Even though you are only 26 years old, you already have a long history at the club and trained under various coaches. How would you describe your path at Bayern München?
[Laughs] It’s true, within the group I feel pretty old. I came to Munich back in 2006 when I was 17 years old without going through the Bayern youth teams. So I started out on the first team right away. My first coach was Sissy Raith. Two years later, Günther Wörle took over. He is the father of Tom who has been doing an excellent job coaching us now for 4-5 years now. You could probably say that Günther represented more of an old school approach of training. Football is constantly evolving including tactics and training methods. That has been changing rapidly over the last few years.
Now that women’s football is becoming more and more professional, do you also have more training sessions than in the earlier days?
Certainly, we practice up to eight times a week including two morning sessions so that we can get an entire day off to recover. On Mondays, there is a recovery session for those who played on Sunday, while the rest of us does a regular training session. On Tuesdays we have a day off, Wednesdays we normally practice twice: an athletic training in the morning and football practice at night. Thursdays we have one session and on Fridays again we have two, one focusing on athletics and physical strength, the other one on football. Of course the athletic sessions on Wednesdays are more intense than towards the end of the week. We have to manage our energy in order to reach our peak performance on game day.
So you have special training sessions where you hit the gym to exclusively address physical strength? Or do you integrate fitness training into the drills with the ball where you practice technical footballing skills?
It depends on what phase of the season we are in. During pre-season, we obviously have to do the physical groundwork and build up that muscle to gain stamina. When the season begins or resumes, the focus shifts towards explosive strength. For one or two years now, we additionally train together with Matthias Nowak, a coach especially for technique and creativity. With him we practice a lot of technical aspects but also our vision and perception on the pitch, how do I find ways out of pressure, succession of movements, automatisms. That way we train to not only focus on the ball but to develop panoramic vision for things around us. In this league, you don’t get much time. One or two touches with the ball and an opponent player will be right in your face or you have lost the ball already.
What does a technical-creative training session look like exactly? Do you also use video for visualizing purposes or is it all about positional play on the pitch?
In those sessions we entirely focus on practice on the field. The coach demonstrates the drills and we start preparing movements. Not all of the drills include the ball. There are also forms of jumps, moving rhythms of arms and legs where you really have to connect some stuff and coordinate several things at once. More than anything, that is extremely hard work for your mind.
At one moment your arm is supposed to do this movement, the other one something completely different and then on top of that the ball is added. You have to calculate, clap your hands and count numbers out loud — all at once. The “traffic officer” [pretends to manage traffic on an imaginary intersection] probably took me half a year to do correctly and with ease. The drills themselves don’t take that long. The sessions last from 30 minutes to 50 minutes respectively.
Often we start off practice with a session like that because you need to be mentally fresh. Afterwards, your head needs some time to process all that information. With the years it becomes more complex. You start simple, repeat the drills to internalize the automatisms and then you build on that. At the beginning, you focus more on the movements, later on more on the visual aspects. But everyone has to go through that process on her own in her own tempo, which can differ a lot from person to person. But he [Nowak] gives us a pretty charming feedback. Since he also trains men sides, he sometimes is surprised how well we are doing and how fast he can move on to the next step. Women are sometimes quicker than men in that aspect.
You mentioned that each of you has her own tempo, but your training schedule seems to be structured rather rigidly. Is there room for an individual player to go a little deeper into one exercise? Or would she have to pick up the ball on her own time to follow up?
There is room for that. For us that is very important. We have a lot of international players on the team who have to get used to our culture, our language. We mostly talk German during practice. Only aspects that are very important are repeated in English. During those drills we divide up into groups so that the more experienced don’t get bored and the newbies don’t get frustrated while just getting started.
Especially some of our international teammates come from entirely different systems of play with a high appreciation of physical strength and athletics. The European football is a little bit more technical and tactical, I would say. If the coach feels that one player or the other could profit from a few additional tactical sessions, then she can show up an hour earlier before practice to get a private lesson at the tactics board. That way, the development of each player is taken into account individually.
For professional female football players it is quite normal to have additional obligations like a job on the side, studying for a college degree or learning a profession in a typical German “Ausbildung” [with theoretical background at a school and practical guidance on the job]. What is the situation like at Bayern München?
To work full-time additionally to our schedule of training, game days, physiotherapy and everything that comes with it, is basically impossible. I work part-time half the days because my main focus is football. That’s what I moved to Munich for. With our average of age we also have a lot of players who go to college or study remotely in long-distance courses. Players who came from abroad don’t have jobs most of the time, but they often take German courses to integrate culturally. That would be their obligation besides football.
How are those players given a hand and helped out when they have arrived in Munich?
