Taking her club football overseas for the first time in 2016, Birmingham City’s German forward Isabelle Linden has come to appreciate both the beauty and illusion the game holds. As she looks forward at recapturing the kind of form that took her to Euro 2013, she can think back to that tournament with a smile at how Germany were too much for the opposition, as well as the construction!
Last year will surely go down as extremely significant in the modern history of Birmingham City Football Club, with the takeover from Trillion Trophy Asia ultimately prompting major changes for both the men’s and women’s side. The 2016 campaign turned out to be the last in Blues Ladies manager David Parker’s six-season tenure, and it was a very commendable one at that.
The team defied the expectations of many in coming 4th in the FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL), while finishing Continental Cup runners-up and raising the bar with numerous high-calibre international signings. One of those was German attacker Isabelle Linden, a player who at 25 has tasted big tournament success with her national team, as well as having to go back before going forward again, in light of injury frustration and the like.
The former 1.FFC Frankfurt player’s primary goal is simply to play consistently again and rediscover her best form, although breaking back into the national team picture would be huge. ‘Bella’ was one of the younger members of Silvia Neid’s Euro 2013-winning squad in Sweden at just 22.
The two-time world champions’ appetite for success was without question, as they won their eighth continental crown. On the day of the final against Norway in Solna, they also had an appetite for destruction, even if it was unintentional, as Bella describes!
“We danced a lot after the win of the Euro Championship in 2013; we destroyed a wall because we went too heavy! It was in the locker room: we all danced on the table and we were going crazy.
“We jumped on the table and we were touching the wall above us – after two minutes someone had a piece from the wall in her hand. I don’t know who it was, to be honest, but we laughed so hard.”
Representing Germany all the way up from the Under-15s, Bella has played at the top level of club football since she was a 17-year-old with SGS Essen in the Frauen-Bundesliga. In the time since, she has also featured in the UEFA Champions League with Frankfurt, having made her mark in six years at Bayer Leverkusen.
A player who enjoys both the conventional striker’s position and the number ten role, she has shown before how she can combine a finisher’s instinct with slick link play. Her personality is one with no shortage of adventure or enthusiasm, and whether it’s related to her game or not, her spark is lit by rhythmic energy.
“Music motivates me in every way in my life, especially in football and fitness. I have my own playlists on my phone which I listen to before every game.
“I don’t listen to the music in the locker room; it’s not the kind of music I need before a game, so sometimes I put on my own music on my phone with my headset. It’s really important for me to listen to good music!
“I listen to a few artists every day: I really like Drake, Chris Brown, August Alsina, Justin Bieber, Bryson Tiller, Majid Jordan and Stanaj. One of my favourite songs at the moment is from Stanaj – ‘Romantic’.
“All songs from Justin Bieber or Drake are my all-time favourites. I like German rap music; it’s cool how they rhyme and how fast they can do it.
“If I need to tell you three songs, I would say: Glashaus – ‘Wenn das Liebe ist’, Shindy (featuring Bushido) – ‘Art of War’ and Wincent Weiss ‘Musik Sein’. I like German acoustic music, too; it’s nice to sing to German acoustic.”
In May 2016, it was announced that Bella had signed for Birmingham ahead of the second half of their FA WSL season. She would be joined in the Midlands by plenty of compatriots, as ex-Liverpool defender Corina Schröder, former Bayer Leverkusen teammate Marisa Ewers and one-time Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger made up a very strong German contingent.
Norwegian international midfielder Andrine Hegerberg also arrived from Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC and would bring some further international flavour to a largely homegrown squad. Bella feels her English improved considerably from being forced to use it on a daily basis, but even a native speaker could be forgiven for forgetting their lines when asked to perform in front of a bunch of unfamiliar people.
When that initiation scenario arose, Bella luckily chose well as she was put on the spot as a new Blue on the block.
“I had to sing in front of my teammates in Birmingham after I knew them just two hours. My mate Marisa Ewers told me that all new players have to sing, after a friendly game.
“It was my first day in Birmingham – that means I didn’t know the girls and the girls didn’t know me. I chose a song which everybody knows at this time and it was ‘7 Years’ from Lukas Graham.
“I chose this song because hopefully they would sing with me after a few seconds and they did – lucky me! I think it was ok; my teammates said that I can sing if I concentrate.
“I don’t have a problem with singing, I really like it. I know I am not the best at it, but sometimes it sounds not that bad.”
