Fast, strong, courageous, smart and skilful, Caitlin Foord is not only one of the Matilda’s best players she is one of the most valuable soccer players in the world. Having played at the very top level of her profession in forward, mid-field and defensive roles, Foord is no one-trick wonder. Unlike many other footballers she is versatile. A coach can drop her into almost any position on the pitch knowing that she will do a great job. Caitlin Foord is a star of the game and she has been a star for quite some time… and she is still only twenty-three years old.
First international at sixteen
Foord played her first game of soccer for Australia in a friendly match against New Zealand when she was only sixteen years old. Later in the same year she played again for the Matildas but this time at the sport’s ultimate tournament… the World Cup Finals in Germany. Her participation in Germany made her the youngest Australian to ever wear the green and gold at a World Cup event.
In the booming world of women’s professional sport, Foord’s time in the sporting spotlight has provided her with the opportunity to play the sport that she loves all over the world. Her international experience is not restricted to matches where she represents Australia either. As well as playing for the Young Matildas and the Matildas in international tournaments in all kinds of exotic destinations, Foord has also played for professional football clubs in domestic pro competitions in the USA and Japan. It’s one thing to play a one-off match or a cluster of matches while representing your country in an overseas game or tournament that lasts, at the most, for a few weeks but to get the chance to spend an entire season playing as a pro, living and working in another culture and country is quite another thing.
With the world of sport… and professional sport… growing exponentially every year, young athletes may turn their eyes to overseas destinations for possible opportunities to play sport and earn a living. Consider the growth of soccer (Association Football), rugby, rugby league, Australian rules football, cricket, surfing, golf, netball, basketball and tennis (to name just a few sports) in the Asian/Pacific region alone and the picture builds as to why a young sports person, male or female, might think that a move overseas could be a good idea. Given that soccer champion, Caitlin Foord, has more experience than most in the world of global sports participation, I was thrilled when she agreed to talk to me about how she came to become an overseas footballer and how she found the experience.
First overseas gig with Sky Blue FC
Foord scored her first international playing gig when she signed for the Sky-Blue FC in 2013 when she was only eighteen years old. Sky-Blue, one of the foundation franchises in the new (at the time) U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, had been looking around for international talent to enhance their roster for the new national competition and were thrilled to have Foord join them at their Piscataway base in New Jersey.
Foord explains that her performances with the Matildas at the 2011 World Cup finals opened doors for her. As a sixteen-year-old, playing a significant role in the Matildas line-up throughout the tournament in Germany caught the eyes of talent scouts from several professional clubs from both the U.S.A. and Europe. It was clear to Foord, from a young age, that the best way for any young Australian player to progress their career was to move to one of the top overseas leagues. After helping Australian W-League team Sydney FC to a premiership win in the 2012-13 season she chose an offer from the Sky-Blue over several European opportunities for several reasons. As a young kid, living away from the support of home, family and friends, she decided that the route to career enhancement that would be easiest on her with the maximum potential benefit to her, as a player, would be the best way to go. She reasoned that given that the U.S. was English speaking and that New Jersey was most likely to be similar to her home, in a cultural sense, the U.S.A. option would be less of a strain than a European base. Additionally, the U.S. had risen to become the international power-house of women’s soccer in those years and the high quality of the coaching and athletic programs available seemed to suggest that playing for the Sky-Blues would also be great for her as a player.
While Foord was very aware of the fact that she would be one of the youngest players in the U.S. NWSL competition, and that she would be one of the few kids living away from home during the season (and that this would present its own difficulties), she reasoned that since she had already been playing at this level of soccer for some years now she would be able to manage the move from Australia successfully. She was right. Several successful years with Sky-Blue followed, mixed in with stints with Sydney FC and Perth Glory. Caitlin Foord had become a globetrotting sporting star!
