Emirati footballer Areej Al Hammadi discusses breaking the taboo around female athletes in the UAE and her ambitious goals for the future.
Growing up in the UAE being a female footballer could only ever be seen as a hobby, but aspiring athlete Areej Al Hammadi wanted to make it into a career after developing a passion for the sport as a child. While she knew it was unusual for an Emirati woman to pursue a career as an international footballer, she didn’t let that stand in her way. Putting in hours of practice whenever she could and surrounding herself with like-minded women allowed Al Hammadi to turn that passion into the career she had dreamt of. In 2015 she won her first cap for the United Arab Emirates international team, before going on to play in the Aphrodite Cup in Cyprus that same year and the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup qualification in Tajikistan. Then in 2019, she played in the WAFF Women’s Championship in Bahrain.
Today, the professional footballer is hoping to use her experience and the challenges she faced to inspire other women to follow in her footsteps. She wants to change the perception of female footballers in the Middle East and hopes to one day see the UAE’s national team competing with the best on a global scale. Here, we find out more about her achievements so far and her goals and aspirations for the future.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a football player and what first inspired you to choose this career?
I fell in love with football when I was a young girl watching the FIFA World Cup games with my family in 1994 and 1998. I didn’t think about how I was going to make it being a football player and playing for the National team, I just looked for any opportunity to play. Looking back, I believe every opportunity I took was a step towards a goal or an achievement that led me to where I am today. I just never gave up on my passion to play football.
What were some of the challenges you faced being a female footballer growing up in the UAE?
Growing up as a kid in the early nineties, there was no such thing as women’s football in the UAE. To some extent, it was considered somewhat of a taboo for adult Emirati women to participate in it. Nevertheless, I grew up playing with my brothers and cousins until I was too old to play with boys. I practised daily to refine my skills alone because there weren’t any academies or football clubs for girls. For a long time, I struggled trying to find a team of girls or a league to play in. I tried to form a team at school but there was never enough interest amongst the girls there at the time. It was only when I attended university that I was able to find a team to train with. I could also participate in a lot more competitive 7-a-side community football matches as this had it started to gain popularity around that time.
Who was your biggest supporter growing up?
My parents weren’t generally against me playing sports after school like some of the parents were. My mum once signed me up for a one-day girls football competition in Dubai that she’d seen in the newspaper, and I will never forget that day. They even came to watch me play which was a happy memory for me. Our team took 2nd place in the competition, we narrowly missed winning but lost on penalties. At that time, to my parents, football was just a hobby or a phase and they were happy I was doing sports to keep myself healthy and build character. I think inside they still felt I was playing a boys game but they cared for me so never restricted me from playing and I’m lucky for that. When I was older and got married my husband was my main supporter, I owe a lot to him.
What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
Looking back on where it all started and where I am today, I would say my biggest achievement was my first international Asian tournament to qualify for the World Cup and Asian Cup. The games were broadcast globally and we were playing against strong competition. Also, I would say making it into the Guinness World Records 2022 book and becoming an Adidas athlete is a big achievement for me.
How do you hope to inspire other women to go into this field?
I hope to show women and young girls that becoming a professional female athlete, specifically a professional football player, is no longer an unachievable fantasy. That with courage, patience, persistence, determination, and a goal, you can defeat a lot of the challenges on your own. I hope that women can go out there and try to find ways to overcome their struggles because with every achievement there is always a challenge.
We know you’re a world record breaker – what does it mean to you to be recognised for your incredible skills?
It’s awesome to be recognised for your skills and achievements. But what’s also important is what you do with that recognition. I think it gave me a louder voice and the opportunity to play a key part in normalising women’s sport for Emirati women and paving the way for younger generations to be able to choose a career in sports if they want to. I want to help break the barriers and challenges that we had to go through growing up.
This month we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UAE, what does this occasion mean to you?
It represents a historic and proud moment for my beloved country to look back at our journey and acknowledge how far we have come and how much we have achieved. It will be a memorable celebration for everyone in the country. It also sets the bar for us to achieve higher for the next 50 years! It gives me hope and excitement to look forward to the coming years. I also look back on how far I’ve come as an Emirati woman and an athlete, the role I’ve played in the past years and the contributions I can give in the coming years, god willing.
