With an incredible personal story so often covered in recent times, many could be forgiven for thinking they have heard all there is to know about Sky Blue FC striker Nadia Nadim, but through a separate love of hers away from soccer, the Denmark international uncovers alternative narratives and more of the effervescence that fans and peers have come to love.
It is so often the case in sport that an athlete can spend years toiling away at perfecting their craft while exposure and recognition seems so far off in the distance. Breakthroughs come in all sorts of guises and it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint one specific moment that elevated an individual to a new level in this sense.
In the case of Nadia Nadim, certain people had been aware of her sparkling ability for some time, particularly in her adopted nation of Denmark. The Afghanistan native became much more widely known in women’s soccer circles after her loan switch from Fortuna Hjørring to Sky Blue FC in the latter part of the 2014 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), as she found an outstanding run of form in front of goal.
The past year has seen numerous publications document the journey of Nadia and her family, and the details are both harrowing and ultimately inspirational. She has had to frequently recount her story and while she has admirably never shied away from sharing it when asked, such repetition can be quite jading for a person.
That information is out there for anyone who is not familiar to read into, but as one of the brightest characters in the women’s game, there is so much more to delve into with Nadia, including her love of music. Those who have watched her out on the field will have seen just how much she encapsulates the freedom of soccer and the energy of her personality is infectious.
Songs and rhythms fit perfectly with Nadia’s desire for expression and even her headphones are colourful. The music we enjoy is like the personal soundtrack to our life, and for Nadia it reminds her of a time when playing professionally was something she could only close her eyes and wish for, as she recalls.
“Obviously there’s some songs that mean a lot. One of them is ‘Summer of ‘69’ (Bryan Adams), one of them is by Scooter – the huge German band who make like techno music – and then Gavin DeGraw ‘I Don’t Want to Be’.
“The first two are important because, my coach, he was like eight years older than us and he used to always pick us up in this sick car and we kind of looked up to him. He always used to play these songs and we were like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’
“I always dreamt I’d have my own car and be able to do the same stuff he used to do. The third song (Gavin DeGraw), that’s just a sick song.”
That coach was Brian Sørensen, who first saw Nadia play at an Under-15 regional tournament in Copenhagen, where she made the All-Star Team. Now 27, Nadia had arrived in Denmark with her mother and four sisters in 2000, first learning Danish at the refugee camp.
With GUG Boldklub next to the camp, the three eldest Nadim sisters began by watching its teams train and voluntarily retrieving the balls for them. Moving to Rebild, Nadia, Giti and Diana travelled around to play for teams and Brian Sørensen could see rare skills in the three of them, coaching Nadia for a number of years at youth level and subsequently as an adult at IK Skovbakken in Aarhus.
A mentor off the field as well as a coach, Nadia would go on to link up with him again at Fortuna Hjørring, the club where she won the top-level Elitedivisionen league title last year under his guidance. Two of those who played alongside Nadia in that victorious 2014 campaign were American duo Taryn Hemmings and Melissa Henderson, both of whom were profiled in their own music/soccer interviews on here shortly after their loan moves to Denmark.
Washington Spirit’s Tiffany Weimer (who was the first to tell Nadia’s story in depth, in Our Game Magazine in 2013) spoke in detail on here back in December 2012 while she was a Fortuna Hjørring player and shared some of her experiences with music in the locker room at the club. Nadia explains a little of the routine she has come across while playing in Denmark, for club and country.
“I would say in Fortuna I’ve been the DJ a couple of times but you could put your music to the speakers, so no one was in charge. There was just someone who was in charge of getting the speakers.
“On the national team we had a couple, but most of the DJs always play the same music. We started having it so you would choose two songs, so I always waited for it to come to my songs!”
However she goes about it, Nadia is always likely to make the atmosphere around her that bit brighter and the Sky Blue team is far from lacking in characters. One of those to settle into the pro game this year is defender Kristin Grubka, who was a National Championship winner in college, back home with Florida State in 2014.
An undeniable presence on the field, the Sky Blue number 13 also makes her mark with the team playlist, with a little spontaneous input from Nadia and the others.
“Here, I think it’s Grubs on our team who’s DJ. She’s decent because you can always say, ‘Grubs, change that!’ and she does.”
Coming to play professionally in the U.S. for the first time, Nadia agreed a loan deal with Sky Blue from Fortuna Hjørring last July and in just six games she struck seven goals and provided three assists for her teammates. That outstanding burst was almost the catalyst for an unlikely appearance by Sky Blue in the playoffs (they finished a point off the top four) and she was named August Player of the Month for the league.
After a hat-trick away to Houston Dash, Nadia netted twice more in the 3-2 victory at Western New York Flash, grabbing the late winner after assisting on a Kelley O’Hara goal. Never one to casually jog back to her team’s half after scoring, the joy is always clear to see any time Nadia celebrates and when it comes to her music she looks to the kind of tracks with a vibe to fuel her.
