Tabea Kemme interview: Chill and the chase of a champion – Life on the double A-side for Germany left-back
A third major tournament in as many years with Germany calls this summer for the highly versatile Tabea Kemme, who continues to tread the elite boards of one intensive career while assuredly moving up another, as her police studies near their conclusion. Nevertheless, savouring the freedom and adventure trail is every bit as crucial for the Olympic gold medallist as any of her pursuits in the fast lane.
A sharp and sure stride seems to have always been the way for Tabea Kemme. It has helped make her a reliable guardian within Germany’s champion backline and a potent attacker at club level for 1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, while it is perhaps also a somewhat fitting way to speak of the all-round progress in her career to date.
From first linking up with Turbine Potsdam as a 14-year-old, she had found herself amongst first-team company by 16. The club had claimed more than its share of silverware in the early-2000s, lifting the UEFA Women’s Cup in 2005, but Tabea’s emergence coincided with an especially successful time for the Brandenburg outfit.
There was another continental crown in 2010, as Bernd Schröder’s team inscribed their name on Europe’s big prize once more, this time in its first season as the rebranded UEFA Women’s Champions League. Also a four-time-consecutive (2009-2012) Frauen-Bundesliga winner, Tabea had Olympic gold proudly hanging from her neck at the Maracanã in Rio last summer, and that’s not even mentioning all the success she enjoyed as a youth international.
The 2010 FIFA Under-20 World Cup champion has become most known as one of the world’s best full-backs for her time down the left of the German defence, but her attacking talent was put to excellent use this season as she hit double figures for Potsdam in the league as a striker. Aside from showing world-class credentials on the pitch, she has fit a burgeoning police career in alongside it, with five years of studying set to come to an end later this year.
Along with such elite professional commitment and intensity for the 25-year-old comes a need to unwind, yet she even manages to do that in admirable fashion, with a personal project in particular which she’ll detail later on. Tabea is among the most admired players in the women’s game today and also harbours an endearing perspective on life.
Although her club endeavours have so far played out exclusively with Turbine, the 2015 World Cup semi-finalist feels every bit the voyager. With football understandably her responsibility-in-chief, she hasn’t yet roamed like she would love, but she tells how music is one easily-accessible companion always guaranteed to take her on a trip.
“Music is a part of my life, in soccer and away from my job. Listening to music is like feeling free, thinking about nothing happening in the world.
“I‘m listening to relaxed music most of the time. There are no favourite songs; I have Spotify.
“On there I have my own playlists: songs from Xavier Rudd, Band of Horses or Jack Johnson.”
Turbine have enjoyed sizeable success this century, mostly during the previous decade, though VfL Wolfsburg and FC Bayern Munich have emerged very strongly in recent seasons, backed by their respective men’s Bundesliga clubs. Largely recognised as a perennial top-three team, Turbine have generally remained in the higher league places, but were down as far as 7th two seasons ago.
Led by Matthias Rudolph, their resurgence this year took them up to 3rd, only two points from a return to the Champions League, while Tabea was instrumental alongside the likes of fellow goal-getting German internationals Svenja Huth and Felicitas Rauch. Away from focusing on making her impression felt on the field, music provides escape when Tabea needs, but it also helps set the tone for her and the others in blue when she arrives at the stadium to get to business.
At the club she has called home since her teens, she explains how it is a 25-year-old defender and recent newcomer to the senior Germany fold who is currently running the show.
“There are different DJs; it depends on the playlist the teammates want to listen to. Sometimes I played my music in the locker room in Potsdam in the morning to get in a good mood.
“Currently, Johanna Elsig chooses our music in the locker room.”
A goalscoring Bundesliga debutant at just 16 in a two-goal comeback draw at SC 07 Bad Neuenahr in September 2008, Tabea celebrated the title at the end of that season and there was even greater glory a year later. Still just 18 years old, she started the 2010 Champions League final win over Olympique Lyonnais in Getafe, though she had departed in extra-time so had to watch on from the sidelines as the ultimately joy-inducing shootout commenced.
Lifting the big prize in a team containing present-day national team figures like defender Josephine Henning and forward Isabel Kerschowski, as well as the now-retired 2014 FIFA World Player of the Year, Nadine Keßler, Tabea had scored the crucial, aggregate-tying goal in the semi-final second leg against Duisburg to set up another team penalty triumph. Paramount to that title was the clinical Anja Mittag, who doubles today as Germany’s leading goal threat and trusted pre-game sound selector.
