Sofie Junge Pedersen interview: the Danish star who rose beyond a serious head injury to Juventus

Sofie Junge Pedersen interview: the Danish star who rose beyond a serious head injury to Juventus

“It was amazing, a moment I will never forget.” The text message Juventus and Denmark midfielder Sofie Junge Pedersen sent the morning after scoring the winner for her side in the first women’s game played at the club’s main stadium, the Allianz. A crowd of 39,000 – 25,000 up on the previous record – packed into the arena to see Junge Pedersen score a vital winner against one of their rivals five minutes from the end to put Juve on course for a second successive title in as many years since creating a professional team.

But it was a moment that for Junge Pedersen may never have happened at all. Just three years ago, the now 27-year-old suffered a serious concussion during a training session at former club FC Rosengård and missed a whole year of her career.

But Junge Pedersen’s time in football goes much further back, almost to her earliest memories, mainly thanks to the fact that she came from a football-mad family. “I have two brothers who I played with a lot but my sister, mum and dad all like football so I think it was just natural for me to try football when I was young,” she says.

“I started when I was four but I actually got injured and didn’t really start playing again until I was right. But every day I watched my brother and played with him when I could. My dad played football too, never really at a high level, but everyone in our family is a football fan. I played at school, after school with the boys, I always played. We had a very good team for the girls too so I played with them in a club but I played with the boys in my spare time.”

Growing up in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, opportunities were easier to come by for Junge Pedersen than girls in some of the nation’s more remote areas. IK Skovbakken, a club based in Aarhus, had been regular top division title winners in the years Junge Pedersen was growing up, claiming glory in 1997 and 1998, this after sealing five successive triumphs during the late 1980s into the early 1990s.

Junge Pedersen signed a contract with Skovbakken in 2009, a team which already had a future star in its ranks in Nadia Nadim and would soon add a future world-class player in the shape of Pernille Harder, who Junge Pedersen had already played with for several years in the Danish youth teams.

The talent of Junge Pedersen and Harder was so evident that in April 2010, Skovbakken tied both to contracts, becoming just the third and fourth players at the club to be given the security after Nadim and goalkeeper Mia Kjærsgaard-Andersen. 

Read  |  Pernille Harder, one of the women’s game’s finest talents, opens up about her life on and off the pitch

The midfielder was becoming one of the best young talents in Denmark. She’d been a regular for the national team at the 2008 Under-17 World Cup and only had to wait until 2011 for her senior debut, while still a teenager. “It was a huge experience,” she recalls. “Since I was young I had a dream of playing for the national team so it was a fantastic experience. My first game was in Brazil and I played with some of the players I had been looking up to for many years, it was an amazing feeling.”

At the time, many girls never believed they’d make it as a professional. In such an unstable sport during the years Junge Pedersen was growing up, there was never any guarantee she would be able to make a career out of kicking a ball around for a living. Despite that, the Juventus star believed from early on that there were opportunities for her to pursue her dream.

“I think really it was at my first senior team in Denmark when I started to think about it,” she says. “I played for them when I was 16 and I felt I had a chance to make a career playing football. I got my first contract when I was 18, I was playing a lot and wasn’t really on the bench for my club. I felt I had the chance to become a good player and I also felt I put a lot of effort and dedication into it. I knew it was the path I wanted to go down.”

It’s no surprise that Junge Pedersen felt confident. By the time she was 20, she’d signed for one of Denmark’s biggest sides, Fortuna Hjørring, and had already been capped several times for her national team. After several successful years with her new club, being selected for Euro 2013 by Denmark coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller, Junge Pedersen impressed enough in a Champions League tie against European giants Rosengård that the Swedish side offered a contract at the end of the 2014/15 season for her to join in time for the Damallsvenskan run-in.

“It was a nice opportunity that I got,” she says, understatedly. “We played them in the Champions League and I was so impressed with how they played, it was fantastic when my agent told me they were interested. I knew straight away I wanted to go there.”

In a team including Ramona Bachmann, Ali Riley and Marta, Junge Pedersen got her hands on her second successive domestic title at the end of the 2015 campaign. With Rosengård recruiting more firepower in the form of Ella Masar and Lieke Martens for 2016, all looked set for another good year for Junge Pedersen as Euro 2017 grew ever closer – but things soon took a turn for the worse.

Aside from her text regarding her goal against Fiorentina, it is the only other time during the interview that Junge Pedersen references a moment she will never forget.

Read  |  Ella Masar talks rising from a troubled youth, personal and professional challenges in the women’s game, and hitting the top with Wolfsburg

In an innocuous collision during a pre-season training session, the midfielder hit her head on the pitch and, despite no initial symptoms, wouldn’t play any football in 2016. “When I look back, it will be the concussion that I remember,” she says. “It’s still sad because I don’t feel I gave to the club what I wanted to and I didn’t take that opportunity. I liked it there, I liked the club and my teammates so it was hard to leave without feeling I’d given what I could.”

Junge Pedersen has no long-term memory loss and can still remember the incident and the immediate days after it clearly. “It was in a training session,” she starts to recall. “I fell in a tackle and hit my head on the pitch. I didn’t really feel anything in the first few days, the reaction came quite late.”

A solemnness takes over the tone in her voice as she starts to go over the mental toil she went through over the course of the next 12 months. “I never expected it to take so long because I didn’t think it was a big hit. It took a year which was really surprising and really hard for me. I didn’t really feel a lot of pain. There was one month where I had a lot of headaches but I was never dizzy or out of balance or had memory losses. It just took so long and I really wanted to come back as quick as I could.”

