- Areej Al Hammadi holds the world hotstepping record
- Al Hammadi controlled the ball 86 times in one minute
- United Arab Emirates national team player set herself the target during lockdown
In a society where the idea of girls playing football still meets resistance, Areej Al Hammadi had to overcome plenty of obstacles to became a member of the United Arab Emirates women’s national team. So when the time came for her latest challenge this year, she immediately embraced it. While some people were lamenting the monotony of lockdown, Al Hammadi set herself the specific goal of setting a Guinness World Record… and duly achieved it!
Al Hammadi, indeed, broke the world hotstepping record with an impressive 86 ball-control tricks in one minute, easily surpassing the previous mark of 56, set in March in the UK. “The bigger the challenge, the more valuable the success," she told FIFA.com.
First challenge: Follow your passion
The society in which Al Hammadi lives does not always look favourably on girls playing football. That was the first hurdle she had to overcome.
“Girls didn’t have many opportunities to play the sport, so I had to seize every chance, whether playing with my brothers and other family members or joining any competition in which women were allowed to participate,” she said. “When I later enrolled at the American University in Dubai to study architecture, arts and design, I joined the university’s football team.”
Al Hammadi says she first developed a fondness for football while watching the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™. She started playing mini football with her brothers and cousins, imitating some of the goals that had been scored at that tournament. She believes that sports create a safe environment for people to act naturally and become creative without experiencing prejudice.
“I was a very shy child,” she explained. “I believe football helped me to be myself, so I owe it a lot. I read many books, watched league highlights, and learned about players and their backgrounds and compared them to mine.
"All that inspired me to continue my football journey, and I received training to improve my performance. I was just doing what I enjoyed.”
Al Hammadi was selected for the UAE national team in 2015 and currently plays with the Abu Dhabi Ladies Club. However, she insists that, in general, football is not a career that women can pursue in her country.
“I have to do two jobs: creative director during the day and footballer at night," Al Hammadi said. "For me and many of my team-mates, it’s necessary to strike a balance between our careers and our sporting lives."
Second challenge: a name in the annals of history
Al Hammadi has been fascinated by the idea of setting records since she was young. She grew up reading about them and watching in amazement when she saw records being broken on television.
“The idea of becoming the world’s best in some activity is wonderful,” she said. “I got the inspiration during quarantine, when many challenges were being promoted on social media.
"I searched the Guinness database for a record I could break, and I was lucky to find a potential one in my favourite sport. It was an opportunity for me to go down in history and put Emirati women's football on the world map.”
Al Hammadi did not know the ins and outs of the hotstepper challenge before this year, but she did some research and studied the technique on her own before practising it intensively during lockdown.
“There was a curfew in Dubai so I did what I could in my living room," she said. "I practiced daily while counting the trick times and video recording my work to analyse my performance.
"I soon found out that the key was to maintain a steady rhythm and make sure I could perform it without getting tired. I continued training until I felt I was able to comfortably break the existing record."
So how did she feel after her accomplishment?
“It was an amazing feeling,” she said proudly. “I felt that the hard work had finally paid off, and all the stress and anxiety had ended. Perhaps I didn’t fully understand quite what I’d achieved at first, but as soon as the consequences of that success began to appear and I became the talk of the town, I realised that I’d made history. This is how I see it now."
The penalty kick that the legendary Mia Hamm converted at the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 1999™ remains an iconic moment for Al Hammadi, who last year travelled to watch her first Women's World Cup at France 2019.
"It was a dream come true,” she said of the trip, which was also “an opportunity to see the progress of the women’s game at a technical level.” She hopes to meet Carli Lloyd one day, but before that there is her overriding goal: "Qualifying for the Women's World Cup with the Emirati national team would be the ultimate dream. We’ll do everything we can to achieve that goal one day."
Al Hammadi hopes to become a household name in Emirati women's football and to play a role in its future development. She also wants to change how women’s participation in sport is perceived in Arab society.
“In women’s sport we often face cultural barriers and predetermined gender roles," she said. "I want to play my part in changing these perceptions and educating society about the health and mental benefits for women participating in team sports. In my opinion, we should be given the opportunity to pursue the sporting careers we love without any cultural sensitivities and with society’s full support. This is my dream for every girl and woman in the United Arab Emirates."