Naomi Girma Pioneering Equality in Women’s Football

Naomi Girma, a rising star born to Ethiopian parents in America, is taking the football world by storm with her extraordinary performances on both the club and international stages. In a groundbreaking achievement, she was crowned the best women’s national team player in the USA in 2023, becoming the first defender ever to claim this prestigious award in its 39-year history. What’s more, Naomi’s triumph also marked a significant milestone as she became only the second black player to achieve this remarkable feat.

Naomi’s profound love for the beautiful game can be traced back to her father, who instilled a deep passion for football from a tender age. For Naomi, football has always been more than just a childhood pastime. It has been a powerful conduit through which she stays connected to her Ethiopian heritage. The vibrant Ethiopian community in the United States frequently gathers around the sport. Naomi found solace and a sense of belonging on the field, strengthening her bond with her roots. EBR’s Dr. Brook Genene delves into Naomi Girma’s mesmerizing journey as she ascends to the pinnacle of stardom.

In the realm of Naomi Girma’s cherished memories, Saturday mornings shimmer with a unique allure. They were a gateway to a realm where football’s rhythmic dance intertwined with the vibrant tapestry of Ethiopian heritage. For Naomi, those mornings were an invitation to the sacred playground, where she honed her soccer skills and embraced a community woven together by shared roots.

Amidst the backdrop of San Francisco, a city that welcomed her father as a refugee in the 1980s, a remarkable tale began to unfold. He, a visionary and a passionate football devotee, assumed the role of a maestro, orchestrating a harmonious symphony of soccer. With boundless enthusiasm and an unwavering commitment, he laid the foundation of a soccer club that would forever be etched in the annals of history, ‘Maleda’.

“I believe it instilled in me a deep appreciation for community and family,” Naomi shared with The Guardian. “In Ethiopian culture, those values occupy a sacred place, sometimes not as prominently emphasized in American culture. But my parents were determined to etch them into our hearts from an early age.”

Cloaked in vibrant green, yellow, and red hues, symbolic of Ethiopia’s rich heritage and the Pan-African movement, Naomi Girma embarked on a childhood journey where the love for football intertwined seamlessly with family bonds. As she sported the iconic kit, she revelled in the beautiful game unfolding before her and forged an extended family within the program’s embrace.

With a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, Naomi playfully shares her origins with young girls in San Diego, invited as a guest to share her remarkable journey. She confesses that her initial foray into soccer was sparked by a desire to outshine her older brother, Nathaniel Girma. Like an audacious dreamer, she embraced the sport, driven by the determination to surpass her sibling’s prowess on the pitch.

A vibrant tapestry of talent unfolded within the exhilarating realm of Maleda Soccer Club events. The children, filled with youthful exuberance, were divided into three groups labelled as the little, medium, and big leagues. Naomi, with her unwavering determination, never quite crossed the threshold to join the esteemed ranks of the big kids. However, those spirited games became the foundation upon which her soccer odyssey flourished.

During her third-grade year, Naomi’s prodigious abilities began to shimmer with undeniable brilliance. Like a shooting star igniting the night sky, her talent captivated all who witnessed her presence on the field. In a resounding testament to her abilities, she was catapulted into the formal landscape of youth soccer in the United States.

Her journey led her to one of the most prestigious schools in the country- Stanford University. There, she nearly got perfect grades and studied symbolic systems- a program on technology and artificial intelligence. She then did her masters in management science and Engineering.

Following her successful stint as captain, Naomi propelled Stanford University’s women’s soccer team to an NCAA championship victory in 2019, opening doors to exciting opportunities. In 2022, she embarked on a new chapter of her career, joining the San Diego Wave. Praising Naomi’s remarkable talent, her coach Casey Stoney, a former England international, commended her humility and expressed belief in her untapped potential. Stoney humbly admitted, “I recognize that Naomi possesses exceptional skills, far surpassing my own capabilities.” This acknowledgement coincided with Naomi signing a contract extension, affirming her commitment to San Diego until 2026.

During her early teenage years, Naomi showcased her skills as a central midfielder before transitioning to the centre-back position while representing the USA youth side. She credits her time spent in midfield for honing her exceptional on-ball qualities.