We are a team and do a lot of stuff together off the field. Some questions can be answered right within our Whatsapp group. And of course there is Tanja Wörle, our team manager, who helps out when it comes to organizing everyday life, setting up a mobile phone contract or stuff like that. She is the link between the team and the manager of the women’s section of the club, Karin Danner.
Obviously you are a very well-versed player technically. Were you born with that skill or are you benefitting from a lot of practice and the drills with the technical coach?
Actually I am a typical street-footballer. My life has always been about football and football only. As soon as I came home from school and dinner was put on the table, I wouldn’t even care. I’d throw my bag into the corner, grab the ball and bounce it against the wall of the house until the sun went down at night. Of course my parents would go: “Enough, will you ever stop?” So I practiced a lot on my own, but I also have two brothers who played football and introduced me to the game. My entire family is crazy about football. My grandpa could have become a professional player but decided to have a family and a regular job. Of course he also taught me a thing or two. Even my mom and my grandma kicked the ball every once in a while. Not professionally or at a club, but every one of us played football.
Then working with the creative coach must really suit you.
For sure. Sometimes he picks me to demonstrate a drill and of course I am happy when I get the feedback to be a player with an understanding and an eye of the entire game and the spaces. I obviously do benefit from that. I wouldn’t know any other team that has the possibility to work with a creative coach like that.
OK, so the individual basics are set. After that, the coach has to pour those skills, those ingredients into one philosophy, a system of play, a formation. That needs time. Do you even have the possibility to develop and train something new at the final stage of a season in case the opponents already adjusted to your style of play?
Of course you can. In general, the coach always prepares us well for certain situations, for the way the other team will go about and even for possible courses of events within a game. The game against Sand is something completely different from the game against Potsdam. We had to adjust to completely different conditions. Our system with five in the back is a very flexible one. Since the beginning of this season, we finally have a squad with the required quality throughout the entire team. When you looked at top clubs like Wolfsburg, you could see that even when they suffered many injuries, they were still able to compensate that with their subs. That was not the case at Bayern over the last couple of years. Now you can see that players who start off the bench really can generate some impetus. But also our style of play is much more variable. Because the system is so flexible our players can cover completely different positions in it.
How liberal or rigid are the instructions that the coach gives you ahead of the game?
In general we are very flexible and worked especially hard on tactics during our winter training camp. With more then ten players who left the club and ten newly signed we are a completely new team. We are surprised ourselves how quickly we formed a unit. Each one of us puts in her individual abilities and that makes us so strong as a team. We used the training camp to figure out ways to adapt to certain situations within the game. If your are down a goal and there is only a couple of minutes left, of course you want to sub in a player with some attacking momentum rather than a defensive player. But also without any substitutions you can switch systems to trigger more pressure within the attack or in the opposite case, to strengthen the defense.
How are switches like that communicated? Does the coach give a signal from the sideline? Do you plan ahead of the game to make that change at a certain minute? Or does it depend on the score or a certain behavior of the opposing team when you decide to switch gears?
We go into the game with some basic tactical instructions at hand that the coach matched to the specific strengths and weaknesses of the opponent. On top of that we practiced a couple of different formations and shapes to which we can switch within the match. Therefore, the coach gives us a signal as he is in the best position to figure out what’s going on from outside. But most of the time we want to dominate the game ourselves and not only react to what the other team is doing.
You mentioned that radical change of the team ahead of this season. If the core of this team stays together for the upcoming season, we might enjoy even more elaborate tactical aspects coming up.
I think so. For example if you look at the concepts of pressing and counter-pressing which haven’t been a major factor for us in the last couple of years. The men’s side of Bayern München is not only ahead of the game compared to women’s football but also to other men’s teams. They have phases of ball possession en masse and their counter-pressing is so strong that the opponent only gets to have the ball for two to five seconds before it is lost again. If you have to chase the ball the entire time, obviously, that wears you down. That for example becomes more and more important for us, as well.
Are there players on the team with whom your game harmonizes especially well? Or doesn’t it matter who is playing since the individual class of each of you is so high that all of you fit together?
Actually, the automatisms and the plays really work out well and smoothly no matter, who of us is on the pitch that moment. The reason for that is that compared to earlier years the club really targeted specific transfers, players with high individual quality and strengths we missed, that raised the team to the next level. On top of that comes our team spirit, which matters a great deal to us. Football is a team sport. It is only a functioning unity that gains success — not even the best individual star players can make up for that. Sure, top players can decide games, but not championships.
