P.O.V.ey: Sun, sea and Spanish football – My experiences of playing abroad

It’s been over a year since I returned from my year abroad, and more than three years since I first played football abroad. I miss it. A lot. Since coming back to dreary old England, a lot of people have asked me about playing abroad; Was it like playing in England? Was language an issue? Would I recommend it? I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who might be wondering the same kind of things, so I thought that for my next post I would share with you my experiences of playing abroad in Spain (I will save Russia for another time!) As always, if it encourages just one young girl to make the big decision to play abroad, I’m a happy bunny.

I’ll start from the beginning, with my first experience of the world of women’s football in Spain, and work my way forward to the present (where I am currently wishing I could roll back the clock to play there again!)

My first experience of fútbol español: small town team, big ambitions

At the tender age of 19, I packed my bags and set off to Spain for a year before starting university. I had organised to stay with a family near Alicante (in the South-East of Spain) where I would help teach in the local primary school. Before I had even arrived, I had done my research on the town and to my surprise and excitement, there was a women’s football team based there! I chatted to the family who I was staying with about it when I arrived. Despite the fact that the father of the family, Isidro, was a massive football fan, who spent matchdays at the Atletico Madrid club in the town, none of the family knew that the women’s team even existed.

After a couple of weeks of settling into the school, as well as day-to-day family life, Isidro spoke to the coach of the team and offered to drive me to a training session on the Wednesday night to have a ‘trial’. I had arrived in January, so the season was already well underway, and the weather was absolutely freezing! Wrapped up like a Christmas turkey, we arrived at the ground. I was excited to see that the complex was huge! Two floodlit 3G pitches with large stands, a spectators bar and a sports centre with a gym. After a quick chat with the coaches Pau and Juan, I headed into the changing rooms to meet the other girls.

A view from the stands of the main pitch at Monóvar’s home ground

I have to warn you that playing abroad does require some self-confidence and a willingness to sound like an idiot in a foreign language sometimes. At this point in my life, I had been studying Spanish for over 7 years but still found it difficult to pluck up the courage to introduce myself in the changing room. After some awkward hellos we headed out onto the pitch to train.

There was a real mix of ages and abilities within the team. There were over 30 girls training, and each week we broke off into different ability groups, before coming back together at the end of each session for a short 11-a-side game. Coming from my club at home, I was in awe of the turnout to training in all weathers, especially from girls who knew that they weren’t going to be in the starting 11 or even on the bench at the weekend. On top of that, we trained twice a week, and girls travelled from miles around to make it to sessions after work. I think the dedication I saw from that squad is definitely something which I have tried to retain in my own game after I came back to England. The girls worked hard at training and expected nothing back from the coaches if they didn’t.

For those of you that think that the weather in Spain is always sunny!

My first experience of Spanish football was a wholely positive one. The girls and the coaches were so passionate about the club and the team! So much so that in one game both coaches were red carded for spending too much time running around outside the technical box! They were so engrossed in the game that they didn’t even realise that the referee was warning them! A game to forget in many ways (we lost 4-3 after a last minute penalty), but also one that sticks in my memory from my time there…

When I joined the club, they were playing in the Segunda División of Alicante, which is roughly equivalent to the level of the Premier Division of most regional leagues (e.g. SRWFL etc). While writing this article, I looked up the team again on Facebook, and was happy to see that they had been promoted, now playing in the Primera División, which is equivalent to FA Women’s National League Division 1. They also played both Valencia and Levante in the cup, who are both in the top two divisions of Spanish football!

Despite being a small town club, Monóvar had big ambitions, and I’m not surprised to see that they made their promotion dreams come true. Investment of time and money from the main club meant that the women’s team had access to gym facilities, a physio, two main coaches and a goalkeeping coach. This was at ‘grassroots’ level! It just shows when passion and investment go hand-in-hand, women’s football can grow exponentially!