Several of those Bella has played with have said she is actually quite a lot better than she would like to admit when it comes to singing. One particularly reputable example is new Germany captain Dzsenifer Marozsán, who has had a long and successful association with Bella and described her harmonic talent in her interview on here last March.
The Lyon playmaker of course won Euro 2013 with Bella, but she was also celebrating with her all the way back in 2008 as Germany won the UEFA Under-17 Championship in Switzerland to qualify for that year’s FIFA Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand. Bella recalls how ‘Dzseni’ was also one of those helping to light things up at Frankfurt not only when she got out onto the field.
“I remember that Ana Crnogorčević, Simone Laudehr, Dzseni Marozsán or me were the DJs in Frankfurt. The DJ in Birmingham was most of the time Mel Lawley, I think.
“It’s a lot of pop music. I think the music is ok but I definitely prefer hip-hop and r&b.
“We danced sometimes in Frankfurt after the games and in the locker room after a good win. It was not really good but it was very funny!
“I have a few songs in my head which always remind me of the great times with the (Germany) Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19s.”
While each culture brings its own unique take on each of them, perhaps one of the most truly golden qualities of both football and music is that they have the power to make us feel that, beneath all the boundaries and differences between us, we’re all part of the same world. Much the same as music, football can take you to so many places, and for Bella, the aforementioned 2008 FIFA Under-17 World Cup had her travelling over 11,000 miles from home.
At that tournament in New Zealand, she was part of a Germany squad that included several future senior internationals, such as defenders Leonie Maier and Tabea Kemme, and attacking players like Dzsenifer Marozsán, Alexandra Popp and Svenja Huth. Ralf Peter’s team were defeated by the United States in the semi-final before clinching third place with a win against England, with Bella seeing game time against Ghana and North Korea in the group, as well as in the quarter-final victory over Canada.
Despite such global travel, when she thinks back to the live music atmospheres she has been in the midst of, it was the ones closest to home that were the most memorable to her.
“I’ve been to a Macklemore concert and also Drake a few years ago. I went to the concerts by Justin Bieber in Cologne in 2013 and 2016.
“I met him in 2013 and I was in the first row at his concert. That was really cool.
“If I could have seen anyone, maybe I would like to see Michael Jackson.”
A youngster at VfR Fischenich and SC Fortuna Köln before the door to her Frauen-Bundesliga career swung open, Bella describes both where she comes from and how a football has never been anything but a close companion.
“The place where I grew up is Hürth-Fischenich. It’s next to Cologne, my family still lives there.
“It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone. I was always that little girl with the ball at her feet.
“I had a great childhood and I am really thankful for that. Football was very important for me; I swear from the age of eight until I was 16, I was with a ball outside every day with my friends and sometimes alone.
“It wasn’t difficult for me as a girl; all the boys in my team were great to me and took care of me. It was really cute.
“My whole city is still supporting me. They want the best for me and I appreciate that a lot.”
That’s the football side of it, but what was getting the airtime on Bella’s speakers during her childhood in the Rhein-Erft-Kreis?
“My first CD was from the Backstreet Boys and I enjoyed them a lot. I was in a band when I was younger and we always danced to the music from them in front of the whole school; it was really fun.
“I heard a lot of Backstreet Boys and Michael Jackson from age eight to ten. When I was a teenager, I fell in love with hip-hop and r&b; r&b is still my favourite music.”
Coming to Birmingham was a step out of the ordinary for Bella, but at the same time, it was also an opportunity to simply get back to regularly doing what she loves out on the pitch. In July, she headed a late equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw at Reading in a game that actually marked her first 90 minutes in a year.
Prior to her 2015 switch to then-Champions League holders Frankfurt, she had her most distinguished club spell, with Bayer Leverkusen, where she was part of the side that finished in a record-high of 7th in 2013/14. While at the club, she played alongside another former youth national teammate in Turid Knaak, who had a 2014 loan at Arsenal.
The Essen-born forward is just nine days younger than Bella and both will celebrate their 26th birthdays this month. She recently returned from over a year out with a broken tibia and fibula to score against FF USV Jena, and if Bella had to choose any career teammate to record a song cover with, she would call on the former FCR 2001 Duisburg player and open up their personal repertoire.
“I would definitely choose Turid Knaak! We always sing together, it doesn’t matter where we are; in the car or in the locker room.
