Nilla Fischer in conversation: the 150-cap Sweden star’s journey to the top

Nilla Fischer in conversation: the 150-cap Sweden star’s journey to the top

MANY FOOTBALLERS would give up everything to have a CV even remotely resembling that of 33-year-old defender Nilla Fischer. Apart from the fact that Fischer has just surpassed the rather impressive landmark of 150 international caps for Sweden, the Wolfsburg centre-back has two Swedish league titles to her name, two German league titles, three German Cups and a Champions League victory in 2014.

More the bridesmaid rather than the bride for Sweden, Fischer can still proudly hold up a World Cup bronze medal and an Olympic silver, but she’s still looking for that elusive gold.

It all started almost 30 years ago in a small village just outside of Kristianstad in Sweden. “I grew up in a small village with my family,” recalls Fischer. “I’d play outside, you could play football or you could play something like table tennis. My mum used to take me and my twin brother to the field and I’ve been playing football ever since. In the beginning, it was about having fun, but I realised I was quite good and now I’m lucky enough I do it full-time. As a kid, I played because it was fun, I didn’t think so much about becoming a pro player.”

Whilst football was fun for a young girl growing up kicking a ball around with her twin brother, the teenage Fischer soon dreamt of representing Sweden. It’s no wonder – Sweden were one of the best national sides in the world at the time and won the first ever European Championships just a couple of months before Fischer was born.

With players like goalkeeper Elisabeth Leidinge, captain Anette Börjesson and fearsome strike duo Pia Sundhage and Lena Videkull, Sweden were a force to be reckoned with.

When Fischer was 10, Sweden hosted the Women’s World Cup, and by 14 the fledgeling footballer joined Vittsjö GIK as the dream began to turn into reality. “When I was playing with the grown-ups, I started to begin thinking about the national team. Back then it wasn’t possible though just to play football, so I’m happy I’m in a position to do that now.”

After leaving Vittsjö in 2000 to play for hometown club Kristianstad, Fischer had not long been playing in the Sweden youth teams when she got her senior team debut in 2001. Playing in her original position as a holding midfielder, Fischer debuted against Norway under the guidance of coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors. “I was really, really excited,” she says. “I’ve always been nervous when it comes to playing the game, but the feelings have always been more about if we were going to win or lose, not about my own performance. My parents never pushed me too far, they were very supportive, their only rule was if you start a season you end a season, you can never quit. It was a big thing to play with the top players, but they were very nice and very supportive, that’s now what I try to do with the young players coming through.”

Fischer’s progress with the national team wasn’t rapid. Despite making her debut, Fischer didn’t go to the European Championships later that year, or indeed the following tournament in 2005. But on the domestic scene, things were progressing nicely. Now perhaps known better as FC Rosengård, Fischer joined the club under the guise of LdB Malmö in 2003, finally at a team that could challenge for major honours.

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Fischer had joined a club that had finished second in the Damallsvenskan an incredible seven years in a row, largely thanks to Umeå IK, a team that won the Champions League in both 2003 and 2004, boasting Sweden superstar Hanna Ljungberg and Brazilian magician Marta in its attack.

Despite making over 100 appearances for the club, Fischer had to wait until 2010 to get her hands on the title after Umea had finished top in four consecutive seasons. A second title followed in 2011 before Fischer moved on to Linköping. “It was a really frustrating time,” says the defender. “We always had the goal to win the league at Malmö, we had the team and the players with the quality to do it, but Umeå were just too good. I don’t know whether it became a mental thing, but they were just better than us. Winning those two titles was a really good feeling, the momentum Umeå had was finally at an end, but it was hard to always play and always be the runner-up.”

During her time in Malmö, Fischer finally made her major tournament bow with the national team, playing at the 2007 World Cup in China, with Sweden now under the guidance of new coach Thomas Dennerby. Paired with the indomitable USA side and two tricky teams in Nigeria and North Korea, Sweden’s 2-1 win over the latter in their final group game wasn’t enough to turn around a goal difference deficit, and Fischer’s first taste of tournament football was over before the knockout stage.

