The way I remember it, the whispers would start as soon as I entered the room. Every time I met new people, at school or elsewhere, the reaction would be the same. People would try not to look at me, try not to speak too loudly, but I knew what they were saying.
“Hey, what happened to her? What is that?”
“I don’t know. Something is clearly wrong with her.”
Most of the time it wasn’t bullying, I guess. It was just … negative attention. But when you are an 11-year-old girl trying to fit in at school, it is an uncomfortable feeling.
When I was five, some muscles in the left side of my face were paralysed. They call it facial nerve palsy. When I hit my early teens my family and I did everything we could to fix it. For example, at one stage my parents drove me to England every four months and stayed there with me for a week, just so we could see a doctor who had some form of special treatment. When that did not work, we went to see a specialist in Cologne. I was 13 years old then. Fortunately, his surgeries worked, and today you can only really notice my condition when I smile. But before that you could see it all the time.
Photo Courtesy: Babett Peter
The sad part was that nobody would ever ask me about it. People at school just assumed that something horrible had happened. And so they began to whisper. And then someone would come up to me and say, Hey, this person said this and that about you.
Looking back, I was lucky that I had good friends and a family who supported me. But at that age, that kind of stuff is bound to affect you.
When I first got the condition, I was a tough, feisty girl. I smile when I say that, because most people who know me now would never believe it. At school I would hang out with some “interesting” groups of people, mostly boys. We would play with fire. We would have fights. One time this boy said something to my friend that I didn’t like. We got into a scrap and I ended up breaking his arm. My parents were called in to see the principal. They weren’t happy!
But about the time I turned 12, I got tired of all the attention I was getting because of my facial nerve palsy. Whether it was conscious or unconscious I don’t know, but I stopped hanging out with the boys who always got in trouble. I went into a shell. I thought, Maybe if I’m more quiet, then people won’t notice me.
And whenever I would hear the whispers behind my back, I would wonder what my life would have been like had I not had this condition.
I thought, If only I could change that one thing….
Of course, you cannot just change anything you want in life. I am now 31 years old and I still have my condition. But since those days in school I have learned a lot of stuff. I have also played a lot of football and won many titles. And recently I came to realise that I have a responsibility to tell young girls what is possible to achieve in life through sports, no matter what troubles you might be dealing with. Now that the world is suffering from the coronavirus, I also think it’s important to highlight the value of helping others, in any way you can.
Photo Courtesy: Babett Peter
Right now my teammates and I are in quarantine. We play for CD Tacón, which is part of Real Madrid, and everyone at the club — and in the city — has been put in isolation. I know the world seems like a dangerous and uncertain place at the moment, especially here in Spain, where the situation is very serious. But the only way we will defeat this epidemic is by working together. The first thing everyone should do is to stay at home. But for my part, I also feel I can help by telling my story. And if it motivates just one or two girls to leave their comfort zones and confront their fears, then sharing it will be more than worth it.
So, let’s go back in time. Let’s go to a campsite in East Germany in the early 1990s.
That’s where it all started. When I was a kid, my parents, my sister and I would squeeze into a tiny caravan and hit the road for four weeks every summer. My uncles would bring their families too, so we could be as many as 30 people. When we set up camp, we’d often put down two pairs of boots on a grass patch and play football. It was just a bit of fun for everyone — except for me, because I was the only one who took it seriously. I would get furious if I lost. I wouldn’t talk the whole day. Everyone found that hilarious. I was seven years old.
When I was 11 I joined my first team, in my hometown, Oschatz. I was one of two girls there. The boys on the other team would always go, “Oh look, they have two girls.” Then we would start playing and they would go, “Oh, damn … they’re good.”
And that was the thing. I was really good!Looking back, I was lucky that I had good friends and a family who supported me. But at that age, that kind of stuff is bound to affect you.
Before then I had been doing gymnastics and playing handball, but I understood that football was my sport. At that age, it kind of saved me. On the pitch it didn’t matter how you looked, or whether you were shy, or whether you had some kind of condition. The only thing that mattered was, could you play or not? And I felt as if the game was in my blood. I was made captain. My coaches praised me, my teammates respected me. Whenever I was playing I felt comfortable. Unlike at school, I didn’t have to think about anything. I could just be myself.
At that point I could not stop training. I would get up at 6 a.m., have a coffee, put on some headphones and go running in the woods. I loved the sunrises, the wind blowing in the trees, even the aches in my feet. I loved the solitude. Whenever I had a problem at home or at school, the woods became my place of peace.
