Ana-Maria Crnogorčević interview: ‘Like a true nature’s child’ – Action Ana, Barça’s Swiss rock ‘n’ rolla
Over a four-country club career, Ana-Maria Crnogorčević has seen varying ways to cast constraints aside. For Switzerland’s all-time leading scorer, though, the freedom at FC Barcelona Femení has brought footballing rushes of the ‘open road, wind at her back’ feeling she will be reunited with one day.
“I have to wait a little bit until I’m retired so I can get back on my motorbike,” she explains. “I have a licence since 2011 for motorbikes, but now I’m in Barcelona, it’s in our contract we’re not allowed to.”
“It’s something I really enjoy, because you can do it by yourself, you’re free of everything, you don’t think really about stuff; it’s just you, the bike, the road. It’s so refreshing, especially when you live in Switzerland and you have all the mountains.”
Perhaps that is one more strand to why the hugely versatile, Champions League-winning former 1.FFC Frankfurt and Portland Thorns player has been in her element since joining FC Barcelona Femení ahead of 2020.
“You know what was so nice when I came here? You always go somewhere where ‘those are the rules, you have to play like this’, but I came here and it was like ‘the only rule we have: just take care of the ball.’
“It was actually Alexia Putellas who told me that; ‘you can do whatever you want, just take care of the ball.’ That’s just so powerful and so refreshing.
“Other places, it’s like ‘oh, you’re not allowed to go forward, you’re not allowed to go inside,’ where it’s driven by, I don’t know if I’d say fear, but it was always just having anxiety of what might happen. Obviously, it has to make sense, you have to take care of your teammates, but it was just so nice to get such an answer.
“I was like ‘okay, I’m actually at the right spot here!’”
Currently, no man or woman can match the 59 goals (in 119 games) Ana has for her country. Since joining 2018/19 UEFA Women’s Champions League runners-up Barça, the 29-year-old has taken up a right-back role, but the attacking impetus of Lluís Cortés’ team is such that she often finds herself becoming a winger.
Adaptable has long been the way for the Steffisburg native, who was a winger and forward in the 2015 World Cup, but the number nine playing full-back in Euro 2017. Popular with current and former teammates from around the world, away from the pitch, she craves activity.
Wakesurfing on the lake back home was one exhilarating saving grace during the enforced shutdown of football (and much more besides) earlier this year. Also playing no insignificant part in cultivating the freedom vibe she loves is music.
When a barbecue night during Barcelona’s recent training camp in La Vall d’en Bas led to karaoke, she happily obliged – more than once. Along with her version of Lizzo ‘Truth Hurts’, the night spawned a Backstreet Boys ‘I Want It That Way’ collaboration with fellow international stars Lieke Martens and Caroline Graham Hansen.
For playlists, Ana has been identified on here in the past by teammates for helping set it off right when it comes to the matchday mood, but what about her more personal palette?
“I really like a lot of artists, even in different languages. I have some months or weeks where I’m really into Spanish music; I like J Balvin and his new album ‘Colores’.
“Since I’m playing in Spain, I listen even more to Spanish music, because it’s always in the locker room and the girls here listen to it all the time. Either it’s (Sandra) Paños or it’s Mapi (León) (who plays it); they also sometimes put some English music on.
View this post on Instagram
“There’s always singing and dancing around, so it’s always putting you in a good mood. I’m also really into 80s and I’m really into old hip-hop.
“I have different playlists on my Spotify; I have a rock and roll list with Queen, AC/DC, Alice Cooper. Sometimes I’m in a phase, and I’m listening to rock music all the time, and then I listen to others like Fleetwood Mac.
“Pink is definitely one of my favourites; I’ve been five or six times already to her concert.”
She believes a Bravo Hits compilation CD was the first she ever bought, but being born in October 1990, that meant growing up in the midst of the early-to-mid-2000s r&b dominance. Whether you were in New York, Manchester, or indeed Steffisburg, many of the same artists were reigning supreme, and the subsequent soundtrack carries its own memories for Ana.
“When I grew up, it was Ja Rule, Ashanti, ‘Jenny from the Block’ (Jennifer Lopez), all of that. Method Man, Redman, Missy Elliott, 2Pac.
“That was how I grew up, when I was like 12/13/14; Blu Cantrell, Sean Paul. It was amazing.
“I’m still listening to this music and I love it.”
She did, though, get to briefly cross the border into the recording world herself. Switzerland’s first UEFA Women’s Championship was marked three years ago by La Nati’s tournament song ‘United in Red’, led by defender and sometime vocalist Rachel Rinast.