My second experience of the game in Spain: football with a sea view

My second experience of playing in Spain came during my time at university. As part of my course, I was required to spend time in Spain working or studying. I was lucky enough to get myself a job in Barcelona, and straight away started researching potential football teams. My main issue was finding teams that were easily accessible by local transport, and trained at reasonable times. Before even arriving in the city, I had narrowed it down to two teams: CE Vila Olimpica and Jupiter CE. They both had well established women’s teams with great facilities, and when I contacted the club, both coaches were keen to have me down for a ‘trial’. I was a bit nervous, but scheduled in the two teams, trialling at Jupiter on Monday and Thursday and with Vila on Wednesday and Friday. It was definitely a full on week!

Like I said in my first article I wrote for Talking WoSo, you get a good feeling about a club when you meet the girls and coaches and sometimes things do sometimes just fall into place. Unfortunately, turning up on the Monday at Jupiter, it was not meant to be. After a pretty hectic metro ride to the training ground, I was met by a couple of the girls from the club. They seemed nice enough, but were only speaking in Catalan so I couldn’t really keep up with what was going on. When we got to the club, we headed into the changing room to drop our stuff off and put on our boots. There was a big turnout to training, like the club I played for in Monóvar, with around 25 or 30 girls getting kitted up. The training session kicked off with a gruelling fitness workshop led by the assistant coach; three laps of the field to warm up, then sprints and some weight excercises. When it got onto the football, I was already feeling the burn! The football drills were more familiar territory, and I was happy with how I got through them all, despite the coach switching from Spanish to Catalan, confusing me a lot!

Now, you might now be thinking, ‘she got through it all, why wasn’t it the team for her?’ Good question! I think that what put me off was the fact that I knew a lot of these girls had been on the fringe of the squad for a long time without ever breaking into the match-day team. Despite enjoying the training, I knew that I would only be in Spain for half the year, and I wanted as much time on the pitch as possible! Maybe if I’d had more time to break into the match-day squad and to learn Catalan, I would have gone for it, but at this point in time, it wasn’t the team for me.

Fast forward a couple of days to Vila’s training session and it was a different story. First of all, the girls from the team had invited me to grab some pre-training food to get to know me, which I thought was a really good sign. All of the team made a massive effort to welcome me, and were patient when I needed longer to construct my answers in Spanish. During the pre-training food, I found out that I would be one of the youngest players, which was a bit of a shock to me. I was 20/21 at the time, and in the UK, there had always been 16 or 17 year olds coming into the ranks of the teams I’d played for. It’s always good to have experience on the pitch, and I was looking forward to seeing what these older players could do.

When we got to the ground (which was right on the beachfront) we all kitted up and headed onto the pitch. Training was less intense, but still challenging enough to be useful, and I enjoyed the atmosphere a lot more. I remember them being excited when we split into positions and I said I was a striker… Apparently, they hadn’t had one in a while! I ended the session feeling tired but optimistic and headed back home on the metro.

Vila’s home ground

After making my mind up about which team I wanted to sign for came the enivitable paperwork stage. I remember being sent through a pack of forms (which were all in Catalan) to fill out and send back. One was an international clearance form, which meant that I would have to de-register with the English FA and become a sanctioned player with the RFEF, which is the Spanish equivalent. Despite the forms being simple, the process took around a month to be completed. Luckily, it was still pre-season, so I didn’t miss any matches because of it! Interestingly, in Spain, every player also has to undergo a medical examination before they are allowed to be registered. For this, I traipsed half way across the city to a ‘sports clinic’ to have my blood pressure and measurements taken, as well as an ECG. Although I did it begrudgingly at the time, looking back, I think it’s a really good idea to implement. It has probably saved a few lives over the course of it’s existence!

I played for Vila for just over 7 months, with plenty of ups and downs along the way. I played in some great grounds, scored a lot of goals (four in my final game alone!) and came along a lot as a player. Thinking more about speaking Spanish on the pitch stopped me from worrying about my actual gameplay as much, which in turn made me a more effective player and playing in the heat was a great way to get fit before winter. The Spanish football obsession also meant that I was never without someone to watch the game with.

