated team-mates.
Almost three years of preparations went into enabling Jordan to host the first-ever FIFA competition in the country's history, at which the Jordanian people are enjoying the chance to watch their U-17 women's team on the world stage for the first time. To truly make the occasion complete, however, the hosts had to do something special out on the pitch. They failed to deliver such a marquee moment in their opening game, but put that right at the second time of asking, against Mexico.
Jordan went on to lose to the Mexicans and so have already been knocked out of the 2016 FIFA U-17 World Cup. The players were in tears as they made their way back to the dressing rooms, despite being warmly clapped off by the crowd, and they wore long expressions as they climbed on to the team bus.
Abu-Sabbah was the last on board. She held her phone in her hand and was talking in German with her mother, who has been unable to join her father in the stands to cheer on their daughter. Once the conversation had finished, the youngster spoke exclusively to FIFA.com and recovered her poise. "That goal is important for my career," the 16-year-old told FIFA.com. "It was the first one our team have ever scored at this level. When I got the ball from Rouzbahan [Farij], I made up my mind to run towards the goal. I had no time to think and just tried my luck with my left foot. When it hit the net, I felt a huge sense of joy and relief. I'd lost sleep over the chance I missed against Spain."
Looking to the future
The Bayer Leverkusen starlet refused to linger on the disappointment of the defeat or her country's elimination. "We're going to go back to the hotel now and maybe we'll cry a bit more on the bus, but tomorrow we'll have to pick ourselves up. There's a third game to come and we've got to win it. We've got to do everything in our power to finish the competition on a high," she said, a picture of professionalism.
Indeed, Abu-Sabbah is already looking beyond this final fixture: "We cannot regress to where we were before. We've contested an international competition and we need to keep working non-stop to get good results. This team have got to kick on and fly the flag for our country with distinction. Our next aim is to qualify for the U-20 World Cup in two years' time. Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein has given us a lot of support and I'm certain that he's going to help this generation of players to continue carrying the torch for Jordanian women's football."
Abu-Sabbah has gained quite a following back in Jordan thanks to her goals for Leverkusen, whom she helped win the German U-17 Girls' Cup. Her performances earned her a new contract and she has subsequently featured for the first team in the Women's Bundesliga, becoming the first Arab player to do so. She is thrilled with her development in Germany. "I had a fantastic last season with Leverkusen," she said. "I'm making constant progress in training and matches. You learn what it takes to be a professional by trying to correct your errors."
"I first joined up with the national team a year ago and I think we've got to pull together in games and the training camps if we want to qualify for the AFC U-19 Women's Championship. Our target will be to finish first and make it through to the U-20 Women's World Cup. That may sound like a tall order, but nothing is impossible in football," the teenager went on, adding that, "I'm under pressure but the rest of the team have helped me. After the Spain match, the girls told me to forget about it and focus more next time. I fulfilled one of my ambitions today and now I hope to score again against New Zealand. There's still a lot more to come for me."
Abu-Sabbah takes inspiration from her idol, Germany's Melanie Leupolz, who made her debut in this competition in 2010 and then went on to play in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ and then this year's Olympic Games in Rio, where she claimed gold. "I want to follow in her footsteps," she said of the Bayern Munich star. "She's a really talented player who can score goals with both feet. Despite her status as a star, she has remained modest. The goal I scored today was a lot like one of hers."
However Jordan bow out on home turf this week, there can be no doubt that the team will have learned from the experience both technically and mentally, taking another step forward on the road to success.