With the new Frauen-Bundesliga campaign around the corner, kicking off on the final weekend of this month, Bayer Leverkusen's Turid Knaak spoke exclusively to VAVEL about her and her side's aims for the 2015-16 season.
After the world stood and took notice of the women's game this summer thanks to a highly entertaining and well-covered Women's World Cup, the attention now turns back to domestic duties, with summer leagues, such as England's FAWSL, having resumed since, whilst countries with winter seasons prepare to get their campaigns underway in the next few weeks.
Germany are one country whose women's league operates as a winter season, and fans will be hoping for another enthralling year after the title, Champions League spots and sufferers of relegation were all decided on the final day in 2014-15.
Turid Knaak's Bayer Leverkusen were one side who got far too tangled up in the scrap for survival last time out, finishing just three points above the bottom two, and they will be keen to improve on this in the coming season as they aim to really establish themselves in the division, having failed to do so yet due to them being the second youngest club in the league, founded in 2008 - with only newly-promoted 1. FC Koln being formed later, in 2009.
Whilst preparing for the new season, Knaak took the time to speak to VAVEL about the campaign that lays ahead for her and her team, saying that "pre-season is going very well" for them and that they feel "prepared," with their "team performances in the friendlies [having] developed from game to game."
The positive summer for the team means that, "everyone is looking forward to the new campaign" and to "show[ing] that [they] are better than last year."
Leverkusen have to improve, and new signings can help
Speaking about last season, a season in which the team finished ninth out of 12, Knaak admits that Leverkusen "definitely have to improve" this year. "We have to deliver good results, be more clinical in front of goal and avoid conceding late goals in games," she believes, something that will be helped by the "good signings this summer" that have "strengthened [the] squad."
Leverkusen have made five signings these summer in order to bolster the team in various areas. Italian international goalkeeper Katja Schroffenegger has come in from Bayern Munich, where she was back-up stopper for two years, FSV Gütersloh 2009 duo Frederike Kempe and Jana Schwanekamp have arrived in Leverkusen, whilst Croatian international striker Kristina Sundov has returned to the top tier of German football following her relegation with MSV Duisburg just a few months ago.
However, the big signing of the summer has been that of Annike Krahn, the German international defender returning to her homeland after three years with Paris Saint Germain in France.
Knaak believes that "each of [the team's] five new signings has integrated very well so far" in pre-season, and that they can each "improve the squad with their individual qualities," with each of them being "different types of players."
Knaak played with Krahn whilst at Duisburg, the club she came through as a youngster, joining them at 12-years-old before making her senior debut at 16. Krahn has certainly had an illustrious career so far, with two DFB-Pokal winner's medals and a UEFA Women's Cup, now the UEFA Women's Champions League, victory to her name during her eight years with Duisburg, whilst, with Germany, she has also got her hands on a World Cup, two European Championships, an Olympic Bronze medal and an under-19s World Cup, winning over 100 caps in the process.
This year, the defender reached the Champions League final with Paris, only to lose to FFC Frankfurt by a 2-1 scoreline, the German outfit netting a late winner to clinch their fourth title. Following this, Krahn decided to return to her homeland to play football, joining Leverkusen, and Knaak is confident that her compatriot will have a positive effect on the team.
The 24-year-old described Krahn as "a player with a good character and especially good leading qualities," qualities that she believes Leverkusen's "young team lacked last season." Knaak is hopeful that the new signing "can help the team to become more consistent," having seen up close just what a great asset she is to any side when playing with her at Duisburg.
Knaak hoping to build on previous successes with senior call-up
Knaak was also part of the tremendous success at Duisburg that Krahn saw, winning the same three trophies as her teammate, with the UEFA Women's Cup success of 2009 "obviously...one of [her] career highlights." Though she admitted that she "[doesn't] think that [she] developed some kind of winning mentality through that," she does believe that her time there allowed her to experience what "it feels like to win and as an athlete you always aim for wins and trophies." Knaak says the successful years with Duisburg as a teenager gave her a taste of something that she is now "working for every day."
As well as this, her experiences with Germany's youth set-up granted her similar winning experiences, one, in particular, that she cites as the "most important" moment in her career so far. This came in the form of a win at "the under-20 World Cup in 2010 in Germany," with Knaak stating that "winning a tournament in your own country with massive support and in front of more than 20,000 [people] in each game was a great experience."
She also won the under-17s European Championship and Bronze at the World Cup at the same level, before going on to be capped at under-19, 20 and 23 level, but she is yet to be called up for the senior team. With a change in management, as Steffi Jones replaces Silvia Neid, and a number of players retiring from their national duties following this summer's World Cup, there's a chance of a clean slate for the players bidding for a call-up, especially with the new season coinciding with all the changes.
Yet, Knaak admits "it's hard to say if a change in the manager position or retirements make it easier for [her] to get a senior call up." Whilst, "of course, [she] would like to play for [her] country again," "there is big competition with many good players who would all deserve to play for Germany." The attacker believes that "the only thing [she] can do is to deliver good performances every week" to catch the eye of Jones, whilst this will also help her Leverkusen team push up the standings in 2015-16.
