Nouf Al Anzi and Sarah Essam blaze a trail for female Middle Eastern footballers in Spain

UAE captain Nouf testing her mettle with Leganes while Egyptian Sarah has moved from English football to Albacete

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When Egyptian footballer Sarah Essam called to congratulate UAE’s Nouf Al Anzi on her historic move to Spanish club Leganes last month, she told her: “I have a surprise for you, stay tuned!”

Just a few days after Al Anzi became the first Emirati woman to sign for a Spanish football side, Essam announced she was ending her five-year tenure at Stoke City in England and has signed a new deal with Spain’s Fundacion Albacete.

Al Anzi, the captain of the UAE national football team, was already the first Emirati woman to play the sport professionally abroad when she spent a year at Cairo’s Wadi Degla.

Essam is also a trailblazer in her own right as Egypt’s first female footballer to play in England.

Both Adidas ambassadors, the pair met in March at the launch of the official ball of the Qatar 2022 Fifa World Cup and have stayed in touch since.

And although they’re competing in different divisions of the Spanish women’s football league – Al Anzi is in third division, Essam is in second – they plan on meeting up in Madrid as soon as the opportunity arises.

“It’s great to see Arabs just going for their dreams and representing us worldwide; so we’re happy for each other and we’re going to meet soon insha’Allah,” Al Anzi told The National in a Zoom call from the Spanish capital.

The 25-year-old Al Anzi describes her move to Leganes as “life-changing” and she explained how she landed the dream opportunity with the help of a platform called the Legend App, which was created by former UAE national team player and coach Houriya Al Taheri.

“The Legend app played a key role in this transfer,” said Al Anzi.

“It’s an app that gives players opportunities to pursue their dreams. It gives them the exposure to be able to play abroad. It’s like a platform for the players to showcase their talent and their career for the clubs to see them.

“I’m the first player to actually sign with the app and I was able to have this opportunity. Hopefully this will open more doors for the players in the region, the Arab world, the Gulf and the UAE to follow the same path as well, as the app develops further.”

Things happened fairly quickly for Al Anzi and she suddenly found herself on a plane to Madrid early September, joining her team-mates three rounds into the league.

“For the first week I kept speaking 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’ve always wanted this and I knew that this is the step that would level me as well as the national team up; because it’s like putting the UAE on the international map. And then being the first to be in Spain as well. It was always my dream and I’m very thrilled that it happened.”

Al Anzi admits there is a bit of a language barrier but feels she has adapted well so far.

“Football is like a common language, so you play with the team and you have that chemistry with time and that’s it. I think I’ve adapted well and the coach agrees. I’m learning Spanish and the players are learning Arabic as well, so that’s a good exchange,” she added.

Al Anzi has always been a fan of the Spanish and Dutch football schools, which is why she was particularly excited when she heard Leganes were interested in signing her.

She is looking forward to learning more about Spain’s famous tiki-taka style of play and likes how Spaniards give importance to ball possession. Al Anzi is also open to experimenting with her position – in the UAE, she is typically a central midfielder but with Leganes, she might take on a more attacking role.

“The level of football here is obviously different to how it is back in the UAE. You cannot compare, of course, because UAE women’s football has been around for a shorter period of time,” she said.

“I’m playing with players who have been in Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid and big clubs, so I already feel like I’m improving my game. I’m looking to improve it further and then share these experiences once I go back and play with the national team in the UAE.”

Essam took a different path to Spain. The 23-year-old Egyptian spent the last five years at Stoke, playing for the club while also pursuing a degree in civil engineering at Derby University. In order to qualify for a scholarship in her final year in college, Essam also played for the university team, alongside Stoke and her studies.

Upon graduation, she decided she was up for a new challenge, and wanted to explore other schools of football outside of England.

“I wanted to develop myself more and hone my passing skills further. Spain’s tiki-taka style is very appealing to me after I’ve been playing in England for several years, where they focus more on the long ball style of play,” said Essam.

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision for Essam to move away from Stoke, where she got her first big break.

“It was definitely a difficult decision because for me, there was a lot of talk in Egypt about my move from Wadi Degla to England to begin with, and I saw it as a really good step,” she reflects.

“There was a lot of support for me to stay there and Ramadan Sobhy was at Stoke [men’s] as well and it’s a big club, one of the oldest clubs in the world. So it was a good move for me.

“I took it as a step to develop my talent and to work more on the English style, how they play, how they train every day, on the pitch and off the pitch, what their personality is like… that was all very important for me to get out of Egypt and see if I could make it or not. It was like to be or not to be.”

When Albacete came calling, Essam researched the club and found out it’s where the likes of Andres Iniesta and Keylor Navas started their journeys.

“It made me feel like it’s a place that nurtures talent. I feel it will help me improve and change my style of play; especially that the Egyptian national team is moving in the direction of adopting Spain’s style of football, focusing more on possession,” she added.

Like Al Anzi, Essam acknowledges there is a language barrier in Spain but she is starting Spanish lessons soon and has received lots of support from the club so far.

In the few weeks she has been at Albacete, the Egyptian striker has noticed how coaches pay attention to every tiny detail and aspect of the game, and says they also change tactics frequently – all of which are things she feels will help her game grow.

Speaking of her personal goals at the moment, Essam said: “For now, my target 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, that I’m representing all of Egypt, the way I act and everything.”

Essam is also very active when she’s not competing on a football pitch. She was chosen to be an ambassador for the Qatar 2022 World Cup and took part in several activations alongside David Beckham. She took a shot at commentary a couple of years ago and was a pundit for the BBC during the Women’s World Cup and the men’s African 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’m trying to do a lot of stuff like this off the pitch because as we all know clubs don’t pay women as much so a lot of girls are working on the commercial side. I’m working hard and I’m not placing any limits on myself.

“I’m knocking on many doors and capitalising on my opportunities.”

It’s a policy that has done wonders for her so far.

Updated: October 07, 2022, 6:00 PM