Precious few at the highest level have led from the front with as much distinction as Anja Mittag. The legendary former Germany striker is, though, happy to play a supporting role at present, as someone who swept the board when it came to the game’s most golden prizes learns her trade all over again.
The playing days of Anja Mittag brought goals and glory in plentiful supply. Football was also the platform for her life being enriched by years spent overseas, though the setting for her current chapter is a whole lot closer to where it all began, with the Chemnitz native a prominent part of RB Leipzig Frauen’s coaching staff.
On the pitch, she made her mark time and time again, and career snapshots like the match-winning touch in the EURO 2013 final were there for all to see. Altogether more exclusive were the cherished, lighter moments away from the field with those around her, including how she often ran the show before the team stepped out into the action.
As various teammates for club and country have noted on here over the years, the ex-FC Rosengård star was pretty prolific for changing-room music, so was that her role with every team she represented?
“Oh, just some of them. I had a hard time in France, in PSG, because they always wanted to have their French music, so it wasn’t easy to take over!
“I think the other teams, it was kind of natural for me, because I didn’t like it when it was quiet in the locker room. I always had to put something on, so then it became natural for me, but everyone could send in their songs, so I wasn’t just playing my own music all the time.
“I was always open for suggestions!”
In the lead-up to EURO 2017, ultimately her last major tournament with Germany, Anja and current Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Sara Däbritz contributed to our ‘Euro mixtape’ (which featured in She Kicks magazine). Anja’s choices were: Tommie Sunshine & Halfway House featuring Michael Bernard Fitzgerald – ‘Not Dead Yet’, Whethan featuring Flux Pavilion & MAX – ‘Savage’, and Steve Void – ‘Never Been Better’.
Four years on from that summer selection, the World Cup, EURO and Olympic tournament winner shares what she is currently championing.
“I like German pop, like electropop. Artists I enjoy are LANY, Hugo Helmig, Fletcher, Clide, Astrid S and Lauv.”
Compared to being responsible for a whole changing room of players’ music before a game, the famously demanding world of coaching almost seems a breeze! It is regarded as the natural next phase for players when they retire, as the closest thing to what they have known for so long.
Even great players, though, do not necessarily find success as a coach, or even enough enjoyment to justify the persistence and sacrifice required. When you cannot lead by your on-field brilliance any longer, all manner of other attributes must come to the fore.
Although clearly physically adept, especially if you recall how well she strode forward with the ball at her feet under opposition pressure at times, it was far more about brain than brawn in Anja’s play. As United States star Lindsey Horan said on here in 2016: “By far my favourite forward I’ve ever played with. She’s such an incredible player and just such an intelligent forward.”
When you have been among teammates from around the world, from different cultures and ways of not only training and playing but living in general, communication and empathy become central. As far as transferable skills to coaching go, there are surely not many quite as important.
Anja recently gained her UEFA A licence, and having signed for RB Leipzig as a player-coach in 2019, she later took on an assistant role as she stepped away from playing.
Was it always the plan for her to stay in the game in such a way once she retired?
“It wasn’t always the plan; it was maybe something I had in my mind when I became a certain age and you have to start thinking about life after your career. I started to do individual sessions when I was playing in Sweden for Rosengård, and I had a lot of fun working with individual players, so I thought it could be an opportunity to develop in Leipzig as well.
“That’s what I basically do right now.”
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It carries even more significance to be making inroads into the next stage of her footballing life back in her native Saxony.
“Oh, it’s really special, especially when you are playing abroad for so many years. Even in Germany, I wasn’t living in my home town.
“It was a special opportunity for me to come home, or at least as close as I can get to my family.”
Now firmly recognised as Champions League regulars in the men’s game, Die Roten Bullen have been bidding to accelerate the progress of their women’s side. Katja Greulich’s team are currently in the 2. Frauen-Bundesliga’s chasing pack, behind leaders SV Meppen, but Anja, who won promotion in her first season with the club, says there is a real drive to create something.
“(The club are) really ambitious. It’s a great infrastructure, we have really good surroundings and possibilities.
“The club is still growing and still a young club, so they are still building new things, something new is always happening. This is really interesting, and it’s a huge advantage for us as a women’s team to use the same facilities (as the men), even playing in the second Bundesliga.
“It’s great to be a part of a club that is building something for the future.”