Despite the disappointment, it’s clear Fischer looks back on her early experiences with Sweden fondly. “I always wish for the players who have the goal to play in the national team to already know the feeling,” says Fischer. “It’s worth it all, I hate pre-season and I hate all the running, but it’s worth every minute and every hour of time you put into football. You don’t know what your goal means until you reach it, it was like that for me. I wanted to play for Sweden, but when I reached it, it was an amazing feeling and I want to do it for as long as I’m able to.”

Fischer found herself back in China a year later for the Beijing Olympics and the beginning of a rivalry with Germany that would dominate her and her teammates’ international careers over the next few years. Arguably the best in the world alongside the USA at the time, a 2-0 quarter-final defeat to Silvia Nied’s side ended Sweden’s medal hopes. Three years later, Sweden and the rest of the world travelled to Germany for the 2011 World Cup, a tournament that would leave Fischer with one of the most special moments of her career.

Despite Germany’s strength, it wasn’t to be for the hosts as they went out to eventual surprise champions Japan at the quarter-final stage. Japan also proved to be Sweden’s kryptonite in the semi-finals, leaving Fischer with a bronze medal match against France.

Played in front of 25,000 supporters in Sinsheim, an 82nd-minute winner from Marie Hammarstrom ensured the Blågult walked away with a bronze medal, a first for Fischer. “It was really special,” Fischer recalls. “It was an amazing from the tournament, from the organisation to the supporters. We performed really well, we beat the USA in the group. Against France, we got a red card during the game, but we turned it around. It was an emotional ride during the game and of course after, but it’s something I’m going to be really, really proud of for the rest of my life. When you get the team and staff working 100 percent together and everything just works, you feel like nobody can stop you.”

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Were the stars beginning to align for Sweden? After a bronze medal which saw them rank as the best European side at the World Cup, Fischer’s side would be hosting the next European Championships in two years. Not only that but a legend of Swedish football, Pia Sundhage, left her job as head coach of the USA side to take charge of the team at the end of 2012, meaning she would lead the side into their home Euro’s months later. “It was a really good feeling, everybody was really hyped and we had a lot of energy. We knew there would be a lot of spectators at the games and as a player you know you’ll probably never experience that again.”

And what of their new head coach? Many of the players, including Fischer, had grown up watching Sundhage as a star player for Sweden. Now one of the most respected figures in world football was their coach. “Pia was, and is, a legend,” says Fischer. “That brought a lot of hype and interest around the team. We took the energy from everything and put it into our game. It’s something I wish every player could take part in, to play in their home European Championships.

“Pia’s all about football, she’s passionate about the game. Many players realise how big she was before as a player, then you realise it goes to another level. When fans came to watch training, they wanted Pia’s autograph before the players, it was amazing to see the effect she has on people. The great thing was, she could join in sessions, she would put crosses into the box for you.

“I don’t know how old she is now, but it’s amazing to see the skills she still has, I can only imagine what they were like when she was young,” she laughs.

Over 16,000 fans attended Sweden’s opening game against Denmark in Gothenburg, where Fischer was now deployed as a centre-back under Sundhage’s leadership. Strangely, despite moving further down the pitch, Fischer suddenly found an eye for goal in front of her home crowd. The defender scored in the 1-1 draw with Denmark before another two followed in a thumping 5-0 win against Finland.

A 4-0 win over Iceland in the quarter-finals meant a semi-final against rivals Germany back in Gothenburg, but a sole Dzsenifer Marozsán strike denied Sweden a dream final against fellow Scandinavians Norway. “We really thought we would reach the final, but Germany were in the way again,” says Fischer.

Fischer’s three goals though meant she had the rare honour of winning the silver boot, being beaten only by teammate Lotta Schelin. “I don’t score much,” she laughs. “I might score one goal in a tournament if I’m lucky, but that’s usually it. But when I scored twice against Finland, it was like ‘what is going on?’”

With no bronze medal this time around, Fischer’s attention returned to domestic football, and a month after the conclusion of the tournament she joined German giants Wolfsburg for an assault on the UEFA Champions League. In the form of Turbine Potsdam, FFC Frankfurt and FCR Duisburg, German clubs had regular control of Europe’s primary club competition, but the rise of French side Lyon ended the stranglehold.

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Fischer was joining the reigning champions, Ralf Kellermann’s side beating a Lyon team consisting of Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Megan Rapinoe and Fischer’s Sweden teammate Schelin at Stamford Bridge.