If one of us makes a mistake, the others try to iron it out. A good pass doesn’t only depend on the one who plays it. All of us have to continuously move well and create passing options for the one with the ball. I am not responsible for scouting, but I suppose that before a contract is offered, aspects like the character of a player or the question of how she could contribute to the team do play a role besides the footballing skills. Otherwise it would be very difficult to form a team out of so many different nationalities that we all come from. You can see how the training group shrinks whenever the national players are with their national teams. But challenges like that can be turned into advantages. In smaller groups you really can work out the details and adjust the drills to the needs of every individual player perfectly.
Against Duisburg you recently had to make the experience that even against supposedly weaker teams it’s not always possible to score a goal. After a classical false start against Sand you were down 1-0 right from the beginning of the match. Did you panic a bit that you might not score the equalizer or even the lead in this game again?
I wouldn’t say that. We knew beforehand about the huge challenge we were about to face with Sand — not only because of the opponent, but also because of the conditions there. The wind blows, the field is incredibly short and narrow. Adding to those circumstances in Sand you have the atmosphere of the good old sports field. In contrast to a stadium the crowd stands just a couple of feet away from the sideline of the pitch. They are right in your face and you get to hear a thing or two. Not only we had a hard time there, other top teams did, too. Frankfurt was down 1-0 before they turned the game around, as well.
There was only one option: straighten up, keep on playing, even the score as soon as possible and win that match.
There are three games left this season. Right now you are at the top of the table and have the second spot safe for now, but Wolfsburg and Frankfurt each played a game less. When talking to the public, coach Wörle denies the role of being favorite winner of the league. Is there a difference in the way he talks to you internally and does he try to push you? Or does he try to keep you humble and focused on the homestretch of the season?
The coach keeps the perfect balance internally, as well. We are a new team. If things go well, people start pushing you into that role of the upcoming champion. But we have to focus on each match individually. Therefore, we concentrate on tasks and aspects concerning football. That’s the only thing that counts. That’s what we communicate towards the public but also internally.
Did you call out a certain goal as a team or do you solely work on solving footballing tasks, finding solutions for problems of the game and then just see whatever that amounts up to in the end?
At this point, we have played a lot of matches. In the beginning, nobody knew — including ourselves — whereto it would lead us. Now we have three “finals” ahead of us and are the only team unbeaten. In that constellation, we look pretty good. And of course, each player has her dreams. Now we want to get the best out of it. But the score is settled at the end.
We already made that bitter experience in 2009 when on the last day of the season we had just as many points as Potsdam and missed the championship by one goal. There are not many players left on the team from back then, but for those who were the world shattered into pieces. That is one of the reasons we don’t abate when a match seems to be decided early. The goal difference can decide the championship. We are never satisfied. The entire team is hungry.
Can those of you who went through that experience share that and pass it on to the others or is it more of an advantage that the new ones don’t carry around that trauma.
In our team there are many players who gathered experiences in other competitions or with their national teams, players who at the end of an important match had to walk off the pitch defeated, as well. That way it’s not hard to get everyone on the same page, but we don’t focus on that. We want to attack, dominate games and score goals — that’s what we enjoy most, after all.
Those big runaway victories of this season with scores like 4-0, 6-0, 7-0 all date back before the winter break, though.
Every team uses the winter break to analyze their mistakes, of course. Every team has played each all the other teams once and can learn from those experiences. Many teams now play differently against us then they did before.
Five times you were picked for the starting lineup this season and went for the entire 90 minutes. At other times you come off the bench — be it to sub in some additional impetus for the attack or to calmly control the game at its final stage. The performance you display is always good. Is it due to the high quality of the squad that you don’t start from the beginning more often? Or is a decision like that simply based on the opposing team and on the question with which formation to play against it?
When the season started out I was in the starting lineup — and I was there for a reason. But then injuries threw me off the first leg of the season completely. It was my goal to fight my way back into the team by the beginning of the second leg. But in the meantime, the other players did a really good job themselves. By now we do have a squad with the high quality and that competition throughout the entire team. If things go well the coach doesn’t have any reason to rotate and take apart a functioning formation.
The club officially states you as a defender. On the pitched you were spotted as a left-winger and as a number six in defensive midfield. Is there a position that you especially like and where your strengths shine brightest?
Originally I am a player for the offense, but I am really adaptable. I played the number six at Bayern before, but also the number ten. So actually central midfield is my position. At the national team the coach once wanted to answer the pressing of the opposing team with a very clean build-up play from the back and therefor put me in the left full-back position. That worked out so well that the club adopted this idea and Günther Wörle put me from defensive midfield into defense as a left full-back, as well.
I do like to play both positions. Both are special in their way. As a number six you are right within the center of events and mix defensive responsibilities with an eye for the attack. As a full-back you got the game in front of you. In earlier times even much more than today with the back-five, that position was defined defensively. If you crossed the centerline, the coach would break a sweat and call you back. Today also in the national team it is well appreciated when the wingers set the flanks on fire marching up and down the sideline. So I am really happy with that position, as well.