My honest takeaways: the good, the bad and the ugly

The good

There were a hell of a lot of pros to playing in Spain! One was that the facilities were fantastic; In 7 months (including winter ones) we only had one game cancelled and that was due to political protests rather than weather! Due to the heat in Spain, artificial 3G pitches are the norm, forming part of modern complexes with sparkling changing rooms and bars as well. These facilities recieve heavy investment from local communities and the clubs themselves.

The style of play is very technical. Before going to Spain, I had thought of myself as a relatively technical player, but spending those 7 months in Barcelona really amped up a lot of aspects within my game. More training sessions meant more time on the ball each week, and the perfect turf meant that a good touch was both easier but also expected. I did benefit from being a bit more physical than some of the Spanish girls, but at times it would backfire, giving away freekicks for what I would consider a fair shoulder-to-shoulder contest.

Football in Spain is a big social event. Coming from England where the turnout for games in lower leagues used to be pretty abysmal, I was pretty happy when we had crowds (albeit small ones) at our matches on a Saturday night. Because most clubs would have a bar or cafe next to the pitch, families would come along for a drink and to watch the games. Normally the mens or development team would play before us, and they’d also normally hang around to watch us. The crowds were also very animate and passionate, cheering on players and booing the referee (not ideal, but they were invested in our matches!) That kind of atmosphere just added a little something to every goal, every tackle and, of course, every win!

It’s an experience! Not wanting to sound cliché, but I learnt a lot about myself because of playing in Spain. Not just in a footballing sense, but also a personal one. If you have the chance to play abroad, wherever that may be, give it a go! Sometimes it was a struggle, but pushing myself out of my comfort zone did wonders for my confidence, and pushed me to play in the Women’s National League on my return to England. If you are thinking about learning a language, joining a sports team is certainly a good way to go about it too. You all have a common interest, and if you’ve played football before, you’ll find it easy to pick up vocabulary in training and in matches. Of course, you’ll also make some great mates from that country too!

The bad and ugly

Playing on artificial pitches isn’t always as great as it sounds! Okay, so 3G/4G pitches were great in a lot of ways, but one thing that I did struggle with was shin splints. Playing on harder turf three times a week really played havoc with my lower legs, and I was glad to get back on more forgiving grass pitches when I got back to England. The plastic/ rubber burn you end up getting every match is also a pain in the… well, everywhere!

If you don’t speak a word of Spanish, you will struggle. Unless you go abroad with a management agency, you will struggle to get by without speaking a word of Spanish. You’ll probably survive at training when you have other players to follow, but you really need to be able to understand the coaches if you want to make the most of your time there. If you don’t speak the lingo, my advice would be to find a club with other foreign players, or one where the coach speaks English. Alternatively, learn the language! We don’t have to live up to our embarrassing English stereotypes when it comes to speaking other languages!

It can be expensive. Aside from the fact that moving abroad is a massive expense in itself, playing in Spain can be particularly expensive. Joining the club, I had to pay €120 (£100) to sign on- covering kit, international transfer administration and insurance. On top of that, I had to pay €28 (£24) for the medical exam, and then €20 (£17) a month to the club for facilities, physio etc. That adds up to a lot! I was lucky enough to be supported by my university with funding to play, but I would have struggled otherwise. Make sure you know the costs before you sign on somewhere is my advice!

Sexism or machismo is still pretty rife in Spain. Despite the fact that we had a lot of supporters turn up for matches, there were still the enevitable comments about women playing football. I found that people were quicker to make these comments to my face than perhaps they would be in England, and people were generally more surprised that I played football and am straight. It’s massively frustrating that in a country like Spain where football is loved by nearly everyone, that there is still a lot of small-minded people who think that the football pitch is not a place for women.

Would I do it all over again? 100% yes!

Playing abroad is amazing, and if you ever get the chance to do it, grab that opportunity with both hands! If you’re thinking about it, but need some friendly and honest advice or just need a bit of help deciding, feel free to tweet me @LishaPovs and I’d be happy to have a chat!