“I don’t really feel I have one genre of music. I listen to all kinds of music but mostly it’s music that makes me happy and that’s something that has rhythm and makes me want to dance.”
A speaker of English, Danish, German, Persian and Urdu, as well as some French, Nadia has over 50 caps for Denmark, although her path to representing the national team was far from seamless. She initially encountered struggles in trying to gain the necessary eligibility, having been born and raised in another nation, before being granted citizenship in 2008.
The first foreign player to represent a Danish national team, she made an impact away from her playing career while in Aarhus as she and a friend set up a football school programme to help kids have a positive avenue to pursue. Buying the players their equipment, they expanded to multiple teams as interest and sponsorship grew and even went on to take part in overseas tournaments.
Denmark was where Nadia’s relationship with the sport blossomed into something incredible that she now gets to enjoy and challenge herself within at the top level. It was a love she discovered from very early in her life in Afghanistan, although back then it was in the private space of her garden with females not even allowed to go to school or out in public without a male, let alone kick a ball around.
One of the distinguishing features of Nadia on the field is the multi-coloured headband she wears and her collection of songs and albums is also characterised by variety, with music from her birthplace included in the mix.
“To be honest, if you see my iPhone / iTunes, it’s like music from Bollywood, classical, Mozart, to Arabic, Afghan and then Chris Brown, Rihanna, that kind of music. It’s so varied and it’s always music with a beat in it.”
Nadia’s mother Hamida was a school principal in Afghanistan and always wanted her daughters to be able to pursue their ambitions. Currently studying at Aarhus University to be a doctor, Nadia is approaching the final year of her (six-year) degree and has ambitions of becoming a plastic surgeon so she can help people in genuine need, such as those who have suffered disfigurements through accidents.
Delaying her studies to return to the NWSL this season, Nadia has never forgotten the ones who helped her and her family in the past and now she wants to make a positive and tangible difference to people’s lives. Her coach at Sky Blue, Jim Gabarra, is just one of those who recognises what a unique talent and person she is, although Nadia admits that serenading people probably doesn’t rank too highly on her list of skills!
Asked whether she has had to sing in front of her teammates for initiation at any point in her career, she revealed how those around her regularly get an offering of her vocal range, even breaking into a brief rendition of The Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ as part of her answer.
“Funny you ask me that, because I sing all the time. I don’t have a good voice and a lot of people say, ‘We wish you had a better voice!’, but I just sing because it makes me happy.
“It’s all kinds of songs, like legit, whatever I hear on the radio and sticks in my mind I sing it all the time and sometimes I don’t even know the lyrics.”
Into the fifth month of the 2015 NWSL season, teams have now been able to reintroduce the players they temporarily lost to international duty at the World Cup in Canada and Sky Blue have two who won the tournament with the U.S. in defender/captain Christie Rampone and the versatile Kelley O’Hara. In addition to lightning-quick Australian duo Caitlin Foord and Samantha Kerr, the team was also represented on the global stage by Canadian forward Jonelle Filigno and Mexico’s Mónica Ocampo.
One of Filigno’s compatriots was a standout performer for Sky Blue in the 2013 and 2014 NWSL campaigns but the popular midfielder is not part of the league this year. The player in question has recently signed for UEFA Champions League winners 1. FFC Frankfurt in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga and Nadia thinks back to the surprisingly mellow pre-game sounds the 27-year-old used to lock into when they played together!
“Last year, I heard Sophie Schmidt’s music before games because I was interested in what she was listening to. It was not something I would listen to before a game; rather something I would listen to before I go to bed!
“But you know, different styles, different tastes!”
The U.S. is of course Nadia’s current home and it was against the Americans that she made her Denmark debut in the Algarve Cup in Portugal six years ago. That year, she also appeared in the European Championship, coming on in the narrow loss to hosts Finland, before starting the win over Ukraine and also the defeat to the Netherlands that ended the Danes’ tournament at the group stage.
Two years ago, Nadia had the big tournament experience to savour once again, with Kenneth Heiner-Møller’s side going all the way to the semi-final of Euro 2013. She featured throughout their run, competing against Sweden, Italy and Finland in the group before putting away her spot kick in the elimination of France on penalties in the last eight.
Nadia confidently dispatched her penalty in the semi with Norway but on this occasion Denmark were not to be victorious in the shootout. The side were absent from the World Cup this year after finishing 3rd in their qualifying group, although Nadia, who has ten international goals, will be one of those at the forefront as they bid to spark a resurgence.
Every squad has its different characters and Nadia describes how there is a little contrast between the vibe she has experienced with Denmark and the one she is part of at present in the States.