Junge Pedersen’s career path had not just changed; her whole life had. While with other injuries, even those as serious as ACL injuries, players can get out and about, see their teammates and do some light gym or recovery work, Junge Pedersen’s whole life changed. “I was basically just lying down in my room for six months,” she says. “I moved home with my parents so they could take care of me because I couldn’t really do much. I had to rest [and] you end up pushing your friends and family away. I was lonely, I had no social life. I was just waiting for it to disappear.

“It was unreal that suddenly I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even be around for the team or anything. I was completely removed from my whole life and I’d expected that year to be a good year for me. I was in a very good team, I was in good shape and I’ll never forget the day it happened.”

While she’s now fit and playing regularly again, there are still aftereffects even three years on. The 27-year-old has to wear glasses to read or use her laptop to avoid a reoccurrence of the headaches she experience,d but fortunately has no issues when playing the game she loves.

But Rosengård had moved on and only offered a six month deal. With the European Championship just six months away, Junge Pedersen hadn’t featured for Denmark for over a year and was without a club. Fortunately, Spanish side Levante signed her for the end of the 2016/17 Liga Iberdrola season after the finals and Junge Pedersen was back playing while experiencing a new culture. The games she played in Spain were enough for her to earn a spot in Nils Nielsen’s squad for the Euros, but not enough for her to be a starter at the tournament.

Read  |  Nils Nielsen talks the Denmark women’s team and coaching the future in China

But in a cruel twist of fate for her nation, if not for Junge Pedersen herself, Denmark were beset by injuries throughout the tournament as they made a surprising run to the semi-finals, despite being drawn in a group with hosts Netherlands and a Norway side including Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen.

In a tight and tense semi-final against another surprise package in Austria, a serious injury for midfielder Line Jensen gave Junge Pedersen her opportunity. With the game going to penalties, the midfielder suddenly found herself going from bit-part player to penalty taker in a major semi-final in less than an hour.

She was the only Denmark player to miss but, fortunately for her, Austria missed all three of theirs as Denmark reached the final to once again face the Netherlands. “That was crazy,” she laughs. “I came in around the 70th minute but I’m quite proud of myself because I actually felt quite calm. I felt calm taking the penalty but I missed. It had been a hard tournament to watch from the outside because you always want to play, every player wants to play. I trained well and the coaches told me that. I learned a lot from that, to focus on the right things because as a player you can’t decide if you play or not.”

The number of injuries meant Junge Pedersen’s first start of the tournament came in the final, a rematch in front of 28,000 partisan Dutch supporters in Enschede. A thrilling first half saw former club teammate Nadia Nadim give Denmark an early lead from the penalty spot, before they found themselves 2-1 down another former club teammate, Pernille Harder, made it 2-2 in a thrilling first 45 minutes.

“It was an amazing game, 2-2 in the first half,” she recalls. “A lot of people watching and people home in Denmark were watching on big screens in the streets. To feel we’d moved the whole country was an amazing feeling, it was the highlight of my career so far.”

Sadly for Denmark, two further second-half goals without reply for the hosts put the seal on an incredible tournament for Sarina Wiegman’s side, but Denmark had done themselves no disservice. “Now when we go home the stadiums are sold out every game we play,” says the midfielder on the impact their success has had on the country. “You just feel so much more attention from the media, the young girls look up to you and they come to our training sessions. They know your name, there’s so much more attention.”

Junge Pedersen returned to Levante for a full season in Spain before returning to Sweden to complete their summer league with Vittsjö. It was at the end of 2018 when Serie A champions Juventus came calling. The Bianconeri had ventured into the women’s game and won the title at the first time of asking in 2018, and were well on their way to repeating the feat when they made the move to sign Junge Pedersen.

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“I’m really happy to be here,” she enthuses, now several months into her time in Turin. “You feel every day it’s a big name and a big club. They want to have the same conditions for the women’s team as the men’s team and it’s really professional, I like that. I feel I can improve here. I like the way we play and I have a lot of good teammates.”

Juventus again wrapped up the title, finishing four points ahead of nearest rivals Fiorentina, ensuring the Dane’s winner against them at the Allianz proved vital in the team’s title success this season. With AC Milan and Inter both having introduced women’s teams in the last 12 months off the back of Juventus doing the same, women’s football in Italy is clearly on the up, even if the reputation of the league compared to its rivals and the relative success of the national team doesn’t show it.

Despite that, with the top three sides having finished within five points of each other, Junge Pedersen believes the league is stronger than people on the outside think. “There are a lot of good teams and the top four are very close to each other,” she says. “There are other teams with good players and even the bottom teams want to play good football. The quality is really high. In Spain the tempo was not as high as it is here.”

Another aspect of Junge Pedersen’s love for football is the travel and the different cultures. At 27, she’s played in four different countries and undertakes charity world in Africa. “It’s exciting. It’s hard in the beginning because you have to adapt to new cultures but it allows me to compare to my own culture. I have a lot of teammates from different countries so learning to work together with so many people from around the world, I enjoy that a lot.”

Speaking about the charity work she does in Africa, she goes back to 2014 when she decided to get involved in the development of football in less fortunate areas. “I’ve always been interested in the development of Africa and that’s what I want to do when I end my career. I was looking for somewhere to go on holiday in 2014 and I found this Danish organisation that had volunteer work in Ghana.

“I went there for two weeks to coach some girls and I just felt I had more to give. I said I would like to help the local Ghanaian organisation there to improve conditions for girls playing football but also for boys in the villages. I’m really interested in it and I think I have something to give so that’s why I’ve continued to help.”

With the season now at an end, Junge Pedersen has some time off after Denmark failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup in France, but she’s got plenty to keep her busy during the off-season. “I’m really interested in politics,” she says. “I read a lot of books. I have a piano, sadly not here with me in Italy, but I play sometimes when I go back home. I watch a lot of football, that’s about it.”

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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