GOTHENBURG, Sweden — I have to admit, I looked up Serbia on the map when I found out we would be going there for Champions League. This was a business trip, like any time I’ve traveled to play a game, but it turned out to be a fascinating experience, leaving me wishing I could extend my stay and be a tourist for a couple days.
Tuesday, 5 a.m. We woke up and met the team at our stadium to take the bus to the airport. Temperature in Goteborg: 46 degrees and rainy. I was surprised to see that a small group of supporters were joining us for the trip. Dedicated fans!
1 p.m. We landed in Belgrade, Serbia, after a connection in Frankfurt, Germany. We took a three-hour bus ride to the city of Subotica, which is the fifth largest in Serbia and only about six miles from the Hungarian border. Temperature in Serbia: 85 degrees and sunny.
5 p.m. We left for a short training session at the stadium of our opponent,F.K. Spartak. Its field is grass, which was an adjustment because most fields in Sweden are artificial turf. The grass was also a bit bumpy, which proved to be somewhat of an obstacle because our style of play is to possess the ball with many short passes on the ground.
7:30 p.m. We had dinner as a team in the hotel (one of the two hotels in Subotica) and then a meeting to discuss the game the next day. We actually knew next to nothing about our opponent, so we’re told to be ready for anything and adjust quickly during the game. This was somewhat foreign (no pun intended) for me, especially having played in W.P.S. for three years where you knew every player so well and played each team three or four times during the season.
Wednesday, 8 a.m. Game day! After breakfast, we took a walk through downtown Subotica. The architecture caught my eye and imagination. It is extremely intricate, almost elaborate, which seemed to contradict the fact that a lot of the buildings were run down.
Kickoff, 3 p.m. It was a hot day and our opponent was clearly energized. After only moments into the game, we could tell it was not going to be an easy one. Spartak is a good team, with some talented individuals who are good on the ball. They are also strong and physically imposing. It was tough for us to get into our usual passing rhythm because of the condition of the field and slightly heavy legs from the heat and travel. We went up a goal, thanks to a long-range shot from Cami Levin, midway through the first half. That was a relief and we were able to manage the game from that point on, but still never quite found our usual flow. In the end, it wasn’t a great performance, but part of the UEFA Women’s Champions League is doing what’s necessary away from home in unfamiliar countries and conditions. Interestingly, the crowd was composed mostly of men, which is definitely a different makeup than a typical women’s soccer crowd elsewhere in the world.
7:30 p.m. We had dinner back at the hotel and then decided to check out the spa. It’s the biggest spa in Serbia, and features hot/cold contrast water therapy, saunas, steam rooms, a salt room, and many innovative treatments. As hotel guests, all of the services were free, and we got 30 percent off any treatments. In total, I spent about three hours in the spa, including an hour massage. I paid roughly $10. I wouldn’t mind this luxury after all of my games!
Thursday, 8 a.m. After breakfast it was time to leave for home. I realized that after being in Sweden for nearly two months, I finally think of Gothenburg as home.
My first Champions League experience with Kopparbergs/Goteborg was definitely noteworthy. The Swedish demeanor when traveling was somewhat like the hotel spa: laid back and relaxed. I was shocked when we were in a hurry to catch a connecting flight, and our group showed no noticeable stress or urgency to rush.
I was impressed by the level of the women’s team from Serbia. That’s not a country you would associate with women’s soccer, but there were many talented players on the team and also a few women from the Cameroon national team. The level of the women’s game is rising extremely quickly, and not just in the countries in the World Cup and Olympics. The Women’s Champions League, which is only 11 years old, is beginning to mirror the men’s tournament more and more in that there are no easy games. I’m sure the game will look much different when we face Spartak at home this week, but they are not to be taken lightly.
My trip to Serbia only increased my appetite to see and learn about new places. Serbia is a poor nation that has been devastated by war, but at the same time I found it beautiful and welcoming, with a unique charm that I hadn’t experienced before. My gratitude for how my job allows me to experience the world in a wider way continues to swell!