Behind-the-scenes footage from Sky Deutschland’s Sky Sport recently showed a clip of Sean Paul’s ‘Temperature’ blasting as staff joined the players in the changing room shortly before kick-off in one game. While Anja’s role does not cover resident mixmaster these days, the squad could not really have a better sounding board than somebody who won everything with her country (including the EUROs three times over).
Then there was the success she enjoyed at club level, with seven league titles, plus a pair of Champions League crowns (one in the UEFA Women’s Cup era) at Turbine Potsdam, among her many cup accomplishments. Having initially combined coaching and playing at RB Leipzig, her retirement announcement in 2020 actually proved to be a touch premature.
The one-time Paris Saint-Germain and VfL Wolfsburg attacker put the boots back on last season as injuries impacted the team. Even with her coaching focus, could the champion still yet step back into the ring again at some point?
“No, definitely retired, that’s for sure! Even now, we have some injuries, but before you’re going to play, you have to do a special test or something, so it’s a long process.
“Absolutely there’s no chance, or choice, for me to come back and help out again. I’m not getting younger, so no way.
“Even if sometimes I think ‘ah, it would be nice!’”
It is perhaps only once a player has retired that they stop to properly soak in all that they achieved and were part of. In a sport and industry where there is a constant demand to lock on to the next objective, enjoying what went before typically isn’t on the itinerary.
Although Anja has not exactly been spending her days sitting back in the armchair and reminiscing, she is asked which of her career’s tournament wins had the best celebration party.
“Oh, there were a lot of good, good parties! I would say the (2016 Rio) Olympics, though, because I had the opportunity to celebrate two nights in a row.
“There were also a lot of other athletes from different sports, and if you are at the World Cup or European Championship, of course you celebrate as a team, but after one night, it’s over and everyone goes home. This time, we had two nights, there were different people from different events, and you got to know so many other people.
“We also had a chance to celebrate with the (Germany) men’s football team; they got silver at the same tournament. So, yeah, it was probably the best party!”
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The EURO victory in Sweden three summers previous to that would surely be somewhere close behind. There were notable performances throughout Silvia Neid’s team as they beat Norway 1-0, not least Nadine Angerer, whose double penalty save helped propel her to that year’s World Player of the Year accolade.
Anja’s goal early in the second half proved the winner, and the team’s joy and exuberance made a noticeable impact, with Isabelle Linden from the squad telling on here in 2017 how a piece of the changing-room ceiling came free while players danced on the table. Defender Josephine Henning also later added: “There could be someone who couldn’t control their dance moves!”
It is probably those moments that live longer and more vividly in the mind for players than any goal or match result. It is also not always true that teammates become close friends away from the pitch, but in Anja’s case, she has certainly made a lasting impression on many.
From the compatriots she had international success with at youth and senior level, to the multi-national club colleagues who became extended family. When you have a soundtrack to it all, it is there to easily turn back to, however many years later.
“Of course, absolutely,” says Anja, recalling the importance of music’s overall part in her career and travels. “It could be when you were sitting in the bus for a long time on the way to games, to get motivated, or in between training sessions.
“Sometimes you were in a tournament in China and there was a lot of travelling, so you were sitting on the bus for an hour and listening to music. It helped with good times and also bad times.
“Sometimes you hear a song on the radio and think ‘oh, this was the song we were listening to in the EUROs in 2009 in Finland, or 2013 in Sweden,’ so there are really good memories.”
Aforementioned goalkeeping great Nadine Angerer told this site in 2016 how she chose the Germany team’s music for one game only: “I got kicked out, because I thought that everybody likes ska, but then I found out very quick that I’m the only one!” The job was more typically left in the hands of Anja, Lira Alushi and Célia Šašić in those years, she pointed out.
Being team DJ takes a certain feel for what will hit the spot for others around you, and that is tricky enough. Coming up with a song when there is nothing but your own vocals available, however, is something different entirely!
Anja thinks back to facing the shuddering silence of an initiation, when all eyes (if not camera phones as well nowadays…) are firmly on you, as a new player in the team.
“At PSG, I was singing a Swedish song, because there were Swedish players at the club (Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger). It was a ‘happy birthday’ song in Swedish!”
Whether clever, improvised, close-range efforts, clinical one-on-ones, or lobbed finishes, her back catalogue is packed with predatory goals. A number also came from outside the box, with the element of surprise sometimes serving her well when a goalkeeper was trying to set themselves and prepare.