World Cup effect will not be the same in Germany as in England
Whilst many players in the league this year will see a new incentive in the form of a greater chance of a national team call-up after all the post-World Cup changes, the tournament could also have a potential effect on the attraction to the women's game in Germany. Viewing figures for the tournament broke records all over the globe as the game gained millions of new fans from the enthralling matches on show, and this has sparked a huge growth in interest in other countries, particularly England.
England's Lionesses conquered Neid's Germany this summer to win Bronze in Canada, defying all odds to make their mark in the competition with highly spirited performances that helped them become this year's surprise package. They captured the hearts of millions across their country, which has translated into an increase in the number of people going to watch the domestic league, with more or less every team seeing their attendance records smashed as crowds continue to total four figure numbers regularly for the first time.
Germany, on the other hand, have attracted these impressive crowds for a number of years now, with five of the 12 Frauen-Bundesliga sides averaging over 1000 fans last season - and Turbine Potsdam even averaging more than 2000. In fact, the league is responsible for eight of the top 15 attendances for 2015 across Europe, with Bayern's 5,203 against SGS Essen the second-highest crowd so far this year.
Knaak has "noticed that English women's football is growing" and that "there is an increase of interest and of media coverage in England," as she "follow[s] the games in the FAWSL," but she, "unfortunately," does not think that the game "will experience the same effect in Germany, because the expectations on the German team were so high before the [World Cup]."
The 24-year-old reveals that "in Germany everyone is disappointed when the national team doesn't at least reach the final. In 2011, after the World Cup in Germany, everyone hoped for more attendance in the [Frauen-Bundesliga], but, as the national team couldn't answer expectations there as well, the [league] could only slightly benefit from the World Cup."
Plenty learned from short spell in England, in and out of football
One reason for Knaak following the English league is because she enjoyed a short spell with Arsenal Ladies last year whilst studying to become a teacher. Knaak spent three months with the London outfit, playing in various competitions for them whilst filling the criteria for her course, which requires her to spend time in England as she studies to teach English, before heading back over to Germany.
She admitted that "since [she] was a child, [she has] been an Arsenal supporter and it always was a dream to play for [the] club one day." Therefore, she "really appreciated" the chance to fulfil this dream by "play[ing] seven games for Arsenal." Knaak revealed that "of course [she] can imagine coming back one day" to London to join the Gunners once again, as she enjoyed her time "spent in England" and was obviously proud to wear the club's colours given her support for them.
During this time, Knaak observed several differences between English and German women's football too, with the former, in her opinion, being "more about fighting" and more physical, whilst "German football is still a bit better in terms of tactical and technical abilities." However, the attacker believes that England are "more and more catching up" with the technical side, something she believes could be "see[n] at the World Cup."
She also admitted that no other opportunity could take her away from Germany, other than the chance to play for Arsenal again. Knaak said that she "[doesn't] think that any club abroad except for Arsenal could be interesting enough for [her] to play there." This is because she believes that the Frauen-Bundesliga "is still one of the best leagues in the world," and because she "like[s] being around [her] family and friends." These reasons, Knaak revealed, are why she "[doesn't] think that [she] will play abroad again soon."
The other focus, apart from football, for Knaak during her spell in England was her studies, which she "still [has] one year left" to complete following that stint abroad. She said that she "will decide after [finishing the studies] if [she] can manage to work and play football at the same time," something that could potentially not be required as women all over the world continue to be made professional whilst playing and are starting to earn even more as prize money in competitions and funding for the game increases.
Yet, Knaak knows that she "definitely want[s] to take the teaching path after [her] career." Coaching is also something that interests her, with the 24-year-old admitting that she "could also imagine coaching a youth team" as she has "done soccer camps in the holidays for kids in Leverkusen and enjoyed that very much."
Season ahead is the focus and mid-table finish is the target
However, the focus now is on the current season and improving with Leverkusen, though the 24-year-old is also likely to be keeping an eye on Duisburg's results too, her former club having been relegated to the second tier at the end of the 2014-15 season and looking for an immediate return to the top flight. Knaak admits that "seeing [her] old club getting relegated was disappointing, because [that] is the club where [she] grew up and where [she] had a very successful time."
She "hope[s] they will bounce back again," but thinks that, with them "[losing] many players due to relegation this summer," it will be hard for them "to [win promotion] immediately."
As for Leverkusen, they get their season underway this Friday (21 August) with a cup match, away to third tier side 1. FFC 08 Nierderkirchen. The league then follows next weekend with another away fixture, this one against SC Sand on Sunday 30 August, with kick off scheduled for 13:00BST. The team have a kind start to the season, with USV Jena, Essen and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim following, though this does mean they play all of last season's top four within the space of just seven weeks before the winter break.
Knaak stated that her "personal aims [for the coming campaign] are to stay injury-free, to give [her] best in every game and to score more goals than last year to help [her] team achieve their aims."
As for the team themselves, Leverkusen "want to go as far as possible in the cup and want to finish the league in fifth or sixth position." Knaak said that this is "what [they] always want to achieve" and she is "sure" that they "have the quality and togetherness in the team to finish the season in a good position."