It’s a great time to be a fan of women’s sports in Egypt right now.
On Sunday, tennis rising star Mayar Sherif won her biggest title to date at the $100k ITF tournament in Charleston – an unprecedented achievement by an Egyptian women’s tennis player – and has risen to a career-high No 132 in the world as a result.
The 24-year-old Cairene won seven matches in a row from qualifying through the main draw to clinch the trophy, and also reached the final in doubles.
Sherif’s latest achievement comes on the heels of her historic showing at Roland Garros in September, where she made it through the qualifying rounds to become the first woman in history to represent Egypt at a grand slam.
Her exploits in Paris earned her a nod from Liverpool star Mohamed Salah and she was given a hero’s welcome upon her return to Cairo, where she appeared on numerous popular talk shows and earned a heap of well-deserved recognition.
There are many women in Egypt who compete at the highest level in sport, but so often it goes unnoticed. That has started to change as the spotlight has begun to shift towards female athletes in the North African nation, finally acknowledging their efforts and achievements.
A few weeks ago, a tweet showed up on the official feed of Egypt's national football team, promoting the new Puma kit for the Pharaohs. The accompanying image featured Ahly and national team player Moamen Zakaria – recently diagnosed with ALS – along with players from the women's newly-launched national squad.
I had to do a double-take when I saw that poster, especially since Egypt hasn’t had a women’s first team in almost five years and I had never seen the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) promote men’s and women’s football together, for any reason, let alone the official kit launch of the national team.
One of the four women included in that shoot is 19-year-old Nadine Ghazi, who has been part of the national team set-up since she was 14 and is one of 60 females participating in an open camp organised by the EFA under brand new management for the U20 and first team squads.
Following years of inactivity, Egypt’s first team is being resuscitated under the helm of head coach Ahmed Ramadan, who moved back from the United States after 10 years working with Sockers FC Chicago.
Ghazi has witnessed previous attempts of creating a women’s football side for Egypt but admits this time it feels different.
"The most important thing for the current head coach is for us to have continuity and to stay training together and that we don't get the usual drop," Ghazi told The National.
“Unfortunately, with the national team in the past, we would gather and train for a month, and then everyone disappears for two years and it was a cycle. The commitment had been non-existent, so as players we don’t know each other well and we’d have to start all over again.
“Right now, I can definitely sense the difference. There is a massive shift compared to three years ago. If someone had told me a year ago we’d get all this kind of support I wouldn’t have believed it.
“There is so much raw talent among the players at the camp, but unfortunately half of them didn’t get the right fundamentals, which isn’t their fault. In terms of talent, there is so much talent, especially in the U20 squad.”
Spearheaded by Dr. Sahar Abdelhak, an EFA board member in charge of the women’s football committee, a major push is being made for women’s football in the country, aided by a $500,000 grant received through the FIFA Forward programme.
Last week, the EFA sent out letters to all major football clubs across the nation, urging them to have women’s teams participate in the league. Football giants like Ahly and Zamalek do not have female teams (Wadi Degla is the only well-known club that has a women’s team competing in the league) but that might be changing soon in light of recent pressure applied from the EFA.
“Of course it’ll make a huge difference because it’s all about awareness,” said Ghazi, who plays for AIMZ football academy, registered under the club name ‘Kafr Saad’ in the league.
“No one knows teams like Kafr Saad and Tayaran and such names. But when you see that there is a women’s Ahly or women’s Zamalek team, that raises the recognition for the national women’s team.”
Ramadan, who relocated his family after a decade in the United States to take the head coach job, believes in the current project and is hopeful. His daughter Nadia was selected end of last year for the U20 squad.
"The reason I agreed to take this on is because I felt like I can really do something here and I felt from the executives in the federation that they really want to create something special," Ramadan said in a television interview on On Time Sports earlier this month.
“The directive to focus on women’s sport is coming from the president and that guarantees continuity.”
One woman who was nominated for a coaching job with the national team is Farida Salem, founder and director of Empower Football Academy. Salem played college football at Vancouver Island University, where she received a BA in sport, health, and physical education.
An active and passionate member of the women’s football scene in Egypt, Salem launched her academy two years ago and has coached hundreds of female footballers since. She will start with the national team as a shadow coach and dreams of taking over the head coach job one day.
“From my outside view, I feel they’re going in a very positive direction, that they have selected the right group of people, with the right experience, to be involved with the team,” Salem said of the EFA’s latest efforts in forming a national first team.
“Captain Ahmed Ramadan accepted a huge responsibility and I commend him for it, because he’s going to be in charge of overlooking both the U20 and the first team. I believe this is a positive move because you’re not just preparing what you already have, you’re preparing the future.”
They’re following the same logic with the coaching set up, looking to create future top-level coaches.
“They were adamant on hiring a female coach and they did hire a female assistant coach, Azza Aboukheir, and myself and one other person are most likely going to become shadow coaches in the upcoming period so that they are preparing us for what’s next. So the attention on women’s football is very high right now from the federation,” Salem added.
“They’ve started looking towards the future. In my interview with them, they said, ‘Our vision and goal is to have the head coach of Egypt’s national women’s team to be a female, we want to build towards this, but we won’t reach that overnight, so you need to take the necessary steps and eventually reach it’, and that’s what I want.”
Salem believes the women’s football community in Egypt is growing at a “crazy rate” and says she can name at least 12 women’s football academies operating right now, just off the top of her head.
“I just wish the interest would start at a younger age. I wish girls didn’t come to me when they’re 10 or 12 years old, I wish they would join us when they’re five, six, seven years old, like boys start at that age,” she explains.
Ghazi can sense a cultural shift towards women’s football in Egypt, although she admits many of her team-mates are still battling obstacles every single day. She acknowledges that she is “privileged” to have the support of her family and friends.
Being part of the kit launch campaign was a great experience for Ghazi, who believes promoting the women and the men together is a huge step forward.
“When I heard what they were pitching us, I thought it was perfect. I loved how they chose each individual, they didn’t just ask for the best four players,” she said of the campaign.
“They got Amany Rashad who is a legend in women’s football in Egypt. They got our first team goalkeeper Nasra Eid and practically the best two players in Egypt right now in Alia El Zenouty and Mahira Aly; and they brought me along as the up-and-comer from the U20 squad. I thought it was a brilliant idea and it raised awareness.
“I feel like women in sport in general in the past few years has become such an exciting topic and is being promoted and shared worldwide, that’s what’s happening right now and Egypt has joined in.”
Ghazi is committed to staying in football and says she wants “to go as far as I can. I’m not going to limit myself in any way”.
The global women’s football scene is rapidly changing and we’re seeing nations like Brazil recently announcing equal pay for both their men’s and women’s national teams.
Egypt is a long way away from that, according to both Ghazi and Salem, but they also know that such things take time. While Egyptians follow their men’s side religiously, it will take some effort getting the country acquainted with the newly-established women’s first team.
“I hope it is changing, and from what we’re seeing right now, there is hope. I don’t think we’ll ever get the same quality on both sides as long as they are always prioritising the men,” admits Ghazi.
Now is the time for Egypt to capitalise on the success of its top female athletes.
The face of Egyptian swimming at the moment is two-time World Championship bronze medallist Farida Osman, who has a healthy portfolio of endorsement deals and has sparked a swimming revolution across the nation.
Two of the three Egyptian Olympic medallists in 2016 were women – Hedaya Malak and Sara Samir.
The top 10 in the squash rankings is dominated by Egyptian women. The list is actually quite long.
It really is the perfect time to push forward and break down all barriers for women in sport in Egypt.