Sarah Essam never shied away from blazing her own trail. Even as a young child, her passion for football burned bright, defying the expectations of the girls around her who weren’t interested in the sport.
At just 16, Sarah, who hails from Egypt, first made history in 2017 when she became the first Egyptian to play in the FA Women’s Premier League after signing for Stoke City Ladies football club in the UK.
In the following year, the budding football talent earned the prestigious title of “Arab Woman of the Year: Achievement In Sport,” which she received from the London Arab Foundation. This accomplishment was soon followed by her inclusion in the BBC’s esteemed list of the “100 most influential women in the world,” marking yet another significant milestone in Sarah’s remarkable journey.
Now 24, Sarah announced that she signed as a midfielder with Rugby Borough FC last month. This move came as part of the team’s rebranding efforts following its relocation from Coventry as the club actively seeks to regain its place in the Women’s Championship.
“I’ve been playing football also for a couple of years now starting with my time at Wadi Degla in Egypt, a club that has now become a prominent participant in the African Women’s Champions League,” says Sarah. “During my tenure there, I achieved four Premier League titles and secured victory in the cup competition on four separate occasions, all before I began representing my Egyptian nationality at the age of 15 as part of the Under 17s team.”
Despite early scepticism from her family, who hoped she would engage in more “girly” pursuits, Sarah’s passion for football remained steadfast.
The turning point came when her brother, a former goalkeeper for Al Mokawloon Arab FC, which was the team that Mohamed Salah played for before he found fame with Liverpool, recognised her exceptional potential during a game she played with him and his friends. He witnessed her impeccable ball control, precise dribbling and prolific goal-scoring and remains her staunchest supporter, Sarah says.
“He and his friends were shocked at how my coordination skills with touches and dribbling were really good and this led him to start supporting me and eventually my family saw the talent I had in this sport too,” she says.
“My brother was playing as the goalkeeper for Al Mokawloon, which was Mohamed Salah’s Liverpool players club, they played together for a while. We were both obsessed with football, it’s a shared passion.”
However, while her brother chose to focus solely on engineering and studies, Sarah continued to balance her academic pursuits with her burgeoning football career, a tough decision which required immense sacrifices and challenges including battling the cultural norms that often discouraged women from pursuing sports.
“While my brother had the study pressures of IGCSEs and decided to stop pursuing football and just focus on his academics, I chose to balance both my studies and football. It wasn’t easy because I gave up spending time with friends outside and other social activities to be able to focus on my football at the same time,” she explains.
“It definitely was not easy and what made it even harder in Egypt was when people would give me looks in the streets for walking around in shorts and short sleeves or even football boots. It was something I had to overcome even among my close friends who weren’t really convinced with the training I was doing regularly. But deep inside, I always believed in my own plan, which was to keep going until I could play abroad.”
She recalls her parents expressing serious concerns when she moved to the UK to begin her degree in engineering at the University of Derby whilst also pursuing her career in football since there were no role models or successful examples in the Arab world pursuing a similar path.
Despite this, she remained hopeful and had unwavering faith in herself, dedicating hours to intense training where she consistently pushed herself to the limit without making comparisons to others.
Furthermore, she emphasises the critical importance of time management for success. Balancing numerous hours of practice, games and travel alongside academic responsibilities was a challenging yet necessary aspect of her journey. It paid off when she secured a women’s football scholarship for her final year of studies.
Every footballer has their distinct path, experiences and aspirations. For Sarah, she prefers to take an active role in managing her career decisions, ensuring that her voice is heard, and her decisions are reflected in her beliefs and values. Unfortunately, she hasn’t always found the right fit with agencies, which has led her to aspire for more Arab representation within the industry.
“I’ve had a lot of problems with agencies and have trouble getting along with them. I even left an agent just a month ago because it’s even harder in women’s football to find the right agency that understands your case. So we need more Arab agents actively participating in the world of football, championing the potential and talent of Arab players. We’ll get there eventually.”
Sarah’s influence reached the global stage when she was chosen as an official ambassador for the FIFA Men’s World Cup in Qatar, alongside renowned footballers like David Beckham.
“One of my biggest achievements was being chosen as the World Cup Official Ambassador for the Men’s World Cup in Qatar along with David Beckham and other legends. I was the only Arab female to hold the position and having this opportunity with FIFA and to be around players I saw growing up on PlayStation when I’d play with my brother, was great. The best part was playing with them in the Legends Cup tournament as well as sitting down and interviewing them. It was a dream come true and a relief that I didn’t give up during the hard times,” she says.
Another recent significant milestone in Sarah’s career was becoming the first Egyptian footballer to sign with global sporting giant Adidas, as this sponsorship not only marked a personal achievement but also served as a powerful message of recognition and empowerment for Arab women in sports.
“Having the biggest brand in the world represent Arab women in sports is a massive feeling for me, it’s not something I even dreamed of or considered. Adidas has sponsored and supported me throughout my journey, it’s such an honour and privilege. To see my face on the banners in all Adidas stores in Egypt is literally unreal. And I hope it inspires the females who want to pursue football or any other sport. I hope I am the role model in sports that I looked for as guidance when I was younger and dreamed of such things.”
Sarah expresses her deep gratitude towards her parents, acknowledging that her achievements are a testament to their unwavering support and encouragement.
Donning the jersey of Rugby Borough in England, Sarah continues to challenge herself and her teammates on the pitch. Her journey is far from over, she notes. Her sights are set on new heights, including potential qualification for the African Cup of Nations with the Egyptian national team.
“To keep playing and winning, that’s the plan,” she says.