Although Haneen Zreika doesn’t let her faith define her, the GWS Giants midfielder is beginning to understand the impact she is having in her Western Sydney community.
As the first woman of Muslim faith to play AFLW, Zreika is a pioneer for local women who would not normally play competitive sport for cultural reasons.
“A lot of hard work has happened for me to be in this position and I don’t take it for granted,” she told AFLPlayers.com.au after her AFLW debut.
“I know it’s a big thing but I think whatever race you are anyone should be able to play football.”
Despite being relatively new to the game, she is already making strides.
Zreika took up Australian rules football at age 15 after an AFL development officer saw her playing at school.
Growing up in Western Sydney she was accustomed to rugby league, following her brothers into the sport until the female pathway ended at 12, but joining the Auburn Giants gave Zreika a new passion and she made the decision to pursue football.
Although Zreika is striving to break the barriers for Muslim girls growing up in Australia, her axing at the end of the 2018 AFLW season almost shattered her dreams of playing football.
After being on the rookie list for the 2018 season, she was delisted without playing a game.
Disappointed by the delisting, Zreika had second thoughts about whether she should continue pursuing her AFL dream but a desire to improve led her to challenge herself over the off-season.
“I worried whether I wasn’t good enough and thought about going back to play rugby league but I wanted the AFL more,” she said.
Rugby league came naturally to Zreika, who grew up playing with her two older brothers, but the determined 19-year-old knew she would have to work harder to become a good AFLW player.
After speaking with Giants captain Amanda Farrugia and knowing that she wasn’t far off, Zreika set her sights on the Queensland and NSW/ACT Winter Series.
Zreika joined the Northern Giants squad and, supported by some of her GWS teammates, looked to hone her skills.
After spending the off-season working on her football skills and athleticism, Zreika was redrafted to GWS with pick 69 in last year’s draft.
An arduous pre-season was rewarded with Zreika finally making her debut in the Giants’ Round 1 loss to the Brisbane Lions.
“I was speechless and so emotional that I’d be making my debut. It was a big shock, I didn’t think I was going to be named.
“It meant a lot to me, especially for my family and community.”
Running out onto the field for the first time with her GWS teammates, Zreika said she felt connected to the team.
“Feeling like I belong is a really big thing and it makes my mindset as a player a lot better,” she explained.
“How the girls made me feel on Sunday was a true connection between all of us and that made me feel really comfortable.”
With her debut game under her belt Zreika is ready to tackle the rest of the AFLW season.