“In the locker room, we have a couple of players who sing and dance but on the field most people are really serious. I’m one of those who tries to loosen up; I’m concentrating but you can still show you’re having fun.
“Here it’s kind of different; people are more loose and I like that.”
Sacrifice is nothing new in professional sport and that sentiment is particularly true with women’s soccer of course. In the NWSL, the entertainment on the field continues to be there, while the attendances are up off the back of the U.S. bringing home the World Cup in July.
Many of the league’s players have had to put a great deal of their life aside in order to be able to maintain their playing career and a number have made the decision to step away in recent times. As mentioned, Nadia is putting her medical studies on hold to be with Sky Blue this season and her midfield teammate Katy Freels is a similar example, as she is putting off law school to be able to play.
Not everyone stays in soccer once their playing days reach a conclusion and Nadia is already taking huge steps to ensuring she has another field to step into after we have seen that beaming celebration for the final time. In the meantime she is trying to enjoy the ride and has made it clear that she wants to play at every possible opportunity.
She has three goals and an assist so far this season and her creative side extends to making her own headbands, but what if she made her own song and, even better, had her choice of career teammates to join her on it?
“Oh, that’s a tough one. I think it needs to be someone who is a bad singer so I can be a better one!
“Right now, I would probably choose the people who are in my house: Lindsi (Cutshall), Katy (Freels), maybe Meg (Morris) too. I know them so well and we sometimes jam in the car, so that would be a good CD.”
Wins have yet to flow freely for Sky Blue so far in 2015 but there is just a feeling from their play of late that fortunes are picking up again. Australia forward Samantha Kerr has brought another exciting element to the attack after joining up with the squad following her World Cup participation and her link-up with Nadia holds great promise.
Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara have returned in great spirits from their victorious tournament with the U.S. and the latter, who netted against Germany in the semi-final, has been in fine form in front of goal since coming back to New Jersey. There is also the foundation provided by the group who have been there throughout the season up to now, including the ever-creative Katy Freels, to name just one.
Sky Blue’s recent 3-1 win over the Boston Breakers lifted them off the bottom of the table and Nadia enjoyed perhaps her most impressive display of the season, coming agonisingly close as she crashed an effort off the crossbar. The team ethic appears strong and as she also makes reference to life away from playing, Nadia believes both existing and prospective supporters have a group they can be proud of.
“I mean, I love New Jersey and the people around here. I love that I’m close to the water and the beach.
“People should come support us because we represent New Jersey, we’re a good team and we have two world champions on our team. Come support us, have a good time and see some fun soccer.”
Of Nadia’s four sisters, Giti is also studying medicine, Diana is a notable boxer and is studying to be a pilot, Muskan is at nursing school, and Mujda, who is the youngest at 17, may also pursue a future in medicine. It is beyond any doubt that Nadia has been able to gain a perspective on issues far beyond soccer in her life up to now, although that is certainly not to say that the beautiful game hasn’t dealt her its share of lessons.
“It has taught me that in soccer, things change so easily and so fast. In one of the last games (at Western New York) we were behind 3-1 but we came and made it 3-3, so that’s something it’s taught me in life: that you have to keep believing in yourself and keep trying.
“Even though you are in a dark spot, you cannot give up, it’s going to come. You just have to believe that it’s going to come and stay positive.
“I know that it’s hard to do that, trust me, I know how it feels to just be hitting the wall all the time, but eventually you’re going to get through.”
When people watch Nadia play they are seeing a wonderful continuing story in motion and she is one who most definitely does not take her position for granted. The athletic side speaks for itself but the understanding and the technical edge to her game is up there with the best of them, boosted in no small part early on in her development as she and her sisters played against older and stronger players at the time.
Sky Blue and NWSL followers have the chance to see her and her teammates in action for the remainder of this season so let’s step into fantasy mode for something exclusive. In the last few years, players from around the world have concluded their interviews on the site by imagining themselves in a 5-a-side team and selecting four of those they have played alongside, from any time in their career, to make up the remaining places.
It is down to the interviewee to decide whether they select their team members based on ability alone, an understanding they share with the player, or whatever other reasons they may have. When Melissa Henderson was on here in September 2014, she was a current teammate of Nadia’s at Fortuna Hjørring and was so impressed by her talent that she put her into her career line-up, but would the Houston Dash forward make Team Nadim?
“I love Melissa Henderson, she’s awesome! Goalkeeper: I would take Bri (Brittany Cameron) – she’s an awesome goalkeeper.
“(Defender) Lindsi (Cutshall), and (midfielder) Katy Freels behind me because she’s going to feed me with all the passes in, and then obviously me and Melissa Henderson at the top!”
To keep up-to-date with each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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Sky Blue fans (and anyone else!) can find Caitlin Foord and Samantha Kerr’s music/soccer interviews, as well as one from former keeper Jill Loyden here