Five Bundesliga titles, three German Cups, two UEFA Champions Leagues. A Swedish league title, plus two Swedish Cups. That’s just the domestics. One World Cup, three European Championships and an Olympic Gold medal.
The individual honours? They’re not bad either: three-time Swedish league golden boot winner. Sweden’s Player of the Year – twice. Named in the 2015 World Cup all-star team and the FIFPro World XI the same year and, until very recently, the top scorer in the history of the Champions League.
The player? German legend Anja Mittag, now recently retired at the age of 35 to take up a full-time role with RB Leipzig, still up and coming in the women’s game against the rapid emergence of the men’s side of the club.
To describe the striker’s playing career as an embarrassment of riches would be to almost do her a disservice, but she admits in an exclusive interview with These Football Times that even now, she hasn’t really taken in the scale of her achievements. “Sometimes when people read me a list it’s like ‘is this really me?’” she muses. “Then you realise that yes, it is, but things move so fast you don’t have time to look back. Now I’m looking at the next part of my career and still you don’t have that time, but of course I do look back sometimes and I can’t quite believe it’s me who achieved those things.”
It would be remiss to say Mittag’s career was only highs and a detriment to the highly-charged emotional nature of competition to suggest so.
The striker missed big games and even tournaments during her career, one which started like it does for many a young girl hoping to make the break into the game. “I have a twin brother and an older brother,” she says. “I started to play because of my older brother. He played football so like many other girls, I watched him play and then I soon became a part of it.”
Born in the former East German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt, now known as Chemnitz, Mittag quickly progressed through the youth teams of several local clubs before making the step up to Turbine Potsdam in 2002, where she would go on to spend almost a decade of her career. Those five Bundesliga titles and three cups mentioned earlier; they were all won during Mittag’s time at Potsdam, as were both her Champions League titles.
Their coach, the legendary Bernd Schröder, had already long etched his name into Potsdam folklore by the time Mittag arrived shortly after the turn of the millennium. Incredibly, Schröder had been the team’s founding head coach back in 1971. Fighting against politics, during the 1980s Schroder was forbidden from taking his team to competitions in other communist countries.
After a period of struggle during the 1990s, Schröder stepped down from his coaching role and became the team manager, but returned to his previous role in 1997 and went on to recruit the likes of Conny Pohlers, Nadine Angerer and, eventually, Mittag.
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After recruiting other young players such as Babett Peter and Bianca Schmidt, Schroder turned Potsdam into the definitive force of European football – before Lyon were Lyon – with three consecutive Bundesliga titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and a second European title in 2010 to go along with their inaugural success in 2005.
In the earlier final, played over two legs, Mittag scored in the first match as Potsdam cruised past Swedish side Djurgårdens, but her penalty miss during a tense shootout against Lyon in 2010 looked to have cost her side – until teenage goalkeeper Anna Sarholz saved both Lyon’s fourth and fifth penalties and promptly stepped up to score one herself during sudden death, ensuring Potsdam’s second Champions League title.
“I think we had a coach whose practices were tough,” says Mittag of the team’s successes. “They were hard, we had to run a lot, but this helped us during games because we were always the fittest team. Maybe others would tire after 70 minutes, whereas we could play until the end.
“We had an amazing group of talented players, our coach was really good at scouting players and turning them into a team. I don’t know how we managed so well without injuries. I don’t know if it would work now because other teams are catching up, but we had incredible players who were incredibly fit.”
Alongside her fledgeling success at domestic level, Mittag won the 2004 under-19 Euros under Silvia Neid, before Neid became the first team assistant head coach and promptly saw Mittag and several other stars of the 2004 success – including Melanie Behringer and Simone Laudehr – become part of the building process ahead of Euro 2005, held in England.
They repeated the feat a year on: a mixture of the young talent developed by Neid and more established stars like Birgit Prinz, Steffi Jones and Sandra Minnert promptly dominated the tournament, winning every game ahead of beating Norway in the final at Ewood Park. Just months after her 20th birthday, Mittag was a Bundesliga winner, a European Championship Under-19 winner and, in the space of one summer, a Champions League and European Championship champion.