It was a smoothly-done ‘Hopp Schwiiz’ alternative, fun and catchy, and with the bounce of summertime anticipation that goes hand in hand with major tournaments. Ana recalls the studio scene and her feelings at the time.
“At the beginning, I wasn’t really sure, with us all singing the one part. It was like ‘it can’t be good with 20 girls all singing’, but then when it came out, it was actually pretty good.
“It was fun. Rachel Rinast, Ray, had the most fun, I think, but she’s obviously also the best singer in our team.
“It was a whole new experience and it was very funny, so it was cool.”
Getting to grips with a selection box of languages tends to be the way in Switzerland, but even before Swiss German, French, English, Italian or anything else, there was another for Ana. She describes the prominence that her Croatian heritage had in her upbringing.
“It was big. I was born in Switzerland, I grew up there, but the first language I learned was Croatian, because my parents are both from Croatia.
“We speak Croatian at home, that’s how I grew up. The first words are in Croatian, and then when I was two or three, you go outside of the house, you play with the neighbour kids, and then you learn Swiss German, German in school etc.
“I’m still talking with my parents in Croatian today; obviously, I’m not perfect, there’s still many words I don’t really know. We’re also Catholic, that’s how my parents raised me, and we always went to Croatian church on Sunday; there is one in my home town.”
She tells too how that aforementioned motorcycle interest first seemed to power-cruise its way into her imagination.
“When I was young, I always played with cars; I didn’t have a Barbie. When I was four/five, my mom told me I always had the Hot Wheels.
“I was always playing with the boys in the neighbourhood, playing football, ice hockey, all those things. I was climbing in the trees; I never sat and played with Barbie, because that was just boring to me.
“It was always like ‘I need action’, and (cars/motorbikes) just came. Obviously, The Fast and the Furious, one of my favourite movies.
“I think that’s how it started and everything followed after that.”
Switzerland’s 2-0 EURO qualifying win at home to Croatia last October was understandably extra significant for Ana, but even more so because it was held in Thun’s Stockhorn Arena, just a few miles from her home. Oh, and she scored the opener.
For arena memories from back in Switzerland, she has many, in fact.
“I was at the Lenny Kravitz concert once and he was amazing; it was in Locarno at the Moon & Stars Festival, and it was a really nice one in the old city, the old town. It was Lenny Kravitz one night and then the other night I went to Alicia Keys.
“I love festivals; we always have one in Bern, on the mountain (Gurtenfestival). I was at the Rihanna concert in 2016 in Frankfurt, Pink I mentioned.
“Justin Bieber I saw in Bern, but that was more like there were some tickets left and I went with my friends; it was cool, it was okay, but I don’t think it was live!”
As those who were following EURO 2017 closely may recall, current Switzerland coach Nils Nielsen vowed he would give a guitar performance in the press conference if his Denmark team won the tournament. That one sadly never came to pass, but what if Ana could secure herself an audience spot at a live show from any artist or band from all-time?
“I would go, first of all, ABBA; I would love to have those four on the stage again. Queen, for sure.
“I think those two, I would really love to be at the concert. Maybe AC/DC.”
View this post on Instagram
At one of her former clubs, though, the players well and truly get to be the rock stars. Her two seasons in the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League had the Rose City as her home, with season one at the Portland Thorns yielding five goals and taking her all the way to the Championship game.
There is currently no club-level theatre in the women’s game that can consistently match Providence Park, and the adoring natives were treated to delightful link-ups like Ana and Tobin Heath in the 4-0 win over Utah Royals in July 2018. In the first minute, Heath lifted a pass into Ana. Under pressure with her back to goal, she touched back to the US star, who flighted a first-time finish home from the edge of the box. Ana would later stroke home the third goal.
Her first Thorns strike, though, came away from home, down in Houston, and she would make a habit of scoring against the Dash. Goals aside, that Texas cauldron is something she hasn’t forgotten, as she brings up when reflecting on life in the US.
“Obviously, to play in Portland in front of 20,000 people, that is amazing. The fans are so cool, that was insane, and I wish those amounts of people would be everywhere in the world for women’s football.
“(Playing in the US) was a lot, it was so much stuff. The travelling, the first year of that was actually almost killing me!
“That was so tough, and I’ve never been in Houston before, where you play and it’s 8pm and it’s still so hot, and the humidity is killing you. You go for four days on an away trip and they give you money per diem, so you can go and eat wherever you want; I think that’s a new way to learn to take care of yourself.
