Captain of the Egyptian national women’s football team, Faiza Heider, told us how she overcame barriers to become a successful player and coach, ahead of an exhibition to celebrate our programme with the Premier League.
How did you get good enough at football to play for Egypt?
Since I was small, I have always insisted on charting my own course. I started playing football in the street when I was five or six. Although I was the only girl who played, all the boys wanted to join my team because they knew we would win the match.
When I was ten, my family asked me to take my four-year-old brother to the local football club to play. My role was to watch over him, but when I saw a group of boys playing football, I joined them. The club’s coach spotted my talent and let me play with the boys’ team for free, because he believed that I had a bright future.
In Egypt, football is a male-dominated sport. I was naturally gifted, which meant I could join the local all-boys football team. But I had to be persistent and dedicated to the game, and once my family allowed me to play, I made sure to excel at it. I used this success to convince my family to let me play in semi-national and national clubs. Slowly, their mindset changed, and I continued my journey until I became the captain of the Egyptian national women’s football team.
What is your family background like? Is your family supportive?
My family is originally from Upper Egypt but we live in Helwan, south of Cairo. My father passed away when I was eight. My mother did not want me to play football at first, because she was worried that relatives would object. Being Upper Egyptian means that you have to abide by a set of rigid customs and traditions about girls' behaviour.
Although my mother was not initially convinced that girls were meant to play football, she has since become my biggest fan. She even emptied an entire room in her house so I could store my coaching equipment. After she saw how well I was doing, and the changes I had brought to my community through football, she told me: 'Do what you love and don’t let anyone stand in your way. Don’t get married to someone who would want you to stop playing and coaching football'. She is my hero.
What barriers did you overcome to reach where you are now?
Football is a demanding sport, physically and mentally. It requires commitment. But if you want to succeed at something – in my case football – you need to be able to overcome challenges, including societal barriers.
The opportunity that I was given as a child made me want to do the same for every young girl in Helwan. In 2011, I started a football academy project with the support of the British Council. I wanted to make sure that every child could play - boys, girls, and those with special needs - but it was not easy to convince parents to let their daughters play football. I had to speak directly to each set of parents to persuade them about the benefits of playing sport, and I promised them their daughters would be safe.
Where do you practise?
I practise at my club’s training ground. But in reality, I play everywhere; in youth clubs, sports clubs, in the street and at home. Football is practically my life.
What has the response been like to your success in Egypt?
When I was 12 years old, my coach told me that Sahar al-Hawary was most responsible for women’s football in Egypt. She is the first female member of the Egyptian Football Federation and the first women's referee in Africa. I told him one day I would be as famous as her.
Fast forward a few years, and I was at a conference for sports policymakers from around North Africa. I was speaking about my coaching achievements at the podium, when I saw Ms. al-Hawary among the attendees. At that moment, I felt that I had achieved my dream.
In my neighbourhood in Helwan, many young men and women look up to me, as I run the football academy for so many local children. My friends don't always realise. For example, I invited a friend and her son to an event to mark International Women's Day, where I was one of several Egyptian women from different fields talking about our careers. All the time when I was speaking, she was staring silently at me, astonished. By the time I got home that evening, my friend had already called my mother to say she thought my accomplishments exceeded everybody’s expectations.
How do people feel about women playing football in Egypt?
Football remains a male-dominated sport in Egypt, and at the national level, little attention is paid to the women’s game. We don’t receive as much funding and rarely travel to play abroad. This is changing slowly. It was a big step when I led the women’s national team to qualify for the African Women’s Cup of Nations. We travelled to Cameroon to compete in November 2016. ember 2016. Eight of the 20 members of the Egyptian women’s national team have been trained as coaches through Premier Skills, so there is a new generation of women’s football leaders, ready to encourage more women and girls to play.
Faiza was the first Egyptian – ahead of her male counterparts – to achieve Premier Skills Coach Educator status, certified by the Premier League. She has trained hundreds of sports teachers to become qualified coaches. As well as captaining Egypt's national women’s football team, she is the first professional female coach of an Egyptian national football team: the women's under 21s, who will play in qualifying rounds for the World Cup.
Visit the exhibition to celebrate ten years of Premier Skills, the football programme run by the British Council and the Premier League.