“I think you don’t really realise it,” she says of her success at such a young age. “You don’t take it for granted but somehow you get used to it. You hope it’s always going to be the same, you just think you will always be successful. It’s not like that, of course, and it’s not for free, you have to work. Maybe I didn’t have to handle all that at the time being so young because it was going so well. You are scoring goals left, right and centre thinking ‘oh, this is nice’, but of course, it wouldn’t always be like that. Maybe I didn’t know how to handle that thought process.”
Mittag credits Neid – who would become the head coach after the Euros in 2005, a role she would keep for over a decade – with helping her career and putting trust in both her and some of her teammates who also stepped up to the first team in time for the tournament.
“It had a huge impact for us and a huge advantage,” she recalls. “Silvia was assistant coach, she saw me playing every day, saw me develop and it’s probably because of her and what she saw in me that I made it. At the Euros, I was totally shocked because I never expected to go. I started every game, for me it was like ‘woah, what’s happening?’ Everything happened really fast but it helped a lot that we had Silvia with us.”
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Things soon changed, though. Mittag was primarily a squad player as Germany won the World Cup two years later, their most recent success on the global stage. After winning yet another European Championship in 2009, Mittag was an unused substitute in the final and was left out of the 2011 World Cup squad completely, despite her career at Potsdam going from strength to strength.
“In 2007, I played like 12 minutes against Argentina,” she says. “You don’t feel the same when you win, but you support the team and be happy because you’ve achieved something together. Sometimes it does feel a bit like ‘am I a world champion?’ Yes, I am, but I didn’t have an effect on the games. I have the medal and I’m happy, but I still have this little side effect where it feels a bit different.”
If 2007 was bad, it was beaten four years later when Mittag was omitted from the squad completely by Neid, despite having scored 15 goals as Potsdam clinched a third successive Bundesliga title. Among all the highs, Mittag describes being left out as the worst moment of her career, more so given the tournament was being held in Germany.
“That was a once in a lifetime moment,” she reflects. “I was in good shape and that was really tough mentally. It was a hard time. It was tough to not make it, really tough. We had really good players, everyone wanted to play. Players like Alex Popp were coming through. I just had to be honest with myself and say I had to work harder to get back.”
A move to Swedish giants FC Rosengård – known as Malmö at the time – provided the perfect tonic. In 2012, Mittag won the golden boot, four clear of the next best, a certain American forward by the name of Christen Press. In a league which boasted Press, as well as Manon Melis, Ramona Bachmann and the great Marta, Mittag was the standout goal scorer.
A year later, another 13 goals helped the side to the title and earned Mittag a call-up to the 2013 European Championship, where she would more than make up for the disappointment of the past three major international tournaments.
As Germany marched towards an incredible sixth straight continental triumph, Mittag scored the only goal in a tight final against Norway in a match which saw goalkeeper Angerer save not one but two penalties. “It was special, absolutely,” she smiles. “Scoring a goal in a final is a once in a lifetime moment. Nadine’s success was even better than my goal! But it’s my achievement, that’s for sure.”
Germany’s record on penalties is now infamous, particularly in England. Having won a Champions League on penalties and now seen a Euro final heavily influenced by penalties during regular game time, Mittag admits it’s a rollercoaster of emotions, drawing on her experience when she missed what looked to be a decisive penalty in the 2005 Champions League title.
“It’s a mix in the moment, wooosh,” she pauses and exhales. “You think because of you, you are losing, then two minutes later you have won, you cannot imagine. It’s a relief, definitely, after Anna saved those penalties in 2005. You feel ashamed because you feel you’ve let your team down, even though I took that responsibility and was one of the first to put my hand up.”
Germany’s dominance over Europe would end when they were shocked by Denmark at Euro 2017, a match which would turn out to be Mittag’s last for her country.
You’d think there was a secret to winning six consecutive European Championship titles, but if there is, Mittag is at a loss to explain it. “I don’t really know either,” she laughs. “We had good players coming through, we always qualified for a youth team Euros or a World Cup [and] that always helped players develop.
“We were lucky to have that generation of players and players coming through who would fill their shoes. You had idols like Birgit or Nadine you could look up to, so girls were always becoming more interested in football.”