The last time you were with the national team was back in 2009, wasn’t it?
That’s right, that’s when I had my last cap. 2013 I was invited to Cottbus for the game against Russia, though and in Frankfurt and Slovenia I was part of the team, as well. Even though I didn’t play those three matches, it was a great experience to be back there after my injury.
The history of your injuries is a crucial aspect of your career and it’s hard to understand the role you have as a player without knowledge of it. So would you mind to elaborate on that a bit and tell us why you were thrown out of the football business entirely for such a long time?
Starting from the Under-15 team of the DFB [German Football Association], to U17, U19, U20 up to U23, I went through all stages of the national team. 2008, we just played the Under-20 World Cup in Chile and finished third. Because of my good performance there, I got the chance to play the Algarve Cup 2009 with the actual German National Team and naturally was the happiest person on earth. For me it was a dream come true. I always wanted to play for the national team with the Eagle on my chest. But from that point on my knee went on strike. Again and again I would have little ailments up to that total time-out where I was taken out for two years straight. The diagnosis was transient osteoporosis, bone loss. The bone behind the kneecap would detach. On top of that: cartilage damage.
In the beginning, the simplest things of everyday life would become huge challenges. I wouldn’t even get up the stairs without crutches. But in rehab I made great progress. The pictures that were taken every eight weeks looked promising. After half a year I was ready for a stress test — a training session with shots, changes of direction and everything that goes with it. The test felt great, I could do everything without any problems or discomfort. But that high peak was followed by a tremendous setback the next morning. I was in fiendish pain. The pictures we took afterwards showed: my knee was in a worse condition than half a year before at the initial diagnosis. The discrepancy no doctor is able to explain up to this day. They discovered a vitamin B deficiency, but that could not be the cause for this kind of development.
A phase of more rehab followed, constant doctor’s appointments and all sorts of therapies: infusions, mesotherapy with seven up to ten shots at a time. Over the weeks I got something like 70 injections.
Don’t you lose faith in coming back to playing football in a stage like that?
That period of time was extremely hard for me. Not only regarding the physical aspect, but also for my psyche. I was thrown out of my everyday life which was entirely based on being a professional athlete. That was the first time I noticed that there is a life outside of football and I shifted my focus towards my other job. But after work, there still would be three, four, five hours of rehab training on my schedule. For me it was like this: No matter how severe the injuries were and the limits I was pushed against, there was never the time that I thought to myself, “This just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” Football is my life. I never thought about giving up. The support I got from the club was very important for me. So were my family and friends who were there by my side.
What did the support of the club look like?
Not only in the first half year, but also after that huge setback I had complete support. I got the signal that I could take as much time as I needed — no matter how long it would take. Even after two years when my contract was running out that was never a topic. There were no milestones until when I would have to be fit again. I could come to the club with any issue I had whatsoever. Sometimes the couch had to stop me and send me home. After two years of building up strength and doing recovery training your had really is stretched to its limits. The coach realized immediately: “You need some time off, just take that time for yourself.”
How do you feel in your body today?
I feel good. I’m back. A cartilage damage is a wear and tear effect that doesn’t recover 100 per cent, of course. Therefore, I leave out some jumping drills and do alternative exercises. But the team of coaches knows about it. They want to get the best out of the players rather than pushing through a rigid agenda — it’s been all figured out.
Despite of all your experience, you are in the best of age for a footballer. Let’s look ahead into the future for a second. What dreams and goals do you chase — if you have any — together with the team and personally for yourself?
Clearly, as an athlete you always have dreams and want to be successful. I’m at Bayern for a really long time now, this is my ninth season and with the win of the German Cup 2012 we had a big success once. After all I went through that was an affirmation that I did the right thing to not let any doubts interfere, but to go through with this. It was a compensation for all the setbacks I had to sit through und therefore for me personally, it was a really special achievement.
Until now we never won the championship, even though the quality was here. Now quality is even higher, also the level of training sessions due to the great competitive pressure between the players. Of course it is my dream to earn that title with my club, with FC Bayern München.
Is the national team still a topic in the back of your head?
Yes, it is — maybe not a very current one, but it’s always there in the back of my mind. I always wanted to become a national player und I still have that dream. Even though it didn’t work out back then, I try to improve every day and promote myself through great performance. And I will keep that attitude until the end of my career. There is that hope and I will work hard for it.
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[The interview took place on March, 31st. Five days later, Katharina Baunach was called up for the German squad that would play Brazil in a friendly on April, 4th.]