Switzerland meet Germany this Thursday in qualifying for the UEFA Women's EURO 2013, but the Swiss will take on their neighbours without Marisa Brunner, their most-capped player. Plagued by persistent knee and ankle pain for three years, the long-serving goalkeeper for the national team and German Bundesliga outfit Freiburg was forced to retire from playing in mid-March.
“I won a medal or two in Switzerland," Brunner reflected as she looked back on her career in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “But what mattered more was the way in which we won trophies. It was when we were in dominant form or everything worked out, including our tactical plan. Promotion with Freiburg last season was great. I also had a few wonderful personal moments as a goalkeeper, when I had a superb match where everything worked out completely and I managed a flawless display, anticipating every shot and catching every cross."
Passion and friendships
However, the genuinely unforgettable moments were not associated with winning trophies such as the Swiss league or cup. “Watching the young players develop, or seeing my own development but appreciating you can keep on learning, these are basically the best moments,” she said. “The things I really enjoyed were the small, everyday ones."
Brunner was an early convert to the game, joining in at school when the boys kicked a ball around during breaks, and shrugging off the inevitable cuts and bruises. It was only a matter of time before she started formal training with a boy's team at FC Aarau.
“I was involved in athletics at the same time, so I got to know other girls who wanted to give football a try," she explained. "At some point, we were no longer allowed to play with the boys, so we got together and said: let's join a girls team. The girls’ section had only just been founded by Aarau at the time. So that's what got me started, passion paired with friendship."
Before taking up station between the sticks, the keen youngster initially had to earn her spurs as an outfield player. She always kept goal in the kickabout at school, but other girls were ahead of her in training at the club. The situation initially remained unchanged when she joined the girls’ team.
“There were regional trials for girls, and I signed up both as an outfield player and a goalkeeper. They took me as an outfield player and I wept buckets, because I really wanted to play in goal. But I started my career as an outfield player and even made it into the Switzerland U-18 national team as a defender,” Brunner recalled with a laugh. “At some point the keeper picked up an injury and I was reactivated, so to speak."
As it turned out, the initial diversion via the world of defending proved a major advantage once Brunner finally arrived in goal, especially given the rapid development in the way goalkeepers are expected to play. “You have to get involved and be very flexible about your position so you can clear angled passes,” she pointed out. “It's changed a lot, and you genuinely have to be able to play. You’re also part of your team's attack, you have to initiate fast breaks with precise long or short passes, either thrown or with the boot."
Quality as the key factor
In Switzerland, as in the whole world, the women's game has changed dramatically since Brunner took it up. Many women's football clubs have begun adopting methods pioneered by the men's game, and a clutch of players have tried their luck abroad.
“Just casting an eye over our senior national team, you have to be proud of many of our players,” Brunner said. “You have Lara Dickenmann at Olympique Lyon, Martina Moser in Wolfsburg, Ana Crnogorcevic with Frankfurt and Ramona Bachmann in Malmo. What they've achieved so far is fantastic, but it's also a credit to the women's game. All these small steps will result in a magnificent end product. I'm convinced we’ll feel the impact very, very soon."
The former keeper has been contemplating the next steps in developing the women's game. “I've always said the decisive factor is the quality of women's football. If you pull out all the stops with the youngest girls, you'll see a steady increase in quality. It's vital we promote quality very early on. The whole thing will take on a life of its own and develop its own dynamic. I'm certain of this. It's important to me that women's football develops its own identity, and comes to people's attention simply because it's fantastic and enjoyable to watch."
New coach, new impetus
Brunner made 78 appearances for Switzerland, the last of them at the Cyprus Cup under new national coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who took the reins in February. The newly-retired keeper has extremely high hopes of the new boss.
“She has unbelievable charisma as a person, and she's really authentic,” Brunner enthused. “There’s no debate whatsoever about her footballing expertise. Her ability as a communicator will go down very well indeed. She knows exactly what she wants, on and off the field. Furthermore, she can express it in words and put it over clearly, and the players will open up to that. They'll be uninhibited on the field and perform to their true potential. And that will give us another fantastic boost." A 5-0 victory over Turkey in qualifying for the Women's EURO signalled a first major success in the Voss-Tecklenburg era.
As for the future, Brunner has no concrete plans as yet, but certain clear ideas as to what it might hold. “I'd be delighted to remain in football,” she stated. “I've already indicated I'd really like to become a goalkeeping coach, although the level of responsibility and workload is still wide open. There's still plenty left to do in women's football. I'm excited about how it'll turn out, and I'm simply going to take it as it comes. I'm quite open to suggestions, and I have no firm plans."