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 first of a three-part series as she takes us through playing for a team in UEFA’s newest affiliated country.

Well.. as the summer days went on, I started to panic a bit. As great as it was to learn under Steph, Didi, and Kelsey, I needed to play games. As a goalkeeper it is all about game time experience and I knew I needed to get somewhere, anywhere to start getting minutes. When my agent came to me with a couple of teams interested and an actual offer from Kosovo, I had to say yes to what was in my hand. All the teams had their advantages, but to go and be the first-team goalkeeper in the Champions League; I couldn’t pass that up. Of course, I did my research on the country first.

“Is it safe? Aren’t they at war?”

That was usually people’s first reaction to my announcement to sign for Kosovo’s UEFA Champions League team, WFC Hajvalia. The answer is no. Kosovo hasn’t been at war for quite some time now. However, that doesn’t mean it is clean, organized, or developed.

Okay…before this sounds like Kosovo is a terrible place, I have to say that the people were beyond welcoming and I felt very safe. I walked alone, the girls always offered to help, take me places, pay for things. Even those who didn’t speak English did all they could to help and take care of me. The coffee baristas and servers at the cafes under my apartment always said hello, took our orders with smiles, and tried to understand my Albanian through my thick American accent. Kosovo loves Americans and I definitely felt the love.

Let’s talk football (soccer) now. Since barely anyone even knew this country existed, even less would know it has women’s football. That, however, might also have to do with the extremely underdeveloped league. Don’t get me wrong, there were many talented players, but the structure and development on the women’s side is very weak. This might have something to do with the conditions they are put in. Stay tuned for that in the next piece 😉.

From what I experienced, saw, and heard about the women’s league in Kosovo, there is no other place for the girls to play. I never saw youth teams, second division teams, or reserve teams playing around. The teams we played against in the friendlies and those I saw around were SO YOUNG. I’m talking 15-year-olds. This was extremely apparent when I played on a different team during the second half of our friendly match. They were so amazed to have me there that they actually stopped, stood, and watched my every move; as Hajvalia girls ripped shots, numerous 1v1s, and took constant crosses. Every time I spoke English they turned with a smile and mimicked my words. (okay it was kind of funny and cute, BUT…) This is inexperience and immaturity on the field. The women’s game isn’t taken as seriously as bigger and more developed countries.

Unfortunately, I experienced this with my own team as well during most practices and even at Champions League. There was an obvious inexperience at the higher and faster level of play. Other teams kept composure on and off the field, while Hajvalia seemed to be scattered and flustered. These things lead back to the coaching and the development of players. 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.

Traveling to all these different countries has been eye opening to say the least. I have learned more about football (soccer), myself, and the world than I ever could have imagined, all because I am “fearless in the pursuit of what sets my soul on fire.” I want to expand my personal game, expand opportunities for other girls, and make women’s soccer respected throughout the world. The more I put myself out there, the more I experience, and the more I can share with everyone. Trust me.. you’re going to want to hear how different this experience was!

Come back to read about my personal living and training conditions with Hajvalia as compared to France, Iceland, Denmark, and the USA.