In the Dutch venues of Breda, Tilburg and Utrecht this summer, the dance beat from the German locker room will probably be felt from the stadium tunnel, with tracks from mixmasters like Tommie Sunshine and Steve Void currently filling der Frauen-Nationalmannschaft’s playlist. There is one English artist and former boyband star who probably doesn’t quite fit that vibe, but nevertheless, Tabea explains how she was a big enough fan to go and see him perform once.
“I was at a live music show from Robbie Williams in Berlin. I would like to see a concert from Beyonce or Pink; I heard they give a great performance at their shows.”
Given the way she has become such a recognisable part of the national team, it is quite hard to believe that until November 2013, Tabea had yet to win her first cap. From first stepping up to the stage as a sub for Leonie Maier in that World Cup qualifying win over Croatia in Osijek, she has added the World Cup and Olympics to her record.
She was Silvia Neid’s starting left-back on the way to the World Cup’s last four in Canada, while her part in the 2016 Rio Olympics had a much more satisfying and spectacular conclusion, with gold-medal glory against Sweden at the iconic Maracanã in front of 52,432. Tabea had been well-versed in winning tournament play before her ascent to the full national team, as a champion at the inaugural UEFA Under-17 Championship in Switzerland in 2008, as well as the Under-20 World Cup two years later.
Having begun as an attacker at Turbine, she found herself deployed defensively in that latter tournament by Maren Meinert, gaining her starting opportunity as Germany became the first side to host and win the competition. That age group included Tabea’s current esteemed international counterparts Dzsenifer Marozsán, Alexandra Popp and Almuth Schult, and she played all of the 2-0 final victory over Nigeria, revelling in the gold confetti-laden celebrations in Bielefeld.
Never finding herself short on activities to dive into away from football, Tabea is always searching for what else she can do to expand her enjoyment and interest, so how about taking centre-stage as a singer? Thinking back over all those times spent with teammates over the years, on long bus trips, at hotels, or even on a night out, has she ever had a singing challenge fall upon her?
More importantly, who would she feel comfortable calling on if she ever had to record a song (let’s say a cover version)?
“Unfortunately, I’m not talented at singing! I would choose my team, because there we have some talented teammates.
“I could not choose any one player for this, because everybody has been dancing or singing a lot, but the song I would choose would be by the Backstreet Boys.”
Nine years old when she joined the girls‘ team at SG Freiburg/Oederquart, Tabea began attending the noteworthy Friedrich Ludwig Jahn Potsdam Sport School at 14. The school has an elite football programme for girls and Tabea believes her time living and training there was crucial in moulding her into the player she is today, with the school’s links taking her into Turbine’s setup.
Those were her football foundations, so naturally, we just need to learn now about some of her musical grounding!
“My first album was from Robbie Williams; as a teenager I liked his songs a lot.”
It is 11 years now since Tabea made her move to Potsdam, though that is definitely not to say she has left her Lower Saxony roots behind. Far from it, in fact – just this week she was back home to help run a football clinic in Geversdorf, where she grew up with two sisters.
Also helping take care of her adopted home’s community by auctioning her jerseys this year for the Potsdam-based charity Hilfe für Familien in Not (Help for Families in Need), she holds on tight to her hometown bond. Stade-born, she recalls those early days and also thinks back to the player who most captured her imagination back then – a Champions League winner, just like Tabea.
“Stade is a fairly small place, but I grew up outside of Stade in a village. It is a very rural area.
“Today I am not, but back then, I used to be an FC Bayern Munich fan. I was quite a big Giovane Élber fan.”
Of course, it hasn’t only been the beautiful game that has ignited Tabea’s inspiration in her life. Her revered former national team coach Silvia Neid talked of her power, will and dynamism, which are surely clear to see for anyone.
Since 2012, she has studied with Brandenburg’s Police Department, taking on security and shift work and sometimes working in the day as a patrol officer before going to football training. Occasionally, she would also work night shifts, but only if her football schedule would allow.
Tabea had always found it workable to combine studies for the police with her on-field career, although ahead of the last World Cup, she spoke of how an upcoming internship would be extremely intensive. Always one of the most impressive performers in team fitness tests, she says she prefers not to set too much in the way of goals when it comes to her police work, although the idea of working in the Kripo (criminal investigation agency) does appeal.
For different reasons (but also often very similar), we have seen a significant number of players in the women’s game over recent years ultimately decide to step away from playing. Understandably, some may wonder if there is the chance Tabea may opt to focus fully on what is undoubtedly a highly promising police career in the not-too-distant future.
However, she explains how she sees it as something to replace football later, not sooner.
