Nahikari: Nothing beats playing in a final

Having represented Spain in five finals, and ended up on the losing team on each occasion, Nahikari Garcia could be forgiven for thinking that lady luck is not on her side. She has already won silver and bronze medals at the UEFA U-17 European Championship, three silver medals at the UEFA U-20 European Championship and a silver medal at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Championship Costa Rica 2014.

Yet, despite having been unable to claim that elusive winner’s medal, she is determined to look on the bright side: “Nothing beats playing in a final. If you stop and think about it, it’s amazing what we’ve achieved. We may have lost, but it’s so tough just to reach a final, and we deserve credit for that too. It’s not something that just happens. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices.”

They could be the words of a seasoned veteran or coach. Yet Nahikari is still only 19 years old, and is currently preparing to represent her country once more at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016. And clearlythe Real Sociedad striker has no thoughts of giving up on her dreams of glory yet.

“Every time we play in one of these big tournaments, I draw strength from the idea that this is what I want to be doing. You see the other side of women’s football. You’re treated like a professional at the highest level,” she toldFIFA.com.

It is all a far cry from the status of her sport back at home, although the women’s game is slowly but surely moving in the right direction in Spain. “This sport has a future. The players have already done so much. We’ve got great footballers playing at the biggest clubs in Europe, and at last we can watch the senior team play on the mainstream television channels. Here’s hoping that this is just the start,” said the youngster, who is currently juggling her football commitments with the second year of a medicine degree.

Nahikari has the air of an eternal optimist, forever seeing the glass half full. “When I was little, there were no women footballers to look up to. My favourite player was Raul Gonzalez of Real Madrid. He was a real fighter, maybe not the most technically gifted but always supporting and battling for his team,” she explained. “Now I love watching the girls who play for the senior national team: players like Vicky or Irene Paredes, genuine role models.” Indeed, these days Nahikari can point to no shortage of icons in the women’s game, both in Spain and further afield. And in her own country she is already very much among them, although it still surprises her when she gets recognised in the street.

It’s going to be tough, but we’re travelling with high hopes and we’re going to give it our all.

However, as we have seen, fate has been cruel to Nahikari Garcia. And not just in the number of times she has lost in finals, but also in the manner of the defeats. Perhaps her lowest moment came against France, in injury time at the end of the final of the U-20 European Championship in Slovakia. Finding herself free with just the goalkeeper to beat, on a pitch heavily affected by torrential rain, the talented striker missed a golden opportunity to score.

“Obviously, it hurt a lot. But I was able to get over it much better than I’d expected. I got a lot of support from the whole team. We stayed really close and the group showed a lot of maturity. Even on social media, I received so many messages of support,” she explained.

That sense of team spirit is the result of over three years playing together under Jorge Vilda and, more recently, Pedro Lopez. Vilda, now coach of the senior team, worked with the group at U-17 level and led them to qualification for Papua New Guinea. He has been succeeded by Lopez, who will be in charge at the upcoming tournament, only the second time La Roja have competed at the U-20 Women’s World Championship following their appearance in Thailand in 2004.

“We haven’t noticed the change too much because our method of working has remained largely the same. They work together, they help each other and this allows the different teams to develop. As players, it really helps us when moving from one team to the next,” she explained. “They’re very close to us, very accessible, and we’re grateful because it means we have the trust to talk to them about anything.”

Fighting for the titleSpain have been drawn in Group B in Papua New Guinea, alongside Canada, Nigeria and Japan, who defeated them in the final of the U-17 World Cup in Costa Rica two years ago. Yet Nahikari sounded a warning for Spain’s rivals: “It’s going to be tough, but we’re travelling with high hopes and we’re going to give it our all.”

The Spaniard is now preparing for a long training camp, and is clearly confident of having an extended run in the tournament. All of which means she will do well to find room in her bags for a few books on medicine, to avoid falling behind with her studies. On that front, however, Nahikari does have a trick up her sleeve.

“Once I did ask the national team doctor to explain a few things to me,” she smiled. “The first year of studies went well. This year I’m taking less modules, to make it more manageable. I wanted to find a balance, so that neither my football nor my studies become a burden on the other.”

This intelligent young footballer is already making great strides away from the field of play. And although fate has so far dealt her a cruel hand in major finals, it is surely only a matter of time before lady luck shines on her on the biggest stage.