Saturday 15 October 2016, 09:01

Germany's Mittag fulfilling a childhood dream

Once upon a time, there was a young girl from a land of poets and philosophers who dreamed of becoming a football star and winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games…

While it is easy to imagine Anja Mittag taking the leading role in a fairytale like this one, the German international’s story is anything but fictional. On 19 August of this year, the striker born in Karl-Marx-Stadt had a gold medal placed around her neck after helping her team beat Sweden 2-1 in the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament final. Almost two months later, she still cannot quite believe it happened.

“It was – and still is – difficult to comprehend,” Mittag said when attempting to explain her feelings in an exclusive interview with “When the final whistle blew I thought to myself, ‘You’ve just won a gold medal for your country and fulfilled a childhood dream.’ It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, so to hold that medal in your hands is just unbelievable.”

The striker began her rise to the top in the youth teams at VfB Chemnitz, Chemnitzer FC and FC Erzgebirge Aue. Despite winning the league and cup double with Turbine Potsdam at the first opportunity after moving there in 2002, it was an international youth tournament that provided the best indicator of what was to come in Mittag’s career.

“For me, it all started when we won the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship 2004 in Thailand,” she explained. “It was certainly a milestone and a good tournament for me personally. It was that moment when you realise: ‘That was a good competition; something’s happening here. You might make it if you have the talent and a little bit of luck needed to make it all the way to the top.’ After that I was called up to the senior national team and played in my first tournament with them straight away.”

Unique challengeTwo years earlier, the 5'5 (1.68m) forward was included in Germany’s squad for what was then called the FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship 2002 in Canada, ultimately helping the team to finish third. Mittag is convinced that these junior tournaments have a considerable impact on the development of young players and is quick to stress their importance. “They’re absolutely vital, particularly as they give you the opportunity to compete against players of the same age from different countries,” she said. “It’s a different experience entirely. You can find plenty of competition in Germany, but stepping up against other nations is a unique challenge. I think it’s great that so many girls get that chance, and I’m grateful that I was able to take part.”

They’re absolutely vital, particularly as they give you the opportunity to compete against players of the same age from different countries.

Mittag finds it tougher to determine whether participating in these tournaments later helped her to find her place in the senior national side. “Playing against other international teams furthers your development and gives you the opportunity to see what you lack compared to other top players in your age group,” she explained. “As for whether that has helped me get where I am today, I’m sure it has contributed in some way.”

The 31-year-old’s memories of those competitions in Canada and Thailand are as vivid as ever. “Certainly 2004, when we won,” she said. “When you look at the players we had, like Annike Krahn, Melanie Behringer, Simone Laudehr and Lena Goessling, and the fact that I’ve now won the Olympic title with them, you realise that we’ve made this journey together. After celebrating that title all those years ago, 12 years later we won the gold medal together. It’s still so unreal, so crazy somehow.”

Rejuvenation in Sweden The German international, capped 146 times for her country despite struggling with dips in form that meant she was left out of the squad for her home Women’s World Cup in 2011, believes there is a reason for her team’s triumph at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament 2016 in Rio. “I definitely have my move to Sweden  to thank for the fact that we won the gold medal in the end,” she explained. “It definitely made a big difference after I missed the World Cup in 2011. The move gave me a real boost and made me hopeful about the future, so it was definitely a significant moment in my career. I felt appreciated again, so it was the right step in any case.”

The eighth edition of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Papua New Guinea in less than a month, and Mittag – who is now back on the hunt for goals at Wolfsburg – will be following every moment, if only on television. “Obviously I’ll watch it when I can and when I don’t have training,” she said. “I know first-hand what it’s like. It’s great to watch such young players and see what Germany’s future looks like; it really is interesting.”

The girl whose dream came true has one or two pieces of advice to share with those youngsters. “The most important thing of all is to enjoy your football; that has to be the priority,” she advised. “Don’t lose that sense of joy, work hard, accept criticism and strive to improve your game. At the same time, you shouldn’t lose the ability to enjoy life or find the right balance by focusing on yourself all the time.”