At a time when female football is going experiencing an expansion, girls in the region of Southeastern Europe continue to face the same problems they had to deal with a decade or two ago. Prejudice, people saying it’s just a passing hobby and not a real profession, as well as a lack of experts who dedicate themselves to women’s football seriously – these problems are still present.
Because of this, many female football players from this region don’t believe that they will be able to reach the same level as their counterparts in Germany, England, Sweden, and to compete in the best European league – the Champions League.
All this no longer seems impossible ever since Jovana Damjanovic, with the Wolfsburg Football Club, became the first Serbian female player to hold the trophy of the Women’s Champions League. It was Daniel Nister, a football expert of Serbian origin, born and raised in Germany, who paved the way into the Bundesliga for female players from Serbia.
Working as an assistant coach in Wolfsburg, that year (the 2013/2014 season) Daniel had the idea to find a talented female football player from the Balkans to help improve the German squad. Through Darko Stojanovic, one of the most successful women’s football coaches, he reached Jovana Damjanovic, who at the time was playing for Red Star Women’s Football Club and was the best scorer of the Women’s Super League.
„Before Daniel contacted me in 2013, I had tried out with Bayern Munich, however that transfer did not go through“, Jovana remembers and continues:
„When I heard that Wolfsburg called me and that everything is going through ’one of our guys’“, I was a bit skeptical and I didn’t really believe it would happen because at the time, there were a lot of people calling and promising me a chance on the international scene“.
However, after Daniel invited her for tryouts, she started believing that the German champion really was interested in her.
„I was injured at the time and I thought that nothing would come of it, but the club invited me as a guest at the cup finals. That fact alone was huge for me and that is when I finally realized how serious everything was. Daniel picked me up at the airport and he was an amazing host. Still, I was afraid that they would leave it at that, on account of my injury“.
Thanks to his great experience as a coach and his work in football analysis, Daniel did not give up on his intentions to bring Jovana into the club:
„I was also new in the club that season and I could not afford a mistake, but I made a detailed individual video analysis of Jovana and showed it to manager Ralph Kellerman, we saw her potential“, Daniel starts his story.
A tryout was impossible at the time because of Jovana’s injury, and Daniel’s subsequent arrival to Serbia to carry out final negotiations marked the beginning of Jovana’s career in Germany, the career she had been dreaming of ever since she was little.
„Ever since I was cadet, whenever someone asked me where I would like to play, I would always say Germany. After high school, I had several offers for continuing my career in Sweden, to go to America, but none of those options appealed to me. For me, Germany was always a dream, not a chance. Whether it is because it’s close to home or because of the quality of football, honestly I don’t know, but the Bundesliga was always my goal“.
Daniel, a coach with a UEFA A license, in addition to working for the German Football Association and working with younger national categories who have been at the top of European and international football for years, soon proved himself in women’s football at the highest club level. Still, his final goal was to reach the Champions League trophy as a men’s football coach.
„In certain aspects, there are differences between women’s football and men’s, but the working conditions in Wolfsburg, big games almost every three days, Champions League, extensive expert staff – these are not so different from conditions they have in the men’s clubs in Germany.“
But that is not the most important thing that he, as a coach, learned from working with women.
„The most important thing I learned working in women’s football is communication. Communication with women is very specific…I learned how important it was to pay attention to your words and how they can affect the players. Still, that season we won the Champions League and that is one special feeling that I am hoping to relive in men’s football“.
The transition period was not easy for Jovana, as she left Serbia as a teenager.
„I had a very hard time at first. For the first two or three months, I kept wondering if football really was this torturous and I did not like it one bit. I came to Germany when I was 18, with no muscle mass and not at all ready for what was ahead of me. My first preparations in Germany were very hard, my muscles were constantly sore for two months straight. Back then I lived on the second floor and going up the stairs was a struggle. But that initial hardship that I managed to overcome actually helped me toughen up, both as a player, and personally“.
Give Jovana the ball and she’ll score
„The most important thing for me is that I managed to toughen up mentally because back when I played in Serbia, many of the offensive tactics were based on passing the ball to me so that I could score. Now imagine the shock of coming from such a system to a team where you’re not even an afterthought? Still, strong competition brought the best out of me and helped me to improve as a player.“
You have to have a special approach to new girls on the team, especially if they are coming from another country and are not familiar with their new environment. This is where Daniel’s multicultural background and knowledge of the Balkan mentality played a crucial role.
