It’s been eight years since a teenage Nouf Al Anzi first donned the UAE national team jersey and stepped on a football pitch to represent her country. It remains the proudest moment of her sporting career.
Then 17, Al Anzi was part of one of the first Emirati women’s national football squads and the affable midfielder has grown with the team every step of the way.
“I always wanted to dedicate my life to football,” Al Anzi told The National.
“Back in school, I remember whenever they asked us, ‘What do you aspire to be? What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I always said, ‘football player’.
“I know it wasn't a common answer to be said – my classmates their answers were like, a doctor, an engineer and so on. But me, the only thing I was sure about was that I wanted to be a football player.
“So when I heard about the national team and the first call-up, I was very proud because to represent your country is I think the biggest pride any person or any athlete could ever reach. I think at that moment I realised, ‘Okay, I’m actually achieving my dream’.”
Al Anzi grew up in a football-loving family and played with her family and relatives in the street for as long as she can remember.
At 16, she found out Al Wahda Club in Abu Dhabi was setting up a women’s side for the first time and quickly signed up to join them. A year later, she was selected to be part of one of the first UAE national outfits – a moment she describes as a “historical event” for the Emirates and for herself.
Last week, Al Anzi appeared alongside Real Madrid and France superstar Karim Benzema in an Adidas campaign that was displayed on the iconic Burj Khalifa to help launch ‘Al Rihla’ (the Arabic word for ‘journey’), the official ball of the upcoming Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“Yalla Nouf, the journey starts now,” Benzema tells her as he passes the ball to her before she says a few words about ‘Al Rihla’.
“Us players play a key role in promoting women's football and I think that ad would also send the message, like, ‘Oh having a female figure on the Burj Khalifa, a football player, UAE women’s player’; I think it's nice to be representing that,” said Al Anzi, 25.
“I think it's a very great opportunity of being in the same video as Benzema.”
That campaign was just one of several pinch-me moments for Al Anzi in recent months.
Less than two weeks ago, she attended the official launch of ‘Al Rihla’ in Doha, where she joined the likes of Iker Casillas and Kaka in a five-a-side game on the beach, alongside fellow trailblazing Arab women footballers Sarah Essam of Egypt, who plays for Stoke City, and Farah Jefry of Saudi Arabia.
Al Anzi was particularly pleased to connect with Essam and Jefry and said they talked football and shared a lot about their own personal experiences in the sport. She says her conversations with Essam “sparked a thought in me, to motivate me to play in Europe”.
Having women footballers feature as a prominent part of the launch of the official World Cup ball is something Al Anzi is very proud of.
“I think it will inspire young girls to play football and basically take it in a very serious way; to dedicate their time and put extra trainings on, because I think when they see women playing with players like Kaka or Casillas; very big names, that for example, won World Cups and had a very successful career, I think it would actually let them feel like, ‘Okay, it could be real’. I think it sends a very motivational message,” said the 25-year-old from Abu Dhabi.
Kaka and Casillas aren’t the only World Cup champions Al Anzi has rubbed shoulders with. The UAE’s No 10 came face to face with one of her idols, Zinedine Zidane, in Dubai a few months ago, where they gathered to shoot two commercial videos for Adidas.
In one of them, Zidane and Al Anzi – or ‘Noufinho’ as she calls herself on social media – did a stunt video where they kicked the ball to each other over the towering Dubai Frame structure. In another clip, Al Anzi is seen flaunting her skills on the football pitch before Zidane, who was on the sidelines watching, walks up to her and asks for her name.
“When I first got to know about it, I didn't believe it for a while, it was like a shocking moment for me,” Al Anzi said of that moment she received the call that she would be shooting an ad with Zidane.
“But when I met him, it was amazing because he was very humble. He also got to ask about how is UAE women’s football here and how is my experience as a player here and so on. I was speechless when I first met him.
“He knows I play for the national team, so he was like, ‘Keep going, stay with your passion towards football’... he gave me lots of words of motivation.”
Zidane is one of three midfielders Al Anzi idolises. The other two are Spain’s Xavi Hernandez and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo. On the women’s side, she looks up to US star Carli Lloyd, and particularly admires her longevity.
Besides playing a vital role in the UAE women’s football movement, Al Anzi stands out as the first ever Emirati woman to play the sport professionally abroad. In 2018, she took a year off from university – she has a degree in Information Security Engineering – and went to Egypt to play for serial league champions Wadi Degla.
“It was amazing because the football schools are very different. I think the Egyptian game is very physical, so it's different than the UAE league,” she said, reflecting on her time with the Yellow and Blacks in Cairo.
“I actually think it was like a focal point of my career because I was also a different person; I think it changed my personality. I met a lot of Egyptian players as well. So it was a very great phase of my career. And also we won the league. It was a great milestone to be honest.”
Al Anzi returned to finish her studies after that but still harbours dreams of playing professional football in Europe one day.
For now, she competes in the UAE’s top flight with a team representing LaLiga Academy – one of three sides fighting for the women’s league title this campaign.
Al Anzi has a day job working in HR and commutes to Dubai from Abu Dhabi every day for football practice.
“I think women’s football has evolved big time in the UAE ever since I started until now,” she says.
“When I first joined, there was just the first team. Later on with the years passing by, you can see that there are different categories now for the leagues, for the national team, for the clubs as well. For example there are under-14s, 17s, 19s, and the first team. So that's very good.
“Also the number of girls playing football has increased a lot in the UAE. Other than the numbers, the awareness of the parents and society as well has changed big time.”
Al Anzi added that she was fortunate enough to have the full support of her family growing up, and believes she “earned” that backing because she managed to balance her studies with football throughout the years.
While she can sense more parents are warming up to the idea of their daughters taking up football, she has a message for those who are still on the fence.
“I think the message I would send is: football changes people's lives,” said Al Anzi.
“My personality changed a lot. I was a shy person when I was younger. I think I'm more outspoken now. I feel more comfortable, let's say, going to events and so on. So I want to tell parents their kids will evolve a lot through sports.
“Sport is not just sport. It helps build personality, confidence, it also gives experience on how to deal with life. It’s not just on the field, it’s also outside.”
Al Anzi’s upcoming competitions with the national team include a Gulf futsal tournament in May, a West Asian futsal event in June before she switches back to 11-a-side for the West Asian Championship in September.
Could the UAE women’s team soon reach a level where they can make it to the Asian Cup and compete for the continental title?
“I think ever since we started we’ve evolved so much. We're on the right track, to be honest,” she replies.
One thing Al Anzi is excited about is the upcoming men’s World Cup in Qatar, which she believes will place football in the region under the spotlight and help boost the women’s game.
“I think it's a very nice thing to have the World Cup in the Middle East. I think that puts the spotlight on countries in the Middle East, and will get people curious to search about football in these countries and explore furthermore,” she adds.
“As women’s football here is something that's on the rise right now, I think we will get the exposure about that and also put the UAE on the women's football map as well. I think it will get us more exposure for sure.”