At club level, Mittag added a second successive league title to her resume in 2014, before spending the next few years club hopping. A season in France with Paris Saint-Germain was followed by a year back in Germany with Wolfsburg, before returning to Rosengård for two years in 2017, but her career at domestic level wouldn’t again hit the same heights.
She looks back at her time fondly, particularly playing in Sweden at the peak of the league’s competitiveness: “You had so many good players and teams like Tyresö back then who were a huge team. When you came up against these teams, you knew you had a great competition. Everyone spoke English and it’s a lovely country, so I think that attracted a lot of people.”
She admits her moves to PSG and Wolfsburg, despite both being giants in their own countries, never materialised as planned. “It didn’t ever really go how I was thinking,” she reflects. “I went to Paris because I wanted to win the Champions League again. PSG at this time had great players and I felt they were building something really good. It was tough there, it wasn’t as easy as Sweden. A lot of players left after one year so I never felt comfortable or happy.
“You have to be happy in what you do to perform in a positive way. I got the opportunity to go to Wolfsburg but it didn’t really go as I planned there, so I went back to Sweden.”
One place she never played, though, was in England, and even at international level she had to wait until her 50th and final international goal to find the net against the Lionesses. “I would have loved to have played there actually. The league wasn’t as professional as it is now, though. I’m a bit sad actually, I think I would have liked it in England.”
To counter-punch the final international goal, I’m quick to remind Mittag of the 2015 third-place playoff when the Lionesses recorded a first-ever win over Germany to win a historic bronze medal, with Denmark’s victory two years later showing Germany could indeed be caught.
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“Yes, I remember,” she laughs, before discussing whether or not others have simply caught up to Germany, or have her own country slowed down. “I think it’s a mix. I don’t think we do less but maybe as I said before, you take it for granted. Why would you question what you do when you’re so successful? When you lose against Denmark, you should start questioning yourselves.
“You look at countries now like England, like the Netherlands and I think we now have some work to do to not fall behind further. Martina [Voss-Tecklenburg] is a great coach and I think she will build a great team. It’s a talented group, but maybe we took what we had for granted.”
There was one more highlight for Mittag in the shape of an Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016, sandwiched in between her two disappointments on the international stage. Despite winning a World Cup and three European Championships, Mittag describes the Olympic success as her best moment in football. “I think because I played a bigger part at the Olympics, I started every game. It was such a great moment. The whole tournament, we weren’t playing brilliantly, but as a team and the way we experienced it was the best moment of my career, definitely.”
One year on, her international career would end as Denmark came from 1-0 down to stun the Germans, who for two decades previous had been untouchable on the international stage. Despite an array of emotions trying to keep Germany in the game and therefore her international career alive, Mittag admits she knew as the clock ticked down she was walking away after the game.
“I knew already. I knew I had to enjoy it because it was my last one. They told me I’d feel it when it’s time and it is like that. It comes to you, that’s it. You know it’s over and it’s time to be happy with what you’ve achieved “I think in the moment you are too busy trying to change the game [to think about retirement]. Mentally it was something we were not used to, but we didn’t play well. I felt it after – it was like ‘ok, shit’, I didn’t imagine it would happen like this in a quarter-final, but that’s the way it was.”
It’s not how a player who had achieved what Mittag had deserved to go out, but her career briefly continued back with Rosengård, before she joined RB Leipzig over a year ago to help the team, then in the third division, progress to the top level.
Mittag continued playing, mixing on and off the field work during the final year of her career, before hanging her boots up for good after Leipzig were promoted to the second division.
Already top of the league with three wins from three, things look good for anyone hoping to see the Leipzig name take on the likes of Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and Turbine Potsdam in the coming seasons. “We have a plan over the course of a few years,” says Mittag. “It’s a big goal for us to build a really good team and a team around the team. I do some individual training work with some players, players who have the time to come to me and do some finishing work and for me to try and help them get better. If I’m in the office, I’m analysing or scouting, watching lots of videos.”
Mittag is also hopeful for the future of the national team as they prepare for Euro 2021 to be held in England, now during the summer of 2022. “I think Martina trusts young players and gives them opportunities. She put in young players last year at a place like Wembley in front of 80,000 fans. You cannot feel more trust than that as a player, you want to give that back to your coach. I’m really optimistic, we have some great young players, let’s see.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty