Esraa Awad discovered her passion for football in kindergarten. As she was kicking a ball back and forth with a boy, it hit her in the face and her nose started bleeding. Her teachers were washing her face, yet all she could think of was that she wanted to be done quickly so she can go back to playing. She has been playing ever since, playing professionally since 2002. She won the Egyptian Cup and Egyptian League several times. She also won international tournaments in Germany and Lebanon, and represented the National Team from 2007 till 2016. Now at 33, she not only plays but also coaches a promising team of 11-13-year-old girls. We sit down with her and talk about her incredibly impressive career.
This boy who captained the other team wouldn’t shake my hand
Was it challenging to play among the male team and how?
When I was 12, I captained the boys’ team of my school in Kuwait. I tried out with two other girls but was the only one that got in and I became the team captain. At the start it was very hard because the boys didn’t accept me. I wanted to quit but my coach and my father never let me. I had to fight to earn their respect. I fought and just a few games later things started getting better. As it is a tradition in football, team captains shake hands before the game. This boy who captained the other team wouldn’t shake my hand. To my surprise my teammates who once rejected me now became supportive and comforted me. It was a great feeling to win that game and finally feel the support of my team.
How do you see female football in Egypt now vs a decade ago?
A decade ago, the competition was much fiercer. The quality of the game itself was better too. There also seems to be a lack of planning when it comes to women’s football by the Federation. But I believe that there is a ray of light because they are starting to focus more on the youth and are bringing back the national team, since its cancellation in 2016.
I was not even playing in my regular position. Yet despite all odds I played the best game of my career and was named best player in the match in Cairo
What’s the biggest achievement you’re proud of reaching?
Reaching the African Cup of nations against all odds for the first time in 18 years back in 2016. Due to my small body I was never given the chance to start for the National Team, but with this match I started the game. I was not even playing in my regular position. Yet despite all odds I played the best game of my career and was named best player in the match in Cairo. We won 1-0 and lost in Abidjan 2-1 with a final score of 2-2 but the away goal flew us to the 2016 African Cup of Nations. And I got a chance to prove to everyone that the obstacles they created for me were an illusion in their minds.
How did football impact you on the personal level?
It taught me to fight and never give up, that believing in yourself even when no one else does is a must to be successful, and that passion fuels motivation. It taught me a lot of values and life skills that I hope to pass on to the girls I coach whom I call “my girls.”
It’s a talent and talent doesn’t differentiate between genders
Why do you think there is no popularity for the female football teams compared to the male ones?
Mainly because it is perceived as a “man sport”. It’s a talent and talent doesn’t differentiate between genders. It’s just that men are naturally stronger and faster than women. So, it’s a physical aspect that us Egyptians in general need to improve. Another reason is because neither Ahly nor Zamalek have women’s teams. If both of them would, then by default the number of fans will increase and so will the support.
90% of the comments were either about our looks or how we should go back to the kitchen
Do you think sexism is prevalent in football? Tell us any stories or incidents that you personally faced.
It is. I faced it when I was only 12 and still do. Imagine achieving the best thing possible in your career and watching out for the Egyptian public’s response on Social Media only to be disappointed. A few pages posted the news, but 90% of the comments were either about our looks or how we should go back to the kitchen. The response was disappointing.
Are the challenges female footballers face common worldwide? Or do they differ and vary based on societies?
The challenges women face are the same worldwide, but of course they differ from culture to culture. In Egypt, I believe that it’s harder because it comes with economic, cultural and other difficulties. Just imagine that in 2015 the Women’s World Cup had to be played on artificial turf which is known to increase injuries, meanwhile the men never had to play on such turf.