Women's Football

Rachel Yankey: Playing to win

Though still only 27, Rachel Yankey has already crammed enough into her remarkable career to be considered one of Britain's most prominent and influential pioneers for the women's game.

The Arsenal and England forward made history, after all, by becoming the country's first professional female footballer at the tender age of 20, and again five years later when she was named an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her services to sport. Yet, for all this, and despite the three league titles, five FA Cups and 66 international caps on which she can look back, Yankey welcomed in 2007 with the gleeful, nervous anticipation of a youngster just starting out in the game.

Why? Because this year promises to be her most rewarding yet.

The opportunity to venture into uncharted territory with both club and country beckons, a challenge she will begin tackling in late April with  Arsenal's two-legged duel against Umea of Sweden  in the UEFA Women's Cup final. For Yankey, whose club career started with the Gunners at 16 and has now come full circle after spells with Canada's Laval Dynamite, Fulham, Birmingham City and USA's New Jersey Wildcats, the prospect of conquering Europe in the red-and-white jersey is the stuff of dreams, particularly as she grew up supporting the club from the Highbury terraces.

UEFA's club showpiece seems destined, however, to remain merely the second-most significant event on the 27-year-old's calendar, with September's  FIFA Women's World Cup  bringing with it an opportunity to address the one, glaring omission on her glittering CV. Yankey, who was just 15 when England's women made their only prior appearance on the world stage, knows that her national team approach the competition as underdogs, as do Arsenal theirs, but in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, she insisted that both will be playing to win.

FIFA.com: Rachel, you have quite a year to look forward to. With the UEFA Cup final first on the agenda, how satisfying is it to have reached this stage of the competition?
Rachel Yankey: It's pretty crazy actually, thinking that we have a European final just round the corner, and it really is incredibly satisfying. We knew Brondby would be a massive test for us in the semi-finals because we'd played them in group stages last year and lost, but there was a big belief this time that we could go all the way and in the end we fully deserved to go through. The squad has really come together over the past year, I think, and it's such a strong group of players that you have competition for every position. It's meant that, when one player is out, someone else slots in and no-one really notices the difference. I think that Vic (Akers, Arsenal coach) must be delighted with how we've gelled together, given that we've been without some top players like Faye (White) and Kelly (Smith) because of injury. 

Would it be fair to say that the final will be the biggest game of your club career?

Definitely. No English team has ever made it to a European final before, so we've achieved something special just by getting there. But now we are there, I want to win it.

*Umea have won this trophy twice before, though. Would you agree that they are the favourites? *Yeah, I'd say that's fair. We don't possess the kind of experience they have at this level, so we'll definitely go in there as underdogs. If I'm being honest, I don't actually know too much about them other than through their reputation, but I know that as the final comes closer, Vic will have us working on ways to play against them. They're obviously a top side who've earned the respect they're held in throughout the game, but we're pretty confident in our own abilities.

*What do you know of  Marta , and how much are you looking forward to facing up to her? *I view it as a great challenge. I've never played against her before, but I always remember that my coach in New Jersey, Charlie Nemo, spoke very highly of her. That was a few years ago when she was still very young, but he told me then that she was going to be the best player in world and obviously he's been proved right. I'm really looking forward to playing against her and hopefully our defence can keep her relatively quiet.

*Is there an added challenge in attempting to go one better than the men's team, who obviously  came so close in the UEFA Champions League  last year? *It would be brilliant if we could, that's for sure. I thought the men's team were magnificent last season and there's no doubt they surprised a lot of people in achieving what they did. Like them, we'll definitely go into this final as underdogs, but if we get a bit more luck than they did hopefully the outcome will be different. Vic is also the kit man for the men's team and I know he takes a lot from them in terms of their training and the standards they set. Personally, I'm just delighted to a part of it all because I've been an Arsenal fan since I was a little girl. Ian Wright was my hero back then and I used to go along to the games and stand at the Clock End at the old Highbury, so it's great to be here, winning trophies as an Arsenal player. 

With England, you've waited a long time to go to a FIFA Women's World Cup. Now, at 27, do you think you're going to China at the peak of your powers?
I'd like to think so, yeah. I certainly learned a lot from playing in the European Championships, as we all did - both about ourselves and other teams. I'd never been to a major championship before that, but it opened my eyes and I'll definitely be bit more aware about what's in store this time. I also think I'll be more confident in myself. Again, I know we'll be underdogs, but we'll go there with good intentions of trying to win the title and hopefully we can surprise a few people.

It's just fantastic to be there after missing out on the last two, particularly given how we qualified against France. After being knocked out by them last time around, getting that result was important for us psychologically, I think, and it also proved that we can beat the best. We'll need a bit of luck in China, but you have to go in thinking that you can win it, otherwise what's the point? We didn't make it to the last two World Cups because we weren't good enough, simple as that, but I'm hopeful that we now have the upper body strength and skill levels to compete with the very top teams. The way I see it, we have nothing to lose. 

*You admit that England will start the tournament as underdogs, so who do you see as the favourites? *You'll be looking at  the usual suspects , I would think. USA are a brilliant side, Germany you can almost guarantee will be there or thereabouts, and Sweden are another team who'll probably be up there. Technically, China are also very good and obviously they will have home advantage, but I think that, for nearly everyone, Germany and the US will be considered the teams to beat.

*How far do you think the women's game has come since you started out and how important is it for you to play a part in its development? *It's hugely important to me because all of us in the game need to pull together if we're going to make a difference. I go around primary schools coaching young kids and it's important that girls see that there's no reason why they can't play football. If I can be a role model in that respect, fantastic.

When I think back to when I was at school, I never even knew there was an England women's team, never mind that there were clubs with their own teams, so for ages I just tried to sneak in boys' competitions. A whole new world opened up for me when I realised what was out there, and it makes me proud now when people stop me in the street because they recognise me from Arsenal or England. The awareness of women's football in that respect has just gone through the roof in Britain, and hopefully I can play a part in raising its profile even further over the next year.

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