Zainab El-Mouden on her win at The Homeless World Cup Four Nations Challenge and playing football as a Muslim woman

access_time 2 weeks ago

Last month our very own Zainab El-Mouden represented England at the Four Nations Challenge, who went on to win the cup.

“It was definitely the best weekend of my life so far”

Tell me about how you came across the homeless world cup and how you got involved in it.

It all started from my friend Tyra, she was involved with The Homeless World Cup for two years now; she went to the tournament in Mexico and then the last tournament in Cardiff. They wanted some new players, so she put my name forward. Then we had to go to this training session in Vauxhall, there was a few girls there, and they just pretty much picked who they wanted. And then that’s how I came across it.

Obviously there hasn’t been the main tournament for two years now because of Covid, how did you feel about the competition on a smaller scale?

This competition was the first time that they’ve done the four nations challenge, usually it’s worldwide, even though it was a smaller scale of the normal Homeless World Cup, it got a lot of love. When I tell you strangers in the street would be coming up to me and complimenting me, you’d be playing and you’d hear the crowd screaming and shouting when you score a goal and it’s just like woah. Like we’re just playing – you don’t know who I am but you’re still supporting me, it’s crazy. The [amount of] people who turned up – it was mad.

Tell me a bit about the importance of the tournament and the organisation to you.

The tournament itself – I feel like it hits a lot of people – because it’s centred around football, but everyone plays football for different reasons; or got into football for different reasons or football means something to them for different reasons. So, when you speak to these people from around the UK, a lot of them were homeless, a lot of them had been through hardships – and you’re just like wow, football saved you. Then when you realise football is more than a game, it brings you closer, because that’s your middle ground with people who you have no common ground with.

Onto the weekend itself, how did it feel being there and surrounded by all the atmosphere? And which was your favourite game?

Alright, I do have a favourite game, and no it’s not the final. The final was a great game, but my favourite game would have to be the semi-finals against Wales – we had a bit of tension with Wales – on and off the pitch let’s just say. So, we went through the group stages, lost to Northern Ireland – that was the only game we lost. So, we were playing Wales [in the semi-finals]; We finished the first half 0-1 down, so we were like, “Oh my lord are we gonna finish third or fourth – no this can’t be happening – no no no.” So we start off the second half, and literally the ref gives me the ball, I got past one player and I just shot – and it went in the goal straight away; and I was like oh my gosh, oh my days. And it kept going: 2-1, 3-1, and then they scored and then we scored, and I think we finished 5-3. But it was just – we could’ve just dropped our heads [at the start of the second half] and been like “Well, we’re gonna lose” but we didn’t. That was definitely my favourite game. I loved that game.

How was the whole experience for you personally?

During the tournament, once again, I was the only hijabi footballer. So, again, we have a very long way to go; on the first day I was like should I play with my headscarf tied up or should I wear my Nike hijab? And then I thought “Wait, there’s actually no Muslim footballers, let me make a statement” So I wore my Nike hijab. I don’t necessarily think I look good in it, but it’s a statement. I think that by me wearing that [in such a big competition], and being fairly confident on and off the pitch, it just shows us in a better light. This whole idea of me representing Muslims – even though I don’t represent all Muslims – in this case I was the first Muslim friend some of these girls had ever had. So, you’ve got to give them something positive to talk about – do you know what I mean?

Does that make you feel like you have to perform slightly? Or that you have to always be “on”?

Perform – yes and no. I feel like it gives you that extra pressure. Because if you play well it’s like ‘Wow look at that Muslim girl’ and if you don’t play well it’s ‘Oh, is she just that token Muslim player that just got put in the team for diversity’ do you know what I mean? And that goes with everything – that goes with Leyton Orient as well. When I don’t play well that’s what goes in my head.

So, what was the lead up like to the main weekend?

We trained for 3 weeks before, every Friday. A lot of us hadn’t played with each other before. So, we had to understand how we played [together]. Also there were some other players that came along from Liverpool; we met them on the day and was like “Hi – we’re going to play together now”. There was one training session the day before the actual tournament, but other than that it was just a go-with-the-flow kind of thing.

Anything you’d like to add?

What I would like to say is I liked the way that we integrated with the other nations – as in, on the first day of the tournament – England and Scotland, we chilled together. And you really learn a lot about their culture –yes we’re all from the UK but we are so different. It’s crazy. I don’t think we realise how different we are until we’re actually in the same room. Even just the words that they say, the words we say – it’s so different. You learn about their foods – I had a deep-fried mars bar for the first time! It wasn’t bad, I’ll be honest with you, it was not bad. It just tasted… warm, and it had just like a little battered edge. I couldn’t have more than three bites though. Also, I noticed that – you know how Scottish people say aye for yes, so do the Irish. And it’s mad because now I say aye, someone will ask a question and I’m like “aye” and I’m like you are not Scottish nor are you Irish, stop being a beg. It stuck with me because I was chilling with them for a while – when some of my teammates would go to sleep very early, and I was like I’m not tired so I’ll go downstairs – and there were the girls from the other teams so we would just chill together and talk. I want to mention Street Soccer London as they were the organisation that represented England – the SSL coaches were incredible, they continued to support us on and off the pitch.

To conclude, It was definitely, and I’m not lying, definitely the best weekend of my life so far. Like it was that good. I enjoyed every second of it. Even being in Edinburgh, Edinburgh’s beautiful – it felt like a mix of Postman Pat and Harry Potter. It’s a beautiful city, I was thinking about it – like I could actually live here, that’s how nice it was. But yeah, best experience of my life so far. I can’t wait for next year because next year’s going to be in another country. We still don’t know where – possibly New York, possibly Finland. It’s an amazing organisation, it gives people so many opportunities. The event gave people who have suffered homelessness and or social exclusion a chance to break barriers.

To read more about the women’s team for the season, click here.

To register for open trials for the LOFC Women’s team, click here.