“In Germany, it was way more like ‘everyone has to be at breakfast, everyone has to be at lunch, everyone has to be at dinner.’ We always eat together in the hotel, and it’s very strict, where we always have the same shorts on, same shirt, same shoes.
“That’s a very Switzerland/Germany thing, but in America, it was like ‘oh, you can come in flip flops, you can come whenever you want.’ People being with the phone on the table while they’re having lunch, that’s absolutely no go in our national team, like no chance you’re gonna be on the phone while we’re eating; just different cultures.
“It was also a really nice experience, going to all the cities, having the opportunity to see a lot of different places. Portland was really cool, I went for hikes and I really enjoyed it there.”
She had joined after a seven-year spell at Frankfurt that brought DFB-Pokal (German Cup) success and the dramatic Champions League final win over Paris Saint-Germain in Berlin in 2015. Aside from her on-field skills, she recalls announcing her arrival in PDX with a ‘Let Me Love You’ (Mario) initiation song.
What if she was to make a return to the recording studio, though, this time without the relative safety net of the whole Swiss squad? If she covered a song with one or more career teammates, who could expect to get a call?
“This is such a hard question, because I have a feeling that every club I’ve been at, the people you meet, there’s a specific song that reminds you about this time. If I think about Christine Sinclair, that’s for sure Céline Dion we’re gonna do a song from, because she’s a huge Céline Dion fan.
View this post on Instagram
‼️HISTORY‼️ This is just unreal! 185 international goals 🤯🤯🤯 You set that record and you absolutly deserve it! I was lucky to play with her together and see how great of a leader she is, how great of a soccerplayer, how great of teammate she is and most important how great of a human being she is! It was never about her record, her goals or whatever, she just always gave her best to the club&country and to every single one around her! She is a role model in every part of her life, and i recommend to everyone to just look up to her and learn from her as good as you can, there is not gonna be another Sinc! I‘m so proud of you, you are the Best🙌🏻 i tip my hat🎩 #sincorswim #fuckemup
“Then at the same time, with Meghan Klingenberg, I never heard about The Sound of Music, and she knows everything from it; every song, every word! I think I just have some specific moments with people, and that makes me like ‘I wanna do a song with this person, because that kind of connects us.’
“So, I actually can’t just pick one, it’s so hard. I came the first time to America, the first two or three days, we went into a bar with the team, like a team-bonding thing, and there was ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ from Journey.
“Tobin (Heath) was like, ‘oh, that’s the only song you have to know here.’ That’s gonna stick in my head, you know, those special situations like that?
“Then I have German songs from when I was in Frankfurt with my really special group, with (Dzsenifer) Marozsán, Lira Alushi and Simone Laudehr. We’ve always been hanging together and they have all the German songs.”
The evocative hold that music has, as if it keeps poignant and euphoric reminder capsules of people, places and moments on speed dial for you, is both recognised and treasured by Ana.
“Oh, totally. Totally.
“I can’t imagine a world without music; it would be so sad, no emotion, nothing. Growing up, I played violin for four years; I don’t think many people know that!
“I started when I was six, until ten. I just have one sister and she played violin, so I saw her and I wanted to do that, too.
“Even in school, I really liked to be in the school band; I was playing the bass, sometimes some drums. I was always addicted to music.
“We had a really nice partnership in Frankfurt with the English Theatre; we had the same sponsors so they always invited us to go for a night to the musical. I actually met some really cool people; one friend (Claudia Kariuki), she’s from London, she’s a great singer, great musician.
“Music is a big, big part in my life, and since I was little. My parents are from Croatia, so Croatian music, Swiss music.”
If a world without music is unimaginable, winning a league title without an outpouring of joy and celebration, especially for a club who had been five years without it, is perhaps similarly tough to comprehend. This year, however, has so far given us all too much of that, as Barça found when their happiness at being confirmed as Primera Iberdrola champions in May was diluted by finding out via a federation announcement.
All the same, Lluís Cortés’ team were unbeaten when the season was halted, with 19 league wins from 21, as well as lifting the Supercopa in February. With the remainder of the uncompleted 2019/20 Champions League (currently at the quarter-final stage) to be wrapped up later this month in Bilbao and San Sebastián, Ana has a quad injury ahead of the August 21st tie with Atlético Madrid, though she recently extended her contract to June 2021.
Much about her first year with the club has been wildly unexpected, for quite obvious reasons, but she describes what she has found in general life since her move to Catalunya.
“The funniest part living here is when you see someone, you always give two kisses, even if you met someone for the first time. Andrea Pereira, she’s always like ‘hey, Ana, two kisses – beso, beso!’