What is a message that you would send to your country on this occasion?
A warm congratulations to everyone who was part of this nation’s story. Everyone that played a role – small or big – that made it possible to achieve all the historic and momentous milestones over the past 50 years, I salute you. “Long live my country, live United, our Emirates.”
What is your fondest memory of the UAE from your childhood?
One of my fondest memories from my childhood was in the winter time when we used to gather the family together and spend the day at Wadi Shawkah in RAK to admire the natural beauty of the desert during the winter.
How will you be celebrating the 50th anniversary?
I will probably be at Expo 2020 Dubai – celebrating the Golden Jubilee at a historical mega event in the country and the region – that’s truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.
What do you think the UAE has that no other country possesses?
I think the UAE has unique peace and safety for all residents to live their lives. Resilience to overcome every challenge we face. In addition, we believe in tolerance and unity among all. I personally love the convenience life here offers, where anything you need is just a short reach away.
Where would you like to see the UAE in another 50 years?
To be the best in sports – to win competitions, Olympic medals, host global competitions and many more. We strive to be the best at everything, and I would like to see us be the best in sports. I believe we are working towards that goal with all the sports initiatives and grassroots activities we have seen over the past decade or so.
What is the personal motto that you live by?
I don’t have a specific motto that I live by but I do have a number of rules that I follow. Some of which are to remind myself that the journey to any success starts with small steps, and challenges are part of that journey. I also try to remind myself to always be mindful, kind to others and count my blessings.
What do you love most about what you do?
Every day I wake up doing something I enjoy doing and that makes me happy. I feel grateful because I know not many people can say that. It also keeps me fit and healthy and teaches me new ways to push my body to its limits. I get to travel the world and meet likeminded people which is amazing.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t done yet?
I would love to someday write a book about my experiences growing up. I hope it would reach out and help Emirati girls who might be struggling to achieve their dreams and achieve what they desire to do in life.
What does your morning routine look like?
I start off my morning with a basic face wash routine – cleanser, serum and moisturiser. Then do something productive to set off the vibe for the rest of the day before making the bed and getting dressed for the day ahead. But before I can start off the day I also like to have a light snack with my coffee.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring female footballers what would it be?
Becoming an athlete is not easy so if you want to make it happen you have to be courageous and resilient. You’ll have to sacrifice a lot of your leisure time with friends and family for it. It’s no secret, you need to train a lot.
Who is your idol or your biggest inspiration?
I’ve found many inspirations from the people around me over the past few years, from competitive athletes and managers I worked with. To name a few; Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan have been a great source of inspiration and role models for female footballers around the world. And on a professional level, Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi, Minister of State for International Cooperation and the Managing Director for Expo 2020 has been a true leader and role model for Emirati women. Her dedication, kindness, resilience, strength and contribution has been a source of empowerment and inspiration for everyone that has worked for her.
What is your ultimate career goal?
I’m really passionate about developing the sporting landscape in the country. Hence, I want to play a key role in driving women’s football in the UAE to the professional level it deserves globally. I would love to see the UAE recognised for its sporting achievements on the world stage and I want to be part of that initiative.
What are your thoughts on the football industry in the Middle East and how it is growing?
I have big aspirations for women’s football in the Middle East and especially here in the UAE. I think we still have a lot of work to do to reach the standards set in Europe, Asia and the Americas, however, I believe women’s football has grown tremendously over the past few years with the growth of grassroots academies and opportunities to compete in community leagues. There is a lot more potential for us to grow the football industry in the country by having FIFA accredited football leagues and tournaments every year for all age categories, all over the country. This would give our home-grown players a chance to develop at a competitive international standard and provide them with the opportunity to play anywhere in the world.
Furthermore, culturally we have also come a long way in terms of accepting Emirati women as athletes. We can also do more to normalise Emirati women in sport by promoting women’s football through campaigns and activations. More collaborations between different sporting entities in the country that already have an established following.