„I feel that it is crucial to adapt to the conditions in a new country – from introducing the new training system to learning the language. What is important is to make the players feel good, to have someone help them in that initial period because they need to stay focused even when they are going that psychological low due to the change of environment,“ the young expert explains.
The difference between coach and manager in the relationship with players
„I wanted to help Jovana the period, which was the hardest for her, but the thing is, I was just one of the coaches, not the manager, and it’s my duty to help any player that has a problem”.
“Some of the players who have been in the club longer or have been gone through the same issues are those who you, as a coach should motivate to help others“.
The support of her teammates is extremely important and, even though they saw Jovana as competition and a serious contender for the first team, that was not an issue in their relationship with her.
„The biggest problem was communication! I come to a meeting or a training and I can’t understand half the things the coach says. Daniel would gather a few of us non-Germans and translate into English, which connected us. My teammates were really extremely helpful, they tried to explain drills in English for me so that I could fit into the training process.“
One step back – two steps forward
After three years in Germany, as a player for Bayern Munich, Jovana is now close to accomplishing all that she hoped for and all that she knew she was capable of achieving. But the road to this point was not an easy one.
„When I left Wolfsburg for SC Sand, people from everywhere were commenting that I wasn’t a big club player, but I made one conscious step back in order to prove myself. Now that I play in Bayern, it is clear that that one step back meant two steps forward. I think that I have finally reached what I dreamed of and what I aspired towards.“
Life without mom and dad
„Living abroad without my parents, who always took care of me, that is a whole different story. Whenever I would get an envelope with words I couldn’t understand, I would just put it away. Once I got a huge electricity bill that I ignored so they came to cut my electricity. I called Daniel for help right away. It is funny now, but back then, it wasn’t funny at all.“
The atmosphere in Bayern and Red Star is similar
„I came to a club that is completely at the service of each and every player, from food to training and recovery, all at the highest level, but at the same time, the atmosphere is relaxed and familiar, like the one I experienced in Red Star. In Wolfsburg, everything was stiffer but still professional“.
Daniel stressed on several occasions that the atmosphere in Wolfsburg was extremely professional, but obviously something was missing since Jovana, as a player, did not feel at home in her club. As a coach with a good understanding of the German system, Daniel explains:
„Generally, the atmosphere that Jovana is talking about applies to the whole Bayern system. Their approach is to act like one big family.“
We couldn’t help but wonder, which approach is more efficient?
„I would like the approach in every team I work with and within the club to be at the highest possible level, but with a more relaxed atmosphere. Still, you can’t have that always and everywhere, because you need to have players who can accept that, and on the other hand, not have that relaxed atmosphere affect discipline“.
„It is hard for a coach to create that atmosphere on their own. It depends on a number of factors. The system needs to work in order for the coach to implement that,“ Jovana confirms.
In Bundesliga with no muscles
At the start of her career in Germany, Jovana would practice two times a day, plus running in the woods, which is what Daniel made the players who were not ready for physical hardships ahead of them do.
„I would use every break in Belgrade for individual training with trainers who specialized in working individually with players, Aleksandar Milenovic and conditioning drills with Marko Sindjic. I still do that. In addition to training at the club, I work out individually. Sindja and Sale helped me a lot to get ready for the exertion that playing football in Germany requires“.
German football, both men’s and women’s, is characterized by speed and aggressiveness, something that is not so typical for football played in the region of ex-Yugoslavia, but that doesn’t mean that players from these parts cannot perform on the same level.
„Whether it’s men’s football, where I am now, or women’s football, Serbia and the entire region have enormous potential. With Jovana, for instance, the key was her grit. Individual qualities matter, but perseverance is something that separates players from their competition. Technically, our region does not lag behind, but if you want to play German football, you need the physical segment, with an accent on mental strength.“
Today, as the cornerstone of the Serbian national team and coming back to the elite of European football after all the injuries and problems, Jovana has one thing to say to the girls who dream of getting to where she is now:
„It may sound like a cliche, but the only way to succeed in football is to never give up. You need to find your own special thing that keeps you going during the toughest moments. We have that stubbornness that keeps pushing us and that is something we must maintain. In the end, that’s why we are always the best – in spite of our hardships”.
The road to the international football scene is open for everyone who works to improve themselves each and every day and never gives up on their dreams. It is only then that you can get noticed by experts like Daniel and achieve similar to the ones that Jovana has achieved.