A radical change in direction came for Foord in 2017 when she signed for Vegalta Sendai… a team from the top-flight division of the professional women’s league in Japan. She explains that Sendai talent scouts had come to Australia in 2016 in the hope of finding an Australian player to bolster their 2017 squad. The scouts attended several W-League games, including several where Foord was playing, and they liked what they saw. The Sendai Goal Keeper, American, Brittany Cameron, had already played a lot of football with Foord (back in Foord’s Sky-Blue days), and this led the Sendai officials to approach Cameron to ask her if she would feel out whether Foord might have a possible interest in a stint in Japan. While Foord expressed an interest to Cameron she didn’t think anything would come of the discussion. She was wrong. In early 2017 Foord signed with Vegalta Sendai on a permanent basis.
Foord signs with Vegalta Sendai
Foord was grateful for the approach that Sendai showed to the negotiations. There was a lot of goodwill expressed all around. Sendai understood that Foord would be keen to play football in Australia at the end of the Japanese season and they expressed a willingness to allow her to be available to an Australian team as soon as her commitments in Japan had concluded… even though she would still, officially, be under contract to Sendai until the end of the year. Sydney FC were also willing to co-operate with such a flexible deal. They knew that Foord would not be available until late in the season, but they still wanted to keep a spot open for her.
So, Foord was able to depart to Japan knowing that both her Japanese and Australian clubs had her back and were willing to bend contractual obligations to enable her to play in both leagues if possible. Foord was aware that Sydney FC would be within their rights to back out on the verbal deal if another player came along who could make a longer-term commitment, but she felt confident that Sydney would still want her late in the year and, even if they didn’t, another team would! Cooperation in negotiations and looking for win-win arrangements seemed to be at the core of Foord’s movements from club to club. In circumstances where players need to play in multiple leagues in different countries (which seems to be typical of the present state of women’s professional sport) to make a decent living out of being a professional athlete, just such cooperation between clubs, players and management seems critical.
Foord spoke candidly about her experience with Sendai. She speaks of the quality of Japanese football, Japanese clubs (and Sendai in particular), Japanese supporters and what it is like to live in a Japanese city in glowing terms. There is much that she loved about her Vegalta experience. At the same time, she learned a lot during her stay and discovered that not every aspect of playing sport away from your comfort zone is up-side.
Foord has developed an enormous amount of respect for the Japanese approach to soccer. She cautions anyone who wants to have a crack at playing in a Japanese league to accept, before you get there, that their standards of technical skill are extraordinarily high and that high levels of technical skill are expected. That Japanese soccer players excel in the skill department is no myth. Though it is hard to believe, Foord assured me that she was the least technically skilled person at her club. She explained that even the kids who got called up from lower grades and came into the team as subs were better than her. She would often marvel at the six-year-old kids who would turn up at training who could juggle a soccer ball better than most fully grown Australian players can. She laughingly told me that these six-year-olds probably even had a better first touch than she did.
Japanese game has extraordinary level of technical skill
Foord also explained that it is not just the level of technical ability that is surprising within the Japanese clubs. The extend that players go to achieve their expertise is also extraordinary. She said that she learned ways and means of practicing and developing skills that she had never dreamed of before. Foord was embarrassed by the fact that her lack of skill with her left foot sometimes drew laughs from her teammates. From a technical perspective one of the things that she took away from her stint of playing soccer in Japan was a greatly improved left foot!
According to Foord, the high level of skill that the Japanese players have, enables them to play a style of game that is heavily focused on possession. While Japanese players can be smaller in stature and therefor not as physically strong or fast as many European, Australian or American players their ability to move the ball around, perform precise and quick one-twos and pass accurately to team-mates means that they can run faster and bigger opponents around. The Japanese philosophy seems to be, a good pass is way faster than running with the ball, so, why run?
When asked how the standard of play in the Japanese leagues compares with the Australian and American competitions she responds that you simply cannot compare. They are too different to compare! The Japanese have their way… and it works. We have our way… and it works. Horses for courses.
Foord also enjoyed the element of being a foreign player in a small city. She was constantly thrilled by the devotion of the Sendai people to their soccer club. She explained that everyone in the city knew what Vegalta was and knew all the Vegalta Sendai players by name and sight. She said that when she walked down the street, people would come up to her to thank her for playing for their team. She said that it was quite common for her to be given free food in shops or restaurants because she played for the city’s soccer team.