Soon all the training paid off. When I was 15, I made the German youth national teams. I also got into a boarding school for footballers, in Leipzig, an hour’s drive from Oschatz. Leaving home was scary, especially for a girl with my condition. But I was on my way to becoming a footballer now, and when I have a target in my head, I have to achieve it. I’m just like that. And I knew that if I did not make this step forward, I would never be able to fulfill my dream.
Photo Courtesy: Babett Peter
The first month was hard. We trained three times a week. I was the only girl, and the boys were so much stronger and better technically. I felt so lonely, too. But, looking back, I think my mentality saved me. You do not survive all the negative attention I got at school without having a strong head, and I had a very strong head. You get nowhere in life if you see yourself as a victim, and I did not. So I just kept working. And soon I realised that this school was exactly what I needed. It was forcing me to compete, to leave my comfort zone. I also began to make friends from other sports and other countries. At the start I had been looking forward to Fridays, when I would get to go home for the weekend. Now my parents were discovering that I no longer felt like coming home at all. They were happy about that. It meant that I was having a good time.
Two years later, while I was still at the school, I was playing a game for my team, Lokomotive Leipzig, in the second division, when someone from another club spotted me. I was asked if I wanted to sign for the club — and of course I said yes.
The club was Turbine Potsdam, one of the best teams in Germany.He said, “Trust me, in a few years you’ll realise.”
In my head I was nowhere near ready to play at the highest level. I was 17 years old. But I guess the club disagreed, because they signed me halfway through the 2005–06 season. Suddenly I was part of a team that was chasing the league title and the German Cup. Everything went so fast, like pa-pa-pa. I had to change my school, my home, my friends. My brain could not process what was happening. That season, I remember, we were playing away at Frankfurt, which is kind of like the Clásico in Spain. It’s a huge game. We won 6–2. On the bus on the way back all the girls were celebrating, except for me — I had my head buried in a book, studying for a math exam.
At some point our legendary coach, Bernd Schröder, came over to me. “Listen,” he said. “You have no idea what’s going on here, do you?”
I said, “No, not really.”
He said, “Trust me, in a few years you’ll realise.”
I just said, “O.K….”
He was right, of course, although I would only realise that many years later. Before I did, I was picked for the Germany squad that went to the 2007 World Cup in China. I was 19 years old. I didn’t play any games, but the experience was incredible. I was in the same team as Renate Lingor and Birgit Prinz. Just spending five weeks in China was amazing for me.
And then when we became world champions? It was just … wow.
Eugene Hoshiko/AP Images
I will never forget what happened after the final. We celebrated in the dressing room, got the trophy and the medals, and drove to the hotel for the “official dinner,” or something like that. And then we had this great party at the hotel. It was in a club on the top floor, and everyone was there: the team, sponsors, journalists, the officials from the German federation. There was a DJ, drinks flowing, disco balls spinning. I was out on the dance floor with some of my teammates when one of our goalkeepers, Ursula Holl, said, “Hey, guys! It’s so unfair….”
The music was pretty loud, so we were like, “What? What is so unfair?”
She said, “I think everyone should get a trophy!”
Normally the team gets the big trophy, while the players get a medal. Giving out a giant trophy to each player is just unrealistic, you know? But as soon as Ursula had finished the sentence, a man dancing next to us turned around and said, “We can do that.”
We were like, “What did you say?!”
He said, “Yeah, we can do that. We can give you all a trophy. No problem.”
It turned out that he was the boss of the company that had made the trophy. Now he was promising to ship a replica to our homes within two weeks. After he left we were like, “O.K … he’s joking.” Either that or he was drunk.
Two weeks later a postman turned up at my door. “Wow, this one is really heavy,” he said. “What’s inside? Have you ordered 800 shoes or something?”
It was a terrible joke, but I forgave him. I was too happy not to. Inside was a full-size replica of the actual World Cup trophy.
It was unreal. It is still the only trophy I take with me everywhere.
After that, football kept taking me to places I could never have imagined. In 2009 we won the Euros, in Finland, and I played the best tournament of my career. A year later Turbine Potsdam reached the very first final of the newly branded Champions League.
Which, of course, we seemed destined to lose.
We were up against Lyon. It was 0–0 after extra time, so the game went to penalties. After taking four of our five penalties, we were down 3–2. Lyon had two left and only had to score one of them to win. If you have played a bit of football, you know what that means. You’re finished.
