In summer 2012, a 29-year-old Dutch midfielder joined his old love Hamburger SV from Tottenham Hotspur for over 13 million Euros. While Rafael van der Vaart earned millions, HSV women’s player Marisa Ewers had to leave the club.
Hamburg’s most famous football club needed to save money and could not afford a women’s football team in the Bundesliga anymore. A highly questionable decision – to phrase it politely.
Ewers, who was born in Hamburg, then joined the women’s team of Bayer Leverkusen. But it was not just the new opportunity that drove the 23-year-old.
“I wanted to do something as well as playing football to have an easier start at my post-football career. You never know when your football days are over,” Ewers explains.
She started an undergraduate programme at the nearby renowned German Sports University Cologne. “We trained early in the morning and in the evening. It was a perfect opportunity for the players to study or work at the same time,” says Ewers.
Being a professional footballer while studying in your free time, this rarely happens at men’s teams.
“Everyone expects more from the men and they get more money. As a player, I would not be surprised if my club would not allow me to study. But studies and qualifications are important, even when it is just a coaching license. But a lot of the guys do not think about anything besides football,” Ewers says.
After finishing her BA in Sport Management and Communication, the midfielder took a small study break. But Ewers would not be Ewers if she did not aim for a new target.
“I wanted to try something new after nine years of playing in the Bundesliga. The professionalism of the WSL impressed me,” explains the German midfielder. Ewers got her WSL move in 2016, when she joined Birmingham City.
More and more international players are joining British teams these days. Especially United States women’s national soccer team stars like Alex Morgan or Tobin Heath, who are bringing the WSL to another level. Ewers is delighted by the growth of the league.
She says, “The Americans represent a big opportunity for the league. WSL games started to get broadcast in the US and Germany and we get more sponsors. Even the men’s stadiums start getting opened for us.”
But growing publicity does not mean that female footballers get better treatment in every aspect. Especially in COVID times, the FA sometimes appears to apply inconsistent standards.
“The female U-21 academy teams, our foundation, had to stop playing. But the men are allowed to play, even the U-9 academy players. The 2nd team is a big support for us, especially with COVID,” says Ewers. Female and male football teams rely on their 2nd teams when players of the first squad get injured or test positive for COVID.
Although the pressure on the FA to change this contentious decision is increasing, Ewers is not idly waiting for the FA to act. She has started studying a sports directorship masters. This is her second postgraduate degree programme, after she finished her MA in Sports Management and the Business of Football at Birkbeck, London, while still playing for Birmingham City.
“It takes a lot of commitment to study and to play professional football. But I told myself ‘just go for it’, you will be proud of yourself in the end. And a master’s degree in English is really good for your CV,” explains Ewers.
Managing all these different tasks takes commitment. Sometimes you need to take a risk. That is why Ewers changed sides in Birmingham last year, moving across the city to fierce rivals Aston Villa, at the time a Championship club.
“I was not satisfied with my working experiences at Birmingham. Aston Villa made me a great offer last year to play football and to work for them as a First Team Analyser and Operations Officer.”
The risk paid off. The Villains got promoted, topping the league, in a COVID-shortened season. “When I arrived, Aston Villa had a plan to get to the top league in three or four years.”
Now, playing in the WSL, the goal has changed. Ewers explains: “The main aim is to survive this year. We already had to isolate and postpone our games. There are a lot of challenges we have to overcome.”
“If we are able to survive and establish ourselves, we will see what will happen in the next two, three years. We do not want to play for the 10th place. In the long term, we want to play for places in the top half of the table.”
Ewers knows that it will not be easy to achieve these goals: “Just look at our men’s team, they barely survived. But they are doing really well this year. It takes time and trust.”
Regardless of what happens on the pitch, Aston Villa Women players are prepared for life, thanks in part to the work of Villa’s sporting director, former England international Eni Aluko.
Aluko has initiated the Students of the Game programme at Villa. The programme supports female Villa players from youth to first team to study at Aston University while playing football. The collaboration with the university and the Professional Footballers’ Association attracts players to join the club. For example, Ewers’ compatriot Caro Siems, who joined the club this summer to finish her psychology degree.
Even if an Aston Villa player is studying at a different university, the club supports their players. This is why the Villains are part-funding Ewers sports directorship master’s degree, despite the midfielder studying at the University Campus of Football Business in Manchester.
A lot can change in a footballer’s career. Just eight years ago, her club shut down the funding of the women’s team. Today, Ewers is finishing her second master’s degree while gaining work experience in the front office and captaining a WSL team.
The German midfielder is hopeful that all the work she has done will stand her in good stead for the future. She says, “You never know when your football days are over.” A day that Ewers does not have to be afraid of.