Along with those at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, she also struck some in the US for Germany, like the superb chip over Hope Solo in October 2012’s 1-1 friendly draw in Bridgeview, Illinois. Given the possibility of seeing any band or artist (from all-time) perform live, she would be looking Stateside once again.
“Wow,” she pauses to think, “LANY, the American band.”
If that question was put to a decidedly younger Anja, the choice would understandably have a slightly different tinge! For a glimpse into what the budding goal machine was vibing to, look no further than the 90s boyband (who had a taste of fame in mainland Europe) she recalls when asked for the first music she ever bought.
“It was Caught in the Act ‘Love is Everywhere’!”
Anyone familiar with the personalities around the globe in women’s football will know that musical ability, be it vocal or instrumental, is vast. Talent is not so much a necessity in this question, but if Anja ever found herself in a studio recording a song, which former teammate(s) would she ask to collaborate with her?
“I would pick Josy Henning, because she’s really good on the piano; she could do a little bit in the background and be a backing singer. I think I would also perform with Tabea Kemme, because I think we have a good connection, so we could make a good performance with a song!”
Five of Anja’s 50 goals for Germany came at the World Cup, though she actually had to wait until 2015 for the first of those, despite having already won the competition itself eight years earlier. Named in both the All-Star Squad and Dream Team for the 2015 tournament, she also made that year’s FIFPRO World XI.
Missing the 2011 World Cup ranks as her hardest career experience, while the 2016 Olympic gold run in Brazil was her favourite. While she ultimately got to play in much more progressive times, plenty of her career coincided with women’s football in its considerably less rewarding era.
That someone who sits second on the all-time list of Champions League scorers once had to have an office job alongside playing international football says it all. That, of course, remains the reality for so many below the elite level of the game today.
Respect counts for a lot regardless, but even more so for players sacrificing so much of their social and family life, often to be thousands of miles from home and living well outside the lap of luxury, all just to continue playing football. That aspect comes strongly into Anja’s thinking as she considers where and when she was happiest as a player.
“I think Sweden was a really special time for me, in my personal development and in my development as a player as well, where I was really happy. Also, the way of playing and the way they treat people and players; more as human.
“So, this was something I really appreciated, and I also take certain things from this time into my job now.”
Thank you @FCRosengard for everything. We’ve had both highs and lows but now it’s time to say goodbye.
Thanks to all teammates, coaches and everyone involved with the club over the years, it’s been a joy to work with you.Thank you for every experience you have given me Sweden 🇸🇪 pic.twitter.com/Bpwk7gkKV7
— Anja Mittag (@mittag31) May 13, 2019
There have been prominent former Germany internationals who have gone on to lead teams after playing, including Silvia Neid, Maren Meinert, Inka Grings and current national team boss Martina Voss-Tecklenburg. The women’s game in Germany, though, still noticeably lacks significant female leadership from the dugout at club level.
For purely her own reasons, does Anja see herself pushing to become a head coach in the future?
“I don’t know yet. Right now, I’m happy where I am.
“I’m like the second assistant, and I’m responsible for the individual sessions, and this is what I like right now. I love to get to know everything behind the team and to get experience from the coaches I have, and I learn and learn and learn.
“Right now, (on becoming a head coach) I don’t think so, but I don’t know what will happen after some years. I just want to get to know all about the job and how to work behind the team.
“It’s really fun to see and really interesting as well to be on the other side.”
As the game continues to evolve, it is crucial to carry on celebrating those who went before and helped provide the platform from which it has sprung so fantastically. Anja’s own legacy is undeniably sealed, and whatever she achieves in coaching will simply enhance it.
Alongside ex-teammate Josephine Henning, she has been producing the podcast Mittag’s bei Henning. In the rare opportunities to lose herself in other interests, what else does she currently enjoy?
“Yeah, I’m still doing the podcast with Josy, that’s something I like to do. Otherwise, it’s not that much spare time in this job!
“I like to read, and listen to music of course, or just relax with a coffee, with some friends, or just seeing my family. I like to play darts actually!”
From the oche, we close with Anja back in her more traditional habitat, as she is asked the regular final question of which teammates from her career she would love to play alongside again, in a small-sided team. There is no emphasis on the interviewee naming the best they ever played with, but instead just some examples, from the many they could select.
“This is a game where you need good technical players, I guess! So, I would say Ramona Bachmann.
“Lira Alushi, Nadine Keßler. I would also pick Caroline Seger, and I never played with her, but I wish I played with her – Karen Carney.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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