Earlier in 2017, Women’s Soccer Zone featured Maryland native Audrey Baldwin and profiled the journey she took through the first few years of her professional career. After spending a few months this summer training with the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, Baldwin was offered an opportunity to play for the Kosovo Women’s Football League champions, WFC Hajvalia, in the UEFA Women’s Champions League qualifiers. Here is the second of a three-part series as she takes us through playing for a team in UEFA’s newest affiliated country (Click Here to read part one of the series).
“You never know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”
This quote never rang so true with me until I went to Kosovo. I have this terrible habit of always looking for what is next, for something more, something better. I know it stems from wanting to become my best self on and off the field, but it has me taking things for granted way too often. I have taken so many things for granted at home, in Iceland, in France, and in Denmark without even realizing it! Simple things that people believe a professional athlete would always have access to. When I got to Kosovo most of those things were luxuries most have never had.
I arrived in Kosovo late at night and when I got to my new apartment, I was greeted by three teammates, one of which only spoke English. Excitement was in the air as they walked me in to the two-bedroom, one bath apartment. We squeezed my two 20kg bags in the corner between my new bed and the wall, allowing just enough room to shut the door, and they explained I would share this room with a teammate, but when the other foreigners arrived we would have to rearrange. This was great until the number of occupants moved to six/seven girls in this one flat!
Okay okay… clearly, I am spoiled as an American. I enjoy my space, going to bed early, and waking up early to train. So, an outside sponsor allowed me to move with another teammate from Lithuania for about a month leading to the Champions League. In Iceland, I was spoiled as well. I was given a studio apartment to myself the first year, and in my second year got a HUGE flat from a sponsor that eventually was to myself as other girls moved in and out, but I always had my own bed. In Denmark, I lived with a teammate in a large flat as well, and again had my own room. In France, I lived in a house provided by the club with a teammate, and yet again…my own room. Everywhere, except France, I was within walking or biking distance of the field… and now except Kosovo. The team would meet at a spot and get picked up by a team bus. (okay fair enough, not a problem. Just comparing the different countries.) This was better than depending on teammates driving me like in France because that rarely worked out as planned.
When I arrived at Hajvalia’s pitch, I was amazed. It was uneven with holes and divots, hard dirt in the 18 with barely any grass. I felt like I was diving on concrete. I had to borrow a pair of padded shorts from another goalkeeper, but only after I had huge gashes on my hips that kept me from even walking normal. I couldn’t dive or train hard for at least a week. Even once my hips healed, I couldn’t train like I wanted because every time I hit the ground I felt like I was dropping from a 10-story building.
Thankfully, the club brought in a goalkeeper coach from Switzerland, Marc Budry, for me because goalkeeper coaches are almost nonexistent in Kosovo, even on the men’s side. He knew how to work around the conditions. We trained morning and afternoon almost every single day; Hard trainings, fast paced, learning new techniques, hitting every scenario so I would be ready for the Champions League. Closer to what I was used to in my other countries. I have always had a goalkeeper coach at every team, that pretty much came to every training. But when Marc left, it went to slow sessions with the team, just running and short sided play. Practicing with the team is obviously important for goalkeepers, but only when the team really plays hard. I am used to every girl going 110% every single session and if you don’t then you might have to run or have some other penalty. That was not the case here.
I personally have never met a coach, before Kosovo, that is okay with their team not even getting out of the box after a cleared ball, talking in huddles on the field during practice or the match, or watching someone dribble by in their defensive third. Maybe something was said and I just didn’t get the translation. Work ethic and mental toughness are things that need to be taught, so the girls themselves are not entirely to blame for the lackadaisical approach to the game. Kosovo seems to have no regulation on coaching backgrounds, experience, or level of certifications.
There was no stretching before or after practices, very little warm ups for the players and then there are all the other issues; no physio, no field regulations for the conditions of play, no foam rollers or recovery tools, no strength and conditioning coaching, no media exposure, limited youth programs. All of which, again, people would believe every professional athlete should have.
When training with the Washington Spirit, we foam rolled and did an activation session before every practice, and the physio was always there before, during, and after all meetings. I got injured at a practice with the Spirit and instantly was tended to by the team trainers and was sent to see a doctor. I came in early for treatment before the rest of practices. Same in Iceland and in France as over the years, I’ve have had a fair share of injuries. Because of these resources provided to the clubs, I have always bounced back quickly and never have had to stop playing. The health and safety of players should be number one wherever you go, but obviously there are still places that do not know how to provide the right environment for players to thrive.
In today’s time when more and more women’s national teams are coming forward to fight for equal treatment regarding uniforms, travel, practices, and pay, it is so important to remember that these inequalities are within leagues and regular clubs, too. Denmark, Ireland, the United States and Argentina are amongst the countries fighting and taking a stand, but where is everyone else? Obviously we all support this cause and empathize with the situation, but who is really fixing these issues around the world?
It is easy to sit on our physio’s table, hooked up to the NormaTec, as our coaches explain the fitness and training schedule for the month ahead and think that we are doing all we can to fight for equality…but have you ever sat in a four-passenger car with eight teammates on the way to play in a game that you haven’t practiced all week for in your own training clothes because they don’t have uniforms? This is after the five-mile run we had in the mountains that same morning.
What are we doing, as power house countries, to help the ignorance of the smaller countries? Who is to blame for the ignorance of physical and mental well-being, how to properly recover, how to properly train a certain skill or movement?
I want to also share that I did have a great time with some of the girls. They took me around and we made sure our life wasn’t too boring. The people in the club were very nice to me and that was a big difference from one of my previous experiences. I was very lucky to have “my clique”.