Vegalta’s supporters, at the ground, were also a thrill for Foord. She said she was shocked when she played her first game and the team’s supporters kept up a constant barrage of cheering and singing the team’s songs from the opening whistle until the very end. Apparently small groups of supporters even followed the team to away games that were in cities some five hours away and continued to make lots of noise despite their small numbers. The cheering never diminished even when the team were being beaten. Foord said that it wasn’t just Vegalta who had passionate supporters. Every team had supporters that followed them around the country and there was always a polite battle between the supporters to sing and cheer the loudest.
Translators help but language still a problem
The dynamics of coming into a team where you don’t speak the language was not so much fun for Caitlin. She was grateful for the fact that there was a translator present at every game, team meeting, team practice or team event and this helped a lot, but the inability of Foord to fully communicate with her teammates and Vegalta’s coaching staff was problematic. Initially, she felt that she didn’t fully understand what her coach and teammates wanted from her. She didn’t really gel with the team’s style of play either, because, in the hurly burly of games and training, subtleties and nuances in communication got lost when relying on the translator. It was also difficult to get used to the individual styles of her teammates when she couldn’t talk to them, one-on-one. As a result, it took some time for her to fit into the team and become part of its chemistry. On a personal level it was also difficult because she missed out on much of the team joking and sky-larking between teammates and staff because she rarely understood what was going on. While her team had a definite culture and character she didn’t fully fit into what was going on until late in the season.
When I asked what the worst aspect of playing football in Japan was she said that the biggest difficulty was something that she never foresaw. She explained that football had always been her special escape… the thing that she could turn to when other aspects of her life were not going well, and that playing football would pick her up again. Football, as the primary means of soothing the soul, took a battering for Caitlin Foord towards the end of her stay in Japan.
Foord explained that for the whole time she was in Japan she and her teammates worked on their games six days a week, no matter what. No let up. Monday was a day off, but, every other day, rain or hail, it was either practice or game. The entire focus of her life became football, football, football. She felt that she lost important balance in her life. She said that she doesn’t know whether the approach at her team was the same across all Japanese teams but that she found the loss of balance difficult. Even going to the gym was considered out of the ordinary to her teammates. It was not the done thing. It was not part of the football philosophy.
The fact that the one thing in Caitlin Foord’s life that she could turn to and depend on when things got grim became the one thing that she wanted to escape from was by far the most difficult aspect of her stint playing soccer in Japan.
Foord explained that she loves football as much as anyone… and that it is incredibly important in her life… but she needed to be able to turn away from the game for a break occasionally. But that never happened!
Weigh up the pros and cons!
Foord acknowledges that playing soccer overseas is the dream of many young players and agrees that it can be an extraordinarily exciting step in an athlete’s life and career. Even so, she has some advice for athletes looking for an overseas opportunity.
Young players with an eye to travel should weight up the options and look at the pros and cons of any opportunity, says Foord.
“A lot of people think that they have to go overseas because that is what everyone else is doing but maybe, deep down, they really don’t want to do that – maybe they just grab any option that they can get because they think they are doing the right thing… then get there and discover that they hate it.”
She explains that you must be happy off the field, to play well on the field.
“You have to choose somewhere that works for you,” she says.
Choosing a destination that makes you unhappy is more likely to damage your sports career than enhance it, thinks Foord.
“Some people that are strong enough to not care about playing in a place where you cannot speak the language and cannot talk to anyone and still enjoy that… but if you are used to being around lots of people and talking to lots of people that might not be for you!”
Caitlin Foord is currently rehabbing a serious injury. She has one more operation, next month, to remove a plate and screws from her injured foot but, with good management and a bit of luck, she should be ready to join the US Champions, the Portland Thorns, sometime in June for the second half of the NWSL (US) season. She says she has never been so excited or more looking forward to joining a team. With excitement and confidence like that I bet her stint at the Thorns will be huge!