“We have a lot of songs which we sing together, but I think we would sing a song from High School Musical. The name of the song is ‘Gotta Go My Own Way’ – that’s our song and we really get into it if we perform it in the car.”
Wearing the number ten shirt at Birmingham, Bella had a cup final appearance within her first few months at the club, coming on for Freda Ayisi in extra-time of the 1-0 Continental Cup loss to unbeaten league champions Man City in Manchester. The Blues are her first club abroad, and although she highlighted a succession of minor injuries as something to hold her back, Bella expressed her thanks to the team and to the supporters in and around England’s second city, describing them as ‘good people’.
There was some definite learning and self-discovery as she tested the waters of living overseas for the first time, although being housed with teammates Schröder, Ewers, Berger and Hegerberg was a perk she was especially grateful for.
“When I lived in Germany, I used to live alone, but in England we were five girls in one house. I like that it’s always fun and you always have your friends around you.
“The language was not easy for me at the beginning but it’s better now I understand a lot. I am not afraid now to speak, even if I use the wrong words.”
Alluding to one day hoping to try her hand at playing in the U.S. or Australia, Bella has an undoubted affection for Spain and was back there recently. There is also a Real Madrid icon in particular who was always likely to be her choice when asked which player she would pick to have some shooting practice with out on the training field, if she could choose anyone from all-time.
“I think everybody who knows me knows my answer to that question – Ronaldo and Marozsán! For me, the best players in the world.
“They are both just an inspiration for me and I am really thankful that I have Dzseni in my life; she is one of my best friends. Marozsán has the best shot I’ve ever seen from a woman and Cristiano’s shot is also not that bad!”
Back in August 2015, Bella was running through on goal against Essen and slipping a right-footed finish home for her first Frankfurt goal. In October that year, she netted for the first time in the Champions League, breaking free down the right to put away a low shot in the 6-0 win over Belgian club Standard Liège in the last 32.
Recently-departed Germany boss Silvia Neid had been aware of Bella’s ability and turned to her when she needed to replace the injured Viola Odebrecht in the squad for Euro 2013. Although she did win a cap, Bella didn’t see action at the tournament, but she had earned her place and was one of those pushing her teammates in training and supporting while she prepared for her own opportunity.
Although 2013 may not yet seem so long ago to many of us, it will be four years this summer since that European Championship in Sweden, so how does Bella reflect on being part of that success and did that major tournament experience change her at all?
“I still have great memories in my head and also on my phone. Sometimes I think back with a smile on my face.
“I wouldn’t say that it changed me as a person, but I have become more responsible since.”
As 2017 gets going, Bella stops to consider the lessons she has taken from her years in the game so far, with a mixture of her successes and setbacks in mind, as well as the characters and companions she has come across on a sometimes-rocky road.
“I learned about life from football that you really need to work on yourself to reach something big. I also learned that not everybody who says they are your friend, really is.
“Don’t give up, no matter what happened. I focus on myself, not on anyone else, so I think that’s one of the most important things in life.”
Along with her eye for fashion and sense of style, Bella has an undeniable degree of buoyancy and urge to express herself. Regardless of any ups and downs along the way so far, her desire to play hasn’t been compromised, whether that’s on the field or off it!
“I like to do a lot. Some days, I have so much energy that I annoy my friends until they do something with me.
“Basketball, billiards, backgammon, shopping etc. Some days, I just need time for myself where I want to relax, draw, sing, play piano, watch Netflix or just listen to music and think about life.”
Keeping in mind how much Bella loves to get out there with a ball at her feet, in season or out of season, what’s more fun than a small-sided, fast and frantic game full of goals? When we come to the end of the interviews on here, it is over to the player to take on the role of decision-maker and to pull on that coach’s coat!
The idea is to imagine a team of five, including themselves, with four places open for any teammates from their career to join them. The choices can be based on any reasons at all, so it is not always about ability alone.
Of all those Bella had in mind, these were the starting four she picked out to take on the opposition with her.
“I would choose Lisa Schmitz from Turbine Potsdam for the goalkeeper. She is a very good friend and, in my opinion, one of the best goalkeepers.
“Kathy Hendrich from FFC Frankfurt for the defender – a good player and also a very good friend. Dzsenifer Marozsán from Olympique Lyon for the midfield.
“I think I don’t need to explain why – best player in the world. And Turid Knaak from Bayer 04 Leverkusen – also one of my best friends – for the offence.
“She is creative, fast and can score goals.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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