When Egyptian footballer Sarah Essam called to congratulate Nouf Al Anzi of the United Arab Emirates on her historic transfer to Spanish club Leganes last month, she said: “I have a surprise for you, stay tuned! “
Just days after Al Anzi became the first Emirati woman to sign for a Spanish football team, Essam announced that she was ending her five-year tenure at Stoke City in England and signed a new deal with the Fundacion Spanish Albacete.
Al Anzi, captain of the United Arab Emirates national football team, was already the first Emirati woman to practice the sport professionally abroad when she spent a year in Wadi Degla in Cairo.
Essam is also a trailblazer as the first female Egyptian footballer to play in England.
Both Adidas ambassadors, the duo met in March at the official Qatar 2022 World Cup football launch and have stayed in touch ever since.
And although they compete in different divisions of the Spanish women’s football league – Al Anzi are in the third division, Essam are in the second – they plan to meet up in Madrid whenever the opportunity arises.
“It’s great to see Arabs chasing their dreams and representing us around the world; so we are happy for each other and we will meet soon insha’Allah,” Al Anzi said. The National in a Zoom call from the Spanish capital.
Al Anzi, 25, describes her move to Leganes as ‘life-changing’ and she explained how she landed the dream opportunity with the help of a platform called Legend App, which was created by l former player and coach of the United Arab Emirates national team. Houriya Al Taheri.
“The Legend app played a key role in this transfer,” Al Anzi said.
“It’s an app that gives gamers the ability to pursue their dreams. This gives them the necessary visibility to be able to play abroad. It’s like a platform for players to showcase their talent and career for clubs to see.
“I am the first player to sign with the app and I was able to get this opportunity. Hopefully this will open more doors for players in the region, Arab world, Gulf and UAE to follow also the same path, as the application develops further.
Things happened pretty quickly for Al Anzi and she suddenly found herself on a plane to Madrid in early September, joining her teammates after three championship rounds.
“For the first week I kept talking to my friends and family, I was like, ‘Am I in a dream or is this really happening? Do I need to pinch myself or what? said Al Anzi.
“For the first two weeks, I couldn’t believe this was happening, because I always wanted this and I knew this was the stage that would level me and the national team; because this “is like putting the UAE on the international map. And then being the first to be in Spain too. It’s always been my dream and I’m very happy that it happened.
Al Anzi admits there is a bit of a language barrier but feels she has adjusted well so far.
“Football is like a common language, so you play with the team and you have that chemistry over time and that’s it. I think I’ve adapted well and the coach agrees. I’m learning the Spanish and the players also learn Arabic, so it’s a good exchange,” she added.
Al Anzi has always been a fan of Spanish and Dutch schools of football, which is why she was particularly excited when she heard that Leganes were interested in signing her.
She is eager to learn more about the famous Spanish tiki-taka style of play and loves how the Spaniards value possession of the ball. Al Anzi is also willing to experiment with her position – in the UAE she is usually a central midfielder, but with Leganes she could play a more attacking role.
“The level of football here is obviously different from what it is in the UAE. You can’t compare, of course, because UAE women’s football has been around for less time,” she said.
“I play with players who have been at Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid and at big clubs, so I already feel like I’m improving my game. I’m looking to improve it more and then share these experiences once I return to play with the UAE national team.
Essam took a different route to Spain. The 23-year-old Egyptian has spent the past five years at Stoke, playing for the club while pursuing a degree in civil engineering at the University of Derby. In order to qualify for a scholarship in his final year at college, Essam also played for the varsity team, alongside Stoke and his studies.
After graduating, she decided she was ready for a new challenge and wanted to explore other football schools outside of England.
“I wanted to develop myself more and hone my passing skills more. Spain’s tiki-taka style appeals to me a lot after playing in England for several years where they focus more on the long game style,” Essam said.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision for Essam to leave Stoke, where she got her first big break.
“It was really a tough decision because for me there was a lot of talk in Egypt about my move from Wadi Degla to England to start with, and I saw it as a very good step,” she recalled.
“There was a lot of support for me to stay there and Ramadan Sobhy was in Stoke [men’s] too and it’s a great club, one of the oldest clubs in the world. So it was a good decision for me.
“I took it as a step to develop my talent and work more on the English style, how they play, how they train every day, on and off the pitch, what their personality is… was very important to me to get out of Egypt and see if I would make it or not, it was like to be or not to be.
When Albacete came calling, Essam researched the club and discovered that this is where Andres Iniesta and Keylor Navas started their journey.
“It made me feel like it’s a place that nurtures talent. I think it will help me improve and change my style of play; especially as the Egyptian national team is moving towards adopting the Spanish style of football, focusing more on possession,” she added.
Like Al Anzi, Essam acknowledges that there is a language barrier in Spain, but she is starting Spanish lessons soon and has received a lot of support from the club so far.
In the few weeks she has been at Albacete, the Egyptian striker has noticed how the coaches pay attention to every little detail and aspect of the game, and says they also change tactics frequently – which she says , will help his game grow.
Speaking about his personal goals at the moment, Essam said: “For now my goal is to improve, develop more and score goals with my new team. That’s the most important thing – to do something as an Egyptian in their league, as a professional player, I feel like I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing all of Egypt, the way I act and everything.
Essam is also very active when not competing on a football pitch. She was chosen to be an ambassador for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and has participated in several activations alongside David Beckham. She got into commentary a few years ago and was a pundit for the BBC at the Women’s World Cup and the Men’s Africa Cup of Nations.
“Off the pitch, I’m a bit confused. I wanted to do something in the engineering field, but at the same time, I feel like I’m going more on the business side,” she confessed.
“I try to do a lot of things like that off the pitch because as we all know clubs don’t pay women that much so a lot of the girls work on the commercial side. I work hard and I don’t set myself no limit.
“I knock on many doors and take advantage of my opportunities.”
It’s a policy that has worked wonders for her so far.
Updated: October 07, 2022, 6:00 p.m.