Fischer remains at Wolfsburg to this very day and admits the move has taken her game to another level, with Fischer still a centre-back after her change of position in 2013. “It’s done a lot for me, it’s developed me as a player. I need to be really focused, the training and the tempo we have is amazing, we have 25 players who can all play in the first 11. I speak German now too, so I’ve learned another language.”

Fischer was on the verge of getting her hands on the biggest domestic trophy of them all as Wolfsburg beat Fischer’s former side Malmö, as well as Barcelona and Turbine Potsdam, to reach the final, played in front of 11,000 fans in Lisbon. Lining up on the other side were Tyresö FF, a side who enjoyed a rapid rise in Swedish football, but a rise that would see their early demise from top-level football soon after.

Months before the final, it had already been announced that financial issues would mean key players would walk away after the game, but it was still a formidable side facing Fischer and her teammates. Coached by Swede Tony Gustavsson, Tyresö had a range of Swedish players, including captain Caroline Seger. US trio Meghan Klingenberg, Whitney Engen and Christen Press all started, as did fearsome duo Veronica Boquete and Marta.

It looked like Wolfsburg had bitten off more than they could chew, with goals from Boquete and Marta giving the Swedes a comfortable 2-0 lead at half-time. “We went into the game feeling we had a good chance to win,” recalls Fischer. “But we didn’t perform in the first half, they were dangerous and they put their chances away. At half-time we got it all together and said we had 45 minutes to turn it around, we can do it. A lot of players in that team had won the league and had that winning experience.”

The turnaround was remarkable as goals within the first 10 minutes of the second half from forwards Alexandra Popp and Martina Müller brought Wolfsburg level before Marta soon put Tyreso back in control. But Wolfsburg weren’t to be denied; substitute Verena Faisst brought them level again before Müller added her second to finish off one of the most remarkable Champions League finals in the women’s game. “We went out and got that early goal and we got that momentum. They still did a good second half but I think we played at 110 percent and managed to turn the game around.”

A self-confessed Liverpool fan, Fischer likens the win to Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League against AC Milan, where Rafa Benítez’s side came back from 3-0 down to win on penalties a year later. Whilst another Champions League title continues to elude Fischer, the centre-back was riding the crest of a wave and has gone on to win another Bundesliga title and three consecutive domestic cups since that night in Lisbon.

For Sweden, major honours haven’t arrived just yet, but their rivalry with Germany has continued at a ferocious rate. At the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Sweden were swept aside 4-1 in the second round, before an even more important meeting a year later at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Before Germany came the USA: the world champions. A quarter-final win would leave Sweden facing either Australia or Brazil for a place in the final, and Fischer and her teammates knew what they had to do to win.“We had to play a way to give us the best chance to win,” she states. “Against the USA, we were not so good at the time so we  had to play a highly defensive game.”

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It was Sweden who broke the deadlock after an hour, young superstar Stina Blackstenius firing past Hope Solo. Alex Morgan’s equaliser meant a penalty shootout, which would end after Lisa Dahlkvist capitalised on Christen Press missing USA’s fifth and final penalty. Sweden had done it, but the story was not over. Solo, one of the most recognisable names and faces in the women’s game, brandished the Sweden team a “bunch of cowards” soon after the match, a comment which two weeks later would see her banned by US Soccer for six months. With 202 caps to her name, Solo hasn’t played for the USA since.

“Mostly we just brushed it off,” says Fischer, before adding, “But if we play against them again, it will give us extra motivation. You’re not the best version of yourself when you’ve just lost a game, perhaps not the cleverest of things come out of your mouth. To call our way of playing as cowardly, that’s too far for me. It’s hard to handle your emotions after going out of a tournament, but we won so we were just happy about that.”

Another penalty shootout followed against Brazil in the semi-finals. A carnival atmosphere and an incredible 70,000 spectators greeted the teams at the Maracanã in Rio, but it was the Swedes who ruined the party once again, with Fischer scoring one of Sweden’s five penalties. It meant a chance at an Olympic gold, and a guaranteed silver, with Sweden once again up against Germany in what would be Silvia Neid’s final game in charge after 11 years.

