Gaëlle Thalmann: "Pressure? High expectations are a compliment"
The women's national team begins qualification for the 2017 European Championship at the end of October. We talk to the top Swiss keeper on the lessons from the World Cup, the challenges she's faced, and life between the posts.
Micheal Krobath: Gaëlle Thalmann, what term to do you prefer: goalkeeper, female keeper, or just goalie?
Gaëlle Thalmann: Female keeper somehow sounds too feminist to me. I prefer goalkeeper or just goalie, at least in Switzerland.
The author Pedro Lenz theorized that Switzerland has so many good goalies because the position matches the national character: He says it is a special role with the least margin for error. Do you agree?
There's something in that. We Swiss don't like to attract attention to ourselves, so we do our best to avoid mistakes and extremes. For that, you need a tendency for perfectionism, which also applies to us goalies. We have to be perfectionists because a single mistake can have serious consequences.
Legendary German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer once said, "For me, every goal scored by the other team is a personal defeat." Do you feel the same way?
It bothers me if I concede a goal because goals always mean mistakes. But I never take it personally. I push it aside during the game and continue as if nothing has happened. Getting upset means that you are dwelling on something that you can no longer do anything about, rather than focusing on the things you can influence. And that increases the chances of another goal getting through.
You're not actually built like a goalie. At 1.70 meters and 62 kilos, you are much too short and light for the job.
I keep hearing that, but I've always brushed it aside. To make up for those missing centimeters, I put a great deal of work into those variables I can control: understanding the game, speed, and jumping.
How does it feel when a cross comes into the penalty box, spinning through the air toward a rushing 1.85 meter-tall forward?
I love situations like that because you know that everything has to be just right in those moments. The taller the player, the more important the timing.
At such times, do you sometimes regret not pursuing a career in tennis? After all, you were ranked 63rd in Switzerland at age 16.
I only regret it when I look at my bank statement (laughs). I am very satisfied with the decision I made. Team sports suit me better, and besides, I probably wouldn't have gotten so far in tennis as I have on the pitch.
The Swiss national team is getting better and better, conceding only a single goal in qualifying for the last Word Cup. That must be terribly boring for you.
No, because the goalie does a lot of things that aren't obvious to spectators. I direct my forwards, and I'm always watching the ball and our opponents so that I'm involved the whole time. And it's not as if the ball never crosses over into our half of the field. We don't dominate that completely yet. That's why we need to be well-organized, which is something I can help with.
When there's so little going on at the back, do you ever feel the urge to charge forward and try and score a goal yourself?
That would be nice, but it's not my job. But, of course, in matches like the one against Malta, when we won 11-0 and I only really held the ball in my hands once throughout the game, I stand much further forward than normal.
Be honest: As a goalie, you don't even break a sweat.
I sweat and lose weight during a game too, although less than most of the other players. Either way, I'm always exhausted after a match. I'm totally focused over the rush of ninety minutes. That takes a lot of mental energy, as well.
Let's look back for a moment at the World Cup. Despite reaching the last sixteen, it was ultimately pretty disappointing, with three defeats in four matches. Were you over-excited? Too naive?
Nonsense. It's a good sign that we hold ourselves to high standards and that we want not only to be successful but also play well. I also wouldn't call it being naive, more like a lack of experience. It was our debut on the big stage and we learned from it.
What did you learn?
That we still have a long way to go, athletically speaking. That's something that each of us will need to work on. And we definitely need to be more dangerous in front of the goal.
That sounds simple, but how do you do it?
By not allowing ourselves to be satisfied if the ball doesn't go in, even during practice. By putting more players into the opponents' penalty area. By improving the quality of our crosses and final passes. We also need to take more long shots, as we have some good strikers on the team.
What was the most unforgettable moment of the World Cup?
There were many: the fans' enthusiasm, or playing against Canada in the last sixteen in front of 53,000 people. The most emotional moment was our final practice before the first game. As I was sitting in the changing room, all the pressure that had built up over months of rehab fell away. I was overwhelmed that I had made it to the World Cup, and I burst into tears.
You were back in goal seven months after tearing your ACL. You faced some medical risks but also went through agonizing pain for hours each day.
I had great help the entire time from doctors and physical therapists, and I passed numerous medical tests before the World Cup. If they had not been satisfactory, I very likely would not have gone. I didn't have a social life as I was rehabbing. But the sacrifices were worth it. This World Cup was a huge opportunity in my career, and I believe I would have paid any price to be there.
The qualifiers for the 2017 European Championship begin soon, and Switzerland might be the group favorite for the first time ever. Do you feel more pressure because of that?
Why? It's a compliment. It means that we have performed well and the bar has been raised. Following the World Cup, our aim is to go to the European Championship too. But the group favorite is Italy, which is just ahead of us in the world rankings.
You have dual Swiss/Italian citizenship, and you played for the Sardinian club Torres for two years. Were you also approached about playing for the Italian national team?
No. I don't think I was even on their radar until I played in Italy, if even then, and by that point I was already in goal for Switzerland.
Do the Italian women play like the men: technical, tactically smart, tough?
Absolutely. The Italians usually play a physical, defensive game. Our attackers will have to stay cool and not be provoked. And they're up to that challenge.
Do they also try to get under your skin as goalie?
Sure. During corner kicks, for example: They'll do some trash talking, tug on your jersey, or hold your arm.
Do you sometime get angry at your own teammates, for example if the defense lets you down and leaves you one-on-one against a striker?
Of course I get angry in those situations, but I never blame anyone personally on the pitch. In the end, everyone makes mistakes, and no one does it on purpose. I'm lucky, however, in that my teammates do a great job supporting me.
National team coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg had this to say about you: "She says what she thinks, I value that." Does that mean that you're not exactly easy to get along with?
Maybe before, but now I've matured. If I say something, it's because I think it will help the team. That's one of the jobs of a leader, and it's what the coach demands. For me it's always about the task at hand, the team, and our collective success. And I also have positive things to say, too. That's good for all the players.
There's not a lot of money in women's soccer. Does that worry you?
There have been some difficult moments. For example, when my former Italian club stopped paying my salary – which they still have yet to pay, by the way. Or when I tore my ACL last season. Insurance only covered part of my salary, so money was tight. But I'm fortunate that I can count on my family in difficult situations.
While almost all the national team players are moving to foreign leagues, you did the opposite and signed with FC Basel this summer. Is that a step backwards?
I don't see it that way. Sure, the Swiss league is more of a training league, and the level is different from that in, say, Germany or Italy. But I have an excellent infrastructure here for focusing on improving my weaknesses. At the same time, I can also work on my career after my playing days are over, which is a good thing. I recently started a continuing education program on sports rehabilitation and training therapy.
Is playing in the European Championship your last big career goal?
I don't think that far ahead, I prefer to take things year by year. I've already had a lot of injuries and you never know how your body will respond. Making it to the European Championship finals would be huge, of course. And the Olympic Games are before that. We're up against Sweden, Norway, and Holland in the play-offs in March. It will be hard, but not impossible.