In the previous season, Naomi’s exceptional performances earned her recognition as both the NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year. Her contributions to a team that conceded the second-lowest number of goals in the league also led to her being a finalist for the MVP award. Furthermore, her recent accolade as the best women’s player in the USA national team further solidifies her promising trajectory.

Despite her tremendous success in the early stages of her career, Naomi remains grounded and appreciative of her journey. Reflecting on her path, she humbly acknowledges her parents’ sacrifices and their unwavering support. In her own words, she shares, “My parents came over here from Ethiopia and sacrificed a lot for me to be in this position. All of the work that they’ve put in and their support and their love is a big drive for me.”

Amidst her achievements on the soccer field, Naomi’s journey has been full of challenges. In 2022, she faced a devastating loss when her closest friend and Stanford teammate, Katie Meyer, tragically took her own life. In a poignant tribute to her beloved friend on the Player’s Tribune, Naomi poured her heart out. Describing Katie as “the truest friend I ever had,” she emphasized her exceptional qualities of unwavering positivity, caring nature, and fearlessness in discussing emotions. Naomi’s tribute shed light on the profound impact of Katie’s presence in her life, making her passing even more unfathomable.

During Naomi’s junior year of college, she experienced a setback when she suffered an ACL tear. Throughout her challenging recovery process, Katie stood by her side, providing support and encouragement, even when pandemic restrictions prevented her from being physically present. Together, they would study, share coffee from Starbucks, and navigate the ups and downs of life. The devastating loss of such a dear friend profoundly impacted Naomi. Determined to raise awareness about mental health, the 23-year-old committed herself to ensuring that individuals have access to the necessary resources for their well-being. As a tribute to Katie, Naomi wears a wristband adorned with her initials, KM, during games.

In the last 16 of the World Cup, the USA national team faced a disappointing exit as Sweden defeated them in a penalty shootout. It marked the earliest stage of elimination for the team in the tournament’s history. Despite the setback, the team’s defence showcased remarkable strength, conceding only one goal throughout the competition.

Expressing her gratitude and pride, Naomi humbly acknowledged the honour of being the first defender and second Black player to receive this award. However, she emphasized that the achievement was a collective effort, crediting the hard work of the goalkeepers, the entire backline, and the team. In a statement, she stated, really a testament to all the hard work put in by our goalkeepers, the back line, and our whole team to achieve a historic year for our defence.” Naomi highlighted the strong bond and unity within the team, emphasizing their dedication both on and off the field. Through diligent film study and a shared commitment to their defensive responsibilities, they took pride in their collective effort to prevent opposing teams from scoring.

Naomi’s journey inspires young Ethiopian footballers, particularly in a society where girls’ participation in the sport may face challenges. By diligently pursuing her passion for football, Naomi defied societal norms and demonstrated that overcoming obstacles and accomplishing remarkable feats is possible. Her example resonates with aspiring athletes, offering a beacon of hope and encouragement to pursue their own ambitions with determination and perseverance.

In recent years, women’s football in Ethiopia has experienced notable growth, attracting increased fan support and media attention. A significant milestone was almost reached when the Ethiopian U-20 women’s national team came close to qualifying for the World Cup. Despite displaying commendable effort, they fell short with a narrow 2-1 loss, missing out on the opportunity to advance. However, there is reason for optimism as the U-17 team, under the guidance of new coach Rawda Ali, achieved a resounding victory over their South African counterparts, securing a spot in the third round of qualifiers with a convincing 3-0 aggregate score.

Apart from Naomi, other inspiring success stories in Ethiopian women’s football can be role models for young girls. Loza Abera, widely regarded as one of the top female footballers in Ethiopia, has consistently showcased remarkable skills and performances in recent years. She has an exciting opportunity to play in the United States and is undergoing trials to pursue her dreams further. Another notable figure is Selam Zeray, who has become a role model in her own right. As the Liberian national team’s coach, she is the only female CAF instructor among a group of 15 instructors on the continent.

Football is a sport that should be inclusive and accessible to all individuals. To foster its growth in Ethiopia, all stakeholders must prioritize and guarantee equal participation for women.EBR

12th Year • March 2024 • No. 127

Brook Genene

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