I was like, Alright, it’s done. Let’s just finish this game and go home.
But then Lyon missed their next kick. And we scored to make it 3–3.
I just went, Hey, we might actually have a chance here….
And then Lyon missed their second kick.
I … I can’t believe this!!
Photo Courtesy: Babett Peter
Somehow, we won the shootout. I had never cried after winning a football game, but that night I did. It was just the craziest experience of my career. The victory, the emotional roller coaster … indescribable. The togetherness we had in that team really was something special. The party was wild, too. The club just said, “Bring your family and come!” My dad, my sister, my uncle, they were all there. The crew from the campsite! To this day they are talking about that night.
Only the gold we won at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro can rival that title for me, because when I got to Rio I had been injured and spent more than a year fighting my way back into the team. Also, the Olympics are different from a club tournament and even a World Cup. You are not just representing your country. You are not just on the same team as your teammates. You are on the same team as the rowers, the sprinters, the swimmers. And you become part of a fellowship in the Olympic Village that is very special. So that gold medal is one of my most prized possessions. Alongside the World Cup trophy, of course. 🙂
When you experience triumphs like that, there is a danger that you can become satisfied with what you’ve done. You become complacent. And that’s when you need a new challenge. So when I got an offer last autumn to play for Tacón, which next season will officially become Real Madrid, the decision was easy. I am loving this chance to play in a new country, to take part in building a new team. Of course, I know this adventure will pose challenges.
But luckily, I am not confronting them on my own.
I am living here in Madrid with Ella, my girlfriend. She has just retired from her own professional football career. We met a few years ago, when we were playing for Wolfsburg. Our start was not the easiest, because I had just come out of a relationship and she was also trying to figure things out in what was a difficult situation for her. We had a lot of stuff to work on. But now, thankfully, we are happily together, and everything has been worth it.
Also, we are about to become a family.
Yes, that’s right … we are expecting a baby!! 😀
Photo Courtesy: Babett Peter
It is due to come into the world in August. We are so excited! We always knew that we wanted to have a family, so we decided to go for it. Five weeks ago we were actually able to hear the baby’s heartbeat for the first time. That was the last time I cried. It was just a completely new feeling for me. I’m German. I’m not emotional, I try to prepare for everything. But this time I was just overwhelmed. I wanted to run out on my balcony and shout, “WE WILL BE A FAMILY!” It’s just pure happiness.
I know for sure that Ella is going to be the perfect mother. She loves kids, and she has the biggest heart I have ever seen. When I was moving to Madrid, she drove my car down here from Germany, a journey of 20 hours, with her mum and three dogs! Each day I feel that we help each other improve and grow. I have made Ella calmer. She has made me open up. I never used to be particularly social, or talk about my private life, but Ella has taught me that when you reach out to people, or try to help them in any way, you enrich your life.
Put it this way: If you give people something, you get a lot back.
That, incidentally, is why I have decided to join Common Goal, an initiative you might have heard about. I found out about it two years ago, and I really liked the model. Put simply, you donate 1% of your wages to support football NGOs around the world, in places like India, Colombia and Zimbabwe, but also in more developed countries like Germany, Spain, the U.S. and the U.K. For us, 1% is nothing. For them it is everything. I know many footballers who are like, “Sure, I want to do something, but how?” Well, Common Goal enables you to make a contribution. And if you ask me, it has never been more important to do so. One of the things I think the coronavirus crisis has done is to remind us of how connected we all are, how much we depend on each other. And that if we are going to be able to deal with the biggest social issues of the world today, then we all need to play our part. So if you’re an athlete reading this, I would strongly encourage you to join this collective effort. We are so lucky to do what we love. We should at least give something, and help people who have not been that lucky.
This is also the reason why I want to open up about my own story; to encourage others who might be in a similar situation to what I have experienced. If you are a young girl with problems at school, or if you’re in a same-sex relationship and fear being open about it, be brave. Get out of your comfort zone. If your heart is telling you to do something, do it. There is so much out there to achieve and experience. And if you are considering taking up football, remember that it is not just a sport. It is life. It teaches you about ups and downs, about hard work and human relationships. When you have doubts, it teaches you what is right and wrong. When you are lonely, it gives you friends.
I know for sure that I owe it to football for where I am right now. I am playing for Real Madrid. I am living in a beautiful city with the woman I love. I will soon have a family.
Could life have turned out differently? Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter.
I would not change a thing.