Nicole Kozlova narrowly missed out on EURO qualification with Ukraine
The team’s next challenge: reaching the FIFA Women's World Cup
"We may not be the most technically gifted team, but we're fighters."
“For sure I’m disappointed, but I’m the kind of person player who knows you can't change anything once it's happened. We have World Cup qualifiers happening this fall, so the focus is on restarting, improving and fixing our mistakes.
"Obviously there were mistakes on our part that we need to put right, and we need to work on how we can take our game to the next level, how we can compete. You have to move on but it’s hard for sure. Personally, it was also upsetting, as it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you’re not sure when the next one will come. Still, you have to put it behind you and just keep moving on and see what you can do next.”
The words are those of Nicole Kozlova, who was reflecting on Ukraine's agonising failure to reach the UEFA Women’s EURO in an interview with FIFA.com. In their play-off last month, the eastern Europeans lost 4-1 on aggregate to Northern Ireland, ending their hopes of a second EURO appearance after their 2009 debut.
But, as the old adage goes, when one door shuts, another one opens. And just last Friday, the European qualifying draw for the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ unfolded, placing Ukraine in Group B alongside Spain, Scotland, Hungary and the Faroe Islands.
"At first glance you think: wow, that’s a tough group," Kozlova said. "For example, I’ve never played against Spain or Hungary, although we have faced Scotland a few times, so it’s a mix of new and challenging teams.
"But in football, anyone can win on their day. You see it more and more and in the men’s game as well. The gap has narrowed, which proves that anybody can beat anybody.
"I think if we have the right mentality, set up well and everyone does all they can, then we have a chance. You can never say we don’t have a chance. We have to give everything and make the best out of it so that hopefully we’ll get another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
In 31st place on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking, Ukraine may not be the favourites to win the group, but the 20-year-old is banking on the collective strength of a team renowned for its passion and fighting spirit under coach Nataliia Zinchenko.
"Anytime there’s a game on TV, we watch it together and learn more about the game," said Kozlova. "We all read books about this and that coach, their tactics and so on. I just love seeing that passion. We always put up a fight and, while we may not be the most technically gifted side, we really battle. That’s who we are and you kind of have to embrace that fact. But as long as we have that attitude, we’ll get the results."
Kozlova brings unique experience to the team, albeit more in terms of physicality than mentality. Toronto-born and raised, the striker currently plays for Virginia Tech in the USA and has benefitted from a particular type of training there.
"Over here they’re very focused on the athletic side – especially the college teams," she said. "You come in and it’s fitness test after fitness test. It’s really based on the pace of the game. Just look at the US women’s national team. They maintain a high press for the full 90 minutes, but that takes a special level of fitness.
"That’s what I bring when I join up for training camps – my best form and condition as well as an intensity and pace of play. Attitude-wise, it’s a game of football and it’s kind of the same everywhere – the passion and love for the game, even if you might look at the game a bit differently.
"But honestly, I don’t think that I bring anything that different. Everybody has their own skills, which is why it’s the most popular sport in the world. Everybody can play; indeed everybody does play, and differently."
Kozlova, who made her international debut in 2019, is also aware that she is benefiting from the opportunities offered to her by Canada and the USA. In Ukraine, those kinds of opportunities are still limited for young girls, even if women's football is slowly moving in the right direction.
"We’re just trying to grow its popularity," she said. "The base is not going to grow if you don't have a lot of young girls playing. The number of girls that stick with the game is small – even here in Canada. Among the girls I played with when I was 14, 15, some of them have left and maybe four or five of us are still serious about the sport. Even with a big pool of players, it’s getting smaller and smaller.
"In Ukraine you really need that base, but they don’t really have it at the moment. But that’s changing. They recently made it obligatory for professional men’s teams to have a women’s team as well, so it is slowly changing."
That initiative will surely pay dividends in the long term, something Kozlova also has one eye on with her studies, having majored in computational modelling and data analysis, and minored in mathematics.
"I’ve always been a kind of analyst," she said. "It’s always made sense to me and I often joke about it on the pitch. If there’s a free-kick I’m like: I need to hit from this angle for it to end up in the corner. Of course, I’m just kidding around and not actually calculating it.
"For sure, though, I’ve always paid attention to numbers, even if I haven’t really applied it to my game yet. I’d like to use my degree to become a football analyst, as I find analysing different tactics and things like percentage stats and shots on goal all very interesting."
And who knows, perhaps Kozlova will continue to be involved in Ukrainian women's football after she hangs up her boots and use her expertise to help further its development.