“More than anything, it was a huge shock; I’d never had such a major injury before,” Leonie Maier told FIFA.com, recalling the moment a ruptured cruciate ligament was diagnosed following an incident in a Germany training session on 11 March 2014. It was the start of 22 months of hard work as an operation was followed by a long and difficult rehabilitation programme.
The 22-year-old spent countless hours in the gym working towards her comeback. “I did my rehab work at home in Stuttgart and I was there every day,” she said. “When I came off crutches and was able to do more exercises, I was in the fitness studio twice each day, so all that added up,” she answered when asked how much time she spent on equipment and stability exercises during that time.
When listening to the Bayern Munich full-back, it quickly becomes apparent that she is a fighter who refused to let this difficult setback get her down. Maier tried to remain upbeat throughout and even take something positive from the experience. “I looked forward to rehab every day,” she explained. “I was overjoyed the first time I worked up a sweat, because it meant I could finally do something again.”
Having clear targets helped Maier to give her all in the gym as she focused on returning to action for her club as soon as possible, with the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ in the back of her mind at all times. “There’s no doubt that I thought about it,” she recalled, “but I always believed in myself, never wasted a moment thinking I couldn’t do it and managed to stay positive.”
Rewarded for her efforts
This impressive display of willpower paid dividends. Maier made her comeback for Bayern after a seven-month layoff and was capped again for the national side a short time later, making her a logical choice for this summer’s Canada 2015 squad. She has missed only 60 minutes of Germany’s World Cup campaign so far and has delivered consistently solid performances along the way, providing support in attack down the wing while also seeking to stifle the opposition at the back.
Such character and strength of will are ideal attributes for a player in Maier’s position, tasked with repeatedly pushing forward and getting back over 90 minutes. One perfect ambassador for this role is former Germany captain Philipp Lahm, who is clearly a big influence on the 22-year-old. Perhaps she was recalling his goal in the Opening Match of the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ when she cut in from the wing against France before taking a shot that was deflected by a French hand to yield a penalty.
That move ultimately enabled Germany to force extra time and penalties. “You could see what can be achieved with willpower, and we’ve got plenty of that in our team,” said a delighted Maier. “Everyone battles for everyone else. Although things didn’t go well [against France] we managed to fight back.”
Focused on the road ahead
There is no doubt that this tenacity will be indispensable once again in the semi-final against the USA. Maier believes that the North Americans are “physically and mentally tougher” than France, even though their most recent opponents were “technically very impressive”. The encounter will also give the German a chance to take revenge for another tough setback earlier in her career, when she was part of the team that lost the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012 final to the Stars and Stripes.
Nevertheless, Maier has long since put this experience behind her: “I think it’ll be completely different from that U-20 Women’s World Cup final in 2012,” she reflected. “Both teams are completely different. We’re now in the senior side, the highest level you can reach, facing a match between two top teams who will give nothing away. It’ll be a very tough battle.”
Despite this daunting prospect, Maier is not a player who dwells on the negative, instead choosing to look ahead as she did during her period on the sidelines. Fans watching the semi-final can once again look forward to seeing a full-back who works tirelessly down the right flank, prepared to give everything to emulate her role model and ultimately hoist a World Cup trophy aloft.
One thing that may have helped Maier along the way is the fact that she had the opportunity to meet Lahm shortly before departing for Canada. Bayern’s men’s and women’s teams both became German champions this year, an achievement they celebrated together in Munich’s Marienplatz. “Although we didn’t get a chance to speak at length, we were all able to chat together and they [Bayern’s 2014 FIFA World Cup winners] wished us luck,” she grinned.
Based on Germany’s appearances in Canada so far, it seems this support has helped. Nevertheless, the majority of their success has come not through luck but hard work – both before and during this Women’s World Cup.