Jos, Nigeria, and Buies Creek, North Carolina, appear to be two places worlds apart. And if all you’re doing is looking at a map, they are.
But when you plot Samar Azem’s journey from the West African trading hub to Campbell University, it makes perfect sense.
Association football, after all, has a way of shrinking distances while broadening horizons.
Azem, head coach of the Campbell Camels women’s soccer team, found her way to the United States – and the Tar Heel State – via the College Board handbook.
Finding her way in soccer was more organic.
“I grew up in Nigeria and in Nigeria soccer is played by most the minute you can walk,” said Azem, set to begin her third season at the helm of the program. “My recess breaks and after school pastimes included playing the game, and my Saturday mornings included watching the game.”
Nigeria’s men’s team – the Super Eagles – have a high profile thanks in large part their World Cup appearances. And the Nigerian women – known as the Super Falcons – are eleven time winners of the Africa Cup of Nations.
Exposure to the elite level of the sport was there from the beginning, although inroads to becoming a player were difficult.
“I was very fortunate growing up to be around the game as often as I was,” she said. “Opportunities to play on an organized team were somewhat limited and not at all like the great opportunities youth players have here. I had great influencers that allowed me to grow in somewhat structured environments starting at the age of 12 and 13.”
But why Campbell?
And perhaps the better question, how did the private school founded by a Baptist minister even enter the picture?
“Growing up in Nigeria, I didn’t know much about American universities,” Azem explained. “I looked through this massive College Board handbook one of my teachers brought back, and knew I wanted to be in North Carolina and knew I wanted a school that was strong academically and with an athletic program that had potential. My coach at home had heard a lot about Campbell University and encouraged me to apply and contact the coach.”
The international student proved to be a perfect fit.
By the time Azem graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting in 2007, she had excelled on the playing field as well as the classroom.
Azem, a goalkeeper, helped the Camels to the Atlantic Sun Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2004, and the following season she was named to the All-A- Sun Conference Tournament Team for her performance in goal. An A-Sun All-Academic selection and two-time Coaches Award winner, she is fifth all-time in saves (183) by a Campbell keeper, tenth in solo shutouts (five) and seventh in goals against average (1.39).
“I had an unbelievable experience at Campbell University,” she said. “We were very successful for three of my four years and we haven’t had that success since, but are working back up there. I built some incredible relationships, and I left with extremely positive relationships.
“I did go through three coaches in four years. That taught me a lot about understanding team dynamics. I also was part of an incredible culture of driven players, and that taught me that players have an incredible ability to be resilient and successful.”
Azem began her coaching career as an assistant at Brevard College in 2007, and worked at Mercer in 2008-09.
She moved on to Presbyterian College in 2010, concentrating on goalkeeper training, and got her first head coaching job at Anderson University in South Carolina, where she guided the Trojans from 2011-13. He 2011 squad reached the South Atlantic Conference Tournament semifinals for the first time in school history.
She returned to her alma mater as an assistant in 2014, and in 2017 was elevated to the top post.
Azem’s first edition of Camels finished 10-7-2 (5-2-2 in the Big South), while the 2018 team was 7-11-1, 5-4-1.
Odd as it seems now, coaching wasn’t her first career choice.
“I was interested in working in the non-profit world, and had an opportunity as a graduate assistant soccer coach at a small NCAA Division II school in the mountains to get my Master’s,” said Azem, who earned a master’s in education from Mercer in 2010. “My former assistant coach at Campbell University had taken a position there and helped me with a great opportunity. However, within eight months, I had become captivated with every aspect of the career and wanted to learn more. My former assistant coach, Juan Mascaro, really encouraged me to get into coaching. Grant Serafy, who was the head coach at Mercer University, taught me a lot as well. He took a chance on me and challenged me in a lot of ways.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have some incredible mentors since then and along the way – most of which are college coaches or athletic directors. I think we can all learn so much from each other.”
Naturally, Job One for Azem is helping her Campbell team excel in the Big South Conference. But she also wants to make sure her players get opportunities to compete beyond college.
“I think coming off the Women’s World Cup we’re seeing more people take an interest in the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League),” Azem said. “The NWSL is an incredible league, but not enough people know about it. As coaches it’s our job to get our players to see why watching the game can advance their game, but how it’s also entertaining. Youth coaches can encourage the same. I do think it goes back to supply and demand, and right now we are seeing the right sponsors with enough of an impact get involved. Hopefully that pushes more promotion of the leagues. But day-to-day, person to person promoting it could make a difference.
“Those players are talented and they are entertaining, and the more we watch the more it will grow and the more it grows the better it becomes. The better it becomes the more opportunities we have from the grass roots.”
Also helping the cause is the fact that while men’s domestic soccer lags behind many other countries, American women’s soccer has set the standard.
“Sometimes when we critique the men’s game in the U.S. we forget that while European and South American leagues, for example, were pouring all their resources into men’s soccer the United States was pouring those resources into men’s basketball, baseball, and American football,” Azem said. “When the United States started pouring funding and resources into women’s soccer, the rest of the world wasn’t (as much). So the advancement and structural build of both sports was very different.”
The tipping point, she says, came 20 years ago.
“I think the women’s team winning (the World Cup) in 1999 inspired a generation on a global stage to notice the game,” Azem said. “The more people noticed it, the more they played. The more they played, the more demand. The more demand, the more supply. I think we’re seeing that in some European countries now, too.
“The English National Team had more viewers on their broadcast network watch the U.S. women play the English women in the World Cup this summer than any other broadcast event in the country. Demand has grown. Something tells me that means more funding, which means better structure, which means more success. I believe that’s what happened with the USWNT sooner than other countries, and the people who invested in the sport early should get credit for it.”
Although the big picture is important, for the next few months Azem’s primary focus will be on her team.
The Camels open exhibition play on August 12 when they travel to Durham to take on Duke, and after a home preseason match on August 16 against The Citadel, the regular season starts on August 25 when UNC Greensboro comes to Buies Creek.
It’s a long way from Jos, but Samar Azem will feel right at home on the sidelines.
“Campbell University is unlike anywhere else I have ever been,” she said. “I want to mimic the institution’s goals in my coaching career. The people here care about people, the administration here is dedicated to more than just the bottom line, everyone here cares about the product, and the product is successful students and student-athletes.”