“I just met her parents and I’m putting my hand out and they’re like ‘oh, no, let’s kiss!’ This was so funny for me in the beginning, it was very new.
“Barcelona’s a great city, I love it. The Gothic Quarter of the city, the Gaudí buildings, being at the beach is really nice, having the sea right in front of you.
“The Catalunyan people are very proud of Barcelona and Catalunya in general, and you can see FC Barcelona is really something special and really like a family.”
With her club ambitions comes the continuing drive for progression with the national team. Switzerland jointly top their EURO qualifying group with Belgium, with both sides winning all four games so far, but having to watch on from the outside when the World Cup arrived last summer was gut-wrenching for every Swiss player.
Having finished runners-up in Scotland’s qualifying group, La Nati entered an extremely competitive play-off scenario, squeezing past Belgium on away goals (3-3 on aggregate) before losing 4-1 over two games with European champions the Netherlands in the final. Two years previous, they had stormed through EURO qualification, racking up eight wins from eight, while Ana was top scorer in the group with seven goals.
Their subsequent Dutch summer of 2017 saw a group defeat to Austria (1-0) and a win over Iceland (2-1), before a situation where Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s side were leading France 1-0 heading towards the final stages of the decisive game in Breda. Ana had come up from right-back to head home a free-kick in the first half, and it was France facing elimination, with Switzerland nudging closer to a clash with England in the last eight.
Camille Abily’s 76th-minute free-kick was to prove the dagger to those hopes, but while being eliminated was painful, Ana recalls a group phase where they never really found their rhythm.
“Going back to the first game, we had such a bad start. We played so bad, as a team, and me as an individual.
“I can remember when I kicked the ball out five times in a row, like just a ten-metre ball, right out, it was horrible! We came to the second game, we beat Iceland 2-1, and then we came to France.
“Obviously a big team, a great team, but you also knew ‘hey, they’re struggling,’ they weren’t having the success they usually have; they were just scoring off a set-piece. It was really tough the way we conceded the goal, but to be fair, we also didn’t do enough.
“If I look back at the game, we had one player more (after Ève Périsset’s early red card) and we didn’t control the game. At the end of the day, you have to have more confidence, you have to play better.
“I can look back with a very open-minded view and I can say we really didn’t do enough to go to the quarters.”
That was current Germany head coach Voss-Tecklenburg’s last tournament leading the Swiss team, with Ana highlighting her as the most impactful coach she has had, with former Frankfurt boss Colin Bell cited as the other main standout.
View this post on Instagram
Professional focus and goals, and the day-to-day routine of life as a competitor all went very firmly on to the backburner earlier this year, as sport and so much of society were shut down due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. With Spain in lockdown, Ana was back home, and though challenging, she was able to find some golden threads to guide her through.
“I was super-lucky to be in Switzerland, where I was able to go outside for a run, go for a walk. I don’t care about the bars being closed, the restaurants being closed; it’s nice to have but it’s not something necessary for you.
“It was nice to be with the family at home, with friends, just knowing you were in a safe environment, where you’ve been your whole life. That was, I think, very important.
“I watched one or two series on Netflix – obviously The Last Dance, Michael Jordan – but I was more just trying to cook some stuff, trying some new recipes – when my mom let me! She doesn’t really like it; she’s always kicking me out of the kitchen.
“I liked to just go as well somewhere by the lake, sitting down at the bench, just enjoying the nature and the view; we have a pretty view from my home town. One of my friends has a boat, so I was most of the time just on the lake, wakesurfing.
“It was just the three of us and it was amazing.”
After the unexpected and extended intermission came the recent return to business. A Champions League title at the end of the month would be a quite spectacular way of easing back into the swing of things, but regardless of how Barça fare in the short-term, the Swiss stormer in their multi-national team is relishing her Blaugranes chapter.
In her final act here, she is asked to take on the regular closing question, which asks the player to picture a 5-a-side game and put forward four examples of teammates from their career that they would especially enjoy featuring alongside. From Ana’s extensive list of current and former colleagues, here is one possible selection that would be guaranteed to rock it.
“I’d have my funny group from Frankfurt, that’s for sure: (Dzsenifer) Marozsán, Lira Alushi, Simone Laudehr. We had so much fun in Frankfurt.
“The fourth person…I would take Lara Dickenmann, because when I was growing up, she was a kind of role model for me; that was the only national-team player that I knew in Switzerland at that time. A good friend of mine, really funny, really cool.
“I think that would be a funny group; we would just have a lot of fun.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
You can also like the Facebook page and stay updated