Egypt’s fertile Nile Delta might not be the obvious destination for field hockey, but a women’s team is blazing a trail in a region that lays claim to the sport’s ancient roots.
While hockey is unlikely to ever sell out stadiums in soccer-mad Egypt, 24-year-old forward Donia Shaarawy said the governorate of Sharqiya has become the country’s hockey hub, and a potential launchpad for her dreams of going pro.
“Hockey means Sharqiya, that’s how we grew up,” she said, hopping off the practice field clad in a black jersey and matching hijab.
Women first took to the field in the region 100km north of Cairo in 1995, 30 years after the first men’s team was established.
However, the region’s love for the sport goes back to Ancient Egyptian times, when a similar game was played with a stick made of palm fronds, Sharqiya Hockey Club supervisor Ibrahim al-Bagoury said.
“It was known to them as hoksha, and it was played in ancient cities such as Tel Basta” — in what is modern-day Sharqiya — as well as Amarna, al-Bagoury said.
Thousands of years later, the athletes of the Sharqiya women’s team — which has won 25 out of 28 league tournaments in its history — dribble across the field to the sound of wooden hockey sticks colliding.
The Sharqiya team is the most decorated in Egypt, winning five out of seven national championships and taking the Africa Cup for Club Champions in 2019.
Coach Mostafa Khalil said that despite having “no media support,” clubs in Italy and France have offered contracts to four members of his team, all of whom turned them down.
One of the players could not quit her studies, while the others were unable to accept the offers because they were married with children.
For team captain Nahla Ahmed, 28, marriage and children have been no object.
“I’m married, I have a daughter and my husband plays hockey himself,” she said.
She said that “going pro in Egypt would be easier for women” than going abroad, as teams would be more likely to accommodate the athletes’ family commitments.
Ahmed, who has played hockey for 18 years and was crowned the Egyptian hockey league’s best player last season, has a bigger dream — “to become the best player in Africa.”
Although the women of Sharqiya have proven themselves time and again, they have come up against stubborn social norms and punishing economic woes.
“It’s an expensive sport, and without media coverage, we don’t get sponsors,” Khalil said.
It was only in 2019 that an Egyptian company sponsored the team, when Egypt hosted the Africa Cup for Club Champions, he said.
One imported hockey stick costs upward of US$120, while a goalie’s kit can set the team back US$2,100 — a steep cost in a country where the local currency is on a downward spiral.
There is little room for maneuvering given the Sharqiya club’s annual field hockey budget of 5 million to 6 million Egyptian pounds (US$161,562 to US$193,874), club president Hamdy Marzouk said.
Yet he remains unphased, vowing instead to “preserve this bastion ... [and] keep the game here.”
“With over 150 national and continental championship wins, we can’t throw that away,” he said. “It’s like samba and football in Brazil — everyone in Sharqiya has a hockey stick.”
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