“I’ll finish the studies in October; right now I‘m writing my bachelor. In October, I’ll start to work as a police officer.
“It is very important for me to have a different life task besides football. In this case, it is my second stand; this is what I need when I can no longer play football.
“The diversity of the work groups is very interesting with the police. I can always get to know something new over a long working time.”
The pressure of a football tournament would seemingly fade into the background when compared with something as critical as law enforcement, protecting people, and quite simply, life and death. While the consequences are of course not the same in football, it matters incredibly to all those involved, and for those playing, it is certainly no everyday thing to perform in front of thousands of spectators.
With TV and online audiences to add in to the equation, there are often many more looking on from afar. A cup final regular, Tabea has known what it is like to play before the watching world, with a reported 8.4 million English-language viewers alone tuning in on Fox in the U.S. for Germany’s 2015 World Cup semi-final with the Americans.
The coolness and ability displayed in tournaments by Germany’s national teams in the men’s and women’s game has long been admired around the globe, with so many from other nations fascinated as to how they manage it so routinely. Asked about her frame of mind when such games come around, Tabea offered a response perfectly in keeping with her personality.
“I am not aware of the pressure at all; I just go to the field, because I have pleasure and joy in the game. I hardly think about other things.
“Before the game, I have no rituals, I just look briefly in my sports bags and make sure that I have my pair of football boots and shin guards.”
Missing this year’s SheBelieves Cup after meniscus surgery in February, Tabea subsequently gave an insight into her rehabilitation via social media – from the weight room sessions to the aquarium! She has recently been named in distinguished former national team defender Steffi Jones’ first major tournament squad as Germany look to make it seven European Championship titles in a row and eight overall.
Although she is expected to resume her left-back role, there is always the possibility of Tabea serving up the kind of attacking cut and thrust seen back in October when she swept home Anja Mittag’s cross on the volley against the Netherlands. Along with taking flight down the left flank, she has also dabbled in base flying and once jumped 125 metres from the Park Inn Hotel in Berlin.
Always ensuring she feels as free as she can on the field, Tabea enjoys a carefully-constructed mix of adventure, exhilaration and relaxation off it.
“Soccer is not all that matters for me, so it’s really important for me to do other things. For example, wakeboarding, travelling with my bus, or sitting together with my friends and family and talking about life.”
The personal section of Tabea’s official website is filled with words and phrases that represent her outlook, with ‘ehrgeiz‘ (ambition) one of them you can find. Ambition comes in many forms, whether you set your sights on winning a World Cup, learning a new language or culture, or perhaps taking on a renovation project.
As she alluded to, Tabea owns a Volkswagen Type 2, and there is a little story to go along with her mobile home.
“After the Olympics victory, I decided to invest the premium for a bus. It has always been a dream of mine to drive such a bus myself.
“Actually, I wanted one from Brazil, but this was very difficult to organise. I then researched for over three months on the Internet and became aware of a salesman in Berlin; even after the purchase of the bus I’m still in contact with him and am also regularly there.
“During my soccer career, I do not have time for longer journeys, so it has only been once so far, to the Baltic Sea. I would like to go along the Atlantic coast.”
Following last August’s success in Brazil, Tabea decided to permanently mark the achievement with an Olympic tattoo on her foot. It is a familiar design, but one with golden, personal meaning sewn in for her, and you get the feeling there will be so much more to add to that canvas.
It’s all still to be written, with the plot switching very shortly to the Euros, so before she begins to lock down, let’s mellow it all out for a moment. As mentioned just recently on here in Julia Simic’s interview, the DFB Hallenpokal der Frauen was an indoor tournament which saw the Frauen-Bundesliga’s teams get together for some one-day competitive action during the mid-season break.
Tabea won the competition four times with Turbine, so she’d feel right at home in the scenario for this last question. Whether she wanted an indoor game like that, or maybe even a match-up on Copacabana Beach, she just needs four current or former teammates who would guarantee a good time, and more than a slight chance of winning, of course!
Her headed goals may not prove quite so useful here, but the poacher’s instinct she showed as she ran on to snap up a chance against Wolfsburg in May most definitely will. So let’s end with some of the first names you’d see on Tabea’s team sheet for this fantasy game.
“I would love to play with Anja Mittag (current Germany forward and ex-Turbine Potsdam teammate), Nadine Keßler (ex-Germany and Turbine midfield teammate), Asano Nagasato (Japanese international and current Turbine forward) and Jennifer Zietz (former midfielder and ex-Turbine teammate).”
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