Meeting Munich: Gina Lewandowski and Niki Cross - Bayern Munich’s American Pair
The next instalment of the Meeting Munich series sees Sports Editor Jonathan Harding speak to Gina Lewandowski and Niki Cross of the FC Bayern Munich Ladies team about the season, moving to Europe, and the rise of soccer in America.
Within a minute of sitting down, Gina Lewandowski and Niki Cross have made me completely forget my convoluted journey to Aschheim, the FC Bayern Munich ladies training ground. Their genuine smiles, sensible answers and intriguing stories left the cold, dark air of December outside.
“There’s a great culture around the club. Everyone knows the name wherever you go in Germany, and pretty much anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of pride and support playing for them,” said Cross. Bayern’s women may not be at the same level of dominance as the men – Wolfsburg, FFC Frankfurt and FFC Potsdam are the leading female teams in Germany – but this relatively young squad is looking to challenge.
Lewandowski and Cross are two (of three) Americans in the team, and at 28 years old the pair bring the required experience. Cross played football in the USA, Australia and Sweden before moving to Germany. “I’ve always wanted to play here. My dad was born in Regensburg so I have dual citizenship. I thought it was important to figure out a little bit of my dad’s culture and where he came from.” Lewandowski was a part of the 2008 treble-winning Frankfurt side, a team that “were considered more professional. A lot of the players didn’t work or go to school. Here in Munich a lot of the girls are younger and so go to school or work.”
The balance has never been easy for sportswomen, who often suffer from under appreciation and over expectation. The success of America’s women’s team has naturally seen a huge growth of interest from young girls and women all over the United States. Only in recent years with the men’s players playing in some of the world’s best leagues (and the gradual improvement of the MLS), has the men’s game started to close the gap. But it is still there. “I think the success of the national team means that a lot of girls look up to them. They’re role models. Now that the league is taking off and getting more popular, I think a lot of young girls are starting to take an interest in it,” said Lewandowski.
Cross agrees. “I think growing up as a boy you have so many other role models between sports - soccer players, basketball players. Kobe Bryant is much more glorified than being a men’s soccer player [in the USA]. But then when you come to Europe, men’s soccer players are the same thing as Kobe Bryant. The success of the women’s soccer team means that for girls, they’re the highest role model in sports.”
Both Lewandowski and Cross started playing as children, with friends, family and neighbours. Soon it became clear this was a passion and not just a hobby and after working their way through the US system and spells at different clubs, the pair find themselves at Bayern Munich. Aside from both being defenders, the two are contrasting figures in terms of height, sporting experience and the demons they are battling.
“My main goal is just to get fit again,” said Lewandowski, who has struggled with injuries over the last year. While at Frankfurt the wing back, preferably on the left side in her own words, was actually invited to join the national team but contractual agreements with her club meant she was unable to attend. “We had one more game left so I couldn’t make it. Everything was planned, but it was obviously not meant to be. I’ve had some contact whilst being here at Munich.”
Cross, on the other hand, is a regular starter, but is keen to improve after “a little bit of a rough patch coming into the break. Going out of the cup, earlier than we expected, was really disappointing.” As a central defender there’s no doubt she’s keen to avoid games like the one just before the winter break, a 2-2 draw against newly promoted Hoffenheim in which Bayern threw away a two-goal lead.
Their return after December and January will most likely define their season. “Potsdam will be a good test for us. Regardless of whether you’re in the cup or out, the goal is always to make the top two and get Champions League. We’ve made it a little more difficult for ourselves but I think it’s still possible,” said Cross about their schedule in February. After third-placed Potsdam, they face recent-treble winners (and current second-place) Wolfsburg.
As the pair head out for one of the final training sessions of the year, they talk fondly of their impending trips home for the festive season. Potsdam and Wolfsburg can wait.