With two of the most respected female managers in the game going head-to-head, 52,000 fans congregated at the Maracanã despite Brazil’s exit in the previous round. Goals from Marozsán and an own goal from Linda Sembrant left Sweden trailing 2-0 after an hour, and even Blackstenius’s strike soon after wasn’t enough for Sweden to finally get one over on the Germans.

It was yet another defeat at the hands of a team who had become their biggest barrier, and Fischer accepts the Germans have always had something over her side. “You just really try to take every game as a new game and try not to focus on what has gone before, if we did then we’d lose the game before we even kicked off. At the 2015 World Cup, we just weren’t good from the beginning, we couldn’t match Germany’s level.

“But in 2016, we managed to do our best game of the tournament against them, it could have ended either way. It’s always a little bit like ‘Oh shit’ when you know you’re playing against them. That German mentality, it’s something that they have, it’s really hard to break them.”

Almost inevitably, Sweden were drawn against Germany in the group stage for this year’s European Championships in the Netherlands, meaning it would be three years in a row that Sweden and Germany would face off in a major competition. “It was almost better to have them in the group,” says Fischer. “They couldn’t knock us out. It was good to play against them in the first game, the pressure wasn’t as high and it wasn’t a must win, we just had to go in and run our asses off.”

Sweden secured a 0-0 draw but a shock defeat to Italy in their final group game meant they only progressed as group runners-up, resulting in a quarter-final match against the hosts. Eventual champions the Netherlands won 2-0, again ensuring an early end to a tournament for Fischer and her teammates. It was also the end for Pia Sundhage, who stepped down to be replaced by Peter Gerhardsson, the 58-year-old now tasked with taking Sweden to the 2019 World Cup.

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“We have some work to do,” accepts Fischer. “It’s good to have new players in our squad every camp at the moment, we are trying to develop our game, our players and to play through every part of our team.”

At 33, Fischer may only have one or two major tournaments left in her, but there’s been a big change to her life in recent weeks: Fischer has become a mum for the first time. It was in 2013 that Fischer announced in an interview with GX Magazine that she was dating her current partner Mariah Michaela, and that the two intended to marry at the end of the year.

They did so in December of that year and Fischer hopes she can be a role model for people who are afraid to come out. She says: “For me, it was natural. My wife is my first woman, we’d been dating for no more than a year when a magazine asked me about it, I just told them the truth. It wasn’t that I’d been carrying a secret, I wanted it to be that it’s not a story, I wanted it to be normal. I didn’t want it to be a big headline saying ‘Oh, she’s gay’, it’s one of the reasons I’m very open about it in interviews and on social media. I’m together with another person, it’s not a big thing.”

But Fischer accepts social media can be a dark place. Like many, she’s received her fair share of derogatory comments over the years. “Social media is where the not-so-friendly people can write what they want,” she says. “I want people who are afraid to come out to know it’s ok to come out. You might get 10 positive comments, but one negative one and that’s the one you think about.”

Aside from her personal life, Fischer and many of her colleagues around the world have seen themselves embroiled in disputes with their nation’s football associations in the search for fairer deals as the women’s game continues to grow around the world. Norway, USA, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden themselves have been just some of the high-profile nations who have taken a stand in order to get better deals, with Sweden finally getting a deal they were happy with earlier this year.

“If I could make a wish, I would want it to be equal pay,” she says. “But women’s football is still young compared to the men’s game, we have to work for our privileges, we have to fight for them. That’s just the case, unfortunately. We’re just happy we found an agreement with our association and we’re very happy with that.”

In October, Norway agreed a 93 percent increase in pay with their FA, whilst Sweden’s undisclosed deal was announced just last month. It hasn’t been easy, Sweden’s 2019 World Cup qualifier against Denmark was cancelled and awarded as a win to the Swedes after Denmark’s players refused to play as they were embroiled in similar discussions over pay with their FA, despite reaching the Euro 2017 final in August.

“It would be great if many other countries could do what we’ve done, be the first example. I know all the arguments about how the men’s game get more money from sponsors, but it would be amazing if just one country said it was the same for men and women. It’s a fight, I feel proud that the women in the world are taking a stand and trying to get more when it comes to money, facilities, pitches. We stand up and say we deserve more.” 

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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