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'It's strange but we're grateful to be training again' - The Ireland football star back in business in Germany

Diane Caldwell discusses a wide range of topics, but mainly life in mainland Europe in the current climate.

Ireland and SC Sand star defender Diane Caldwell.
Ireland and SC Sand star defender Diane Caldwell.

DIANE CALDWELL IS out sunbathing on the balcony of her home in southern Germany when her phone rings. Relaxing, listening to music and soaking up some Vitamin D after another morning of small group training on the pitch with her top-tier football club.

When the Irish international saw the +353 number and realised it was the journalist she agreed to speak to about her current situation, she could have easily ignored it and left it until another time.

But accommodating as ever, the Dubliner is more than happy to take the call and chat away about life in Germany amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, returning to football this week with SC Sand, what the return to competitive action currently looks like, volunteer work on a fruit and vegetable farm, Vera Pauw’s Ireland side and much, much more.

When the coronavirus really came on everyone’s radar in these parts, Caldwell was in camp with the Irish team. The Girls In Green secured back-to-back Euro qualifier wins over Greece and Montenegro, the solid centre-back earned her 75th and 76th caps and popped up with crucial — and carbon-copy — goals on both occasions.

Afterwards, she had a day or two at home with her family in Balbriggan but as uncertainty grew across the board, Caldwell grew anxious.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I want to get back to Germany quickly,’” she recalled on Thursday, happily settled in Willstätt once again. “Obviously this is my home now and I live with my girlfriend so it was a better situation for me to be back in Germany.

Of course it would have been nice to be home in Ireland also, with my family, but thinking about her, I wanted to be back here and be in a familiar environment.

She knew she could train more where she is and stay in her set routine. She lives in a beautiful area near the Black Forest so even though restrictions were imposed, she and her partner could enjoy the great outdoors, whether that be through hiking or other activities, and not be near anyone else.

The weather has been stunning too, so it’s a pretty ideal situation. “Better than Ireland, I’m sorry to say,” she giggles. 

Germany have had the same lockdown restrictions as many other countries in that everyone is advised to stay at home and only go out when necessary. Like here, all football activity was called to a halt in mid-March and Caldwell was sent home from her Frauen-Bundesliga side with an individual programme to follow.

“It’s similar to home in Ireland with the restrictions, you’re just advised to stay at home and go out as little as possible,” she explains, “obviously keep your social distancing.

“Everything was basically closed except the essentials like grocery shops, pharmacies and gas stations. I think it’s similar in Ireland. I’d always watch the RTÉ News and try to keep updated with what’s going on at home, and obviously keeping in contact with my family and stuff.”

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 17.13.39 Source: Diane Caldwell Twitter.

With restrictions eased in Germany earlier this week and talk of the Bundesliga returning in mid-May, Caldwell and her team-mates were given the green light to return to football of some sort on Monday. But that’s not the same everywhere.

“Basically we got passed to be able to start small group training,” the 31-year-old outlines, and you can almost hear her smiling down the phone, grateful to be back in business.

“In Germany, it’s a bit different. Each state decides the rules and regulations of that area or region. Some states differ with that ruling. Currently there’s three Bundesliga teams that aren’t back. Our state passed it so we were able to start training.

“We started training under strict conditions. It’s basically small groups of five or six, you have to follow specific hygiene regulations and we still have to keep the distance with each other within training.

You can’t use any of the changing rooms or facilities — well, obviously if you need to go to the toilet, it’s okay, but we’re not allowed to really go in there unless it’s necessary. We go to training completely ready, kitted out in our gear, drive to the playing field and start training basically straight away. Touching the equipment is kept to a minimum.

“Training itself is a lot of technical work. A lot is individual with the ball but you’re still working in the bigger group while maintaining the distance. The training so far has been really good, really creative and still competitive, while being full-on and quite physically demanding at the same time.”

Having missed that team environment, everyone is delighted to be back on the grass with a ball at their feet once again.

“You normally have the odd few in every team that are moaning a little bit about training or whatever, but no, everyone’s really happy to see each other again,” Caldwell grins.

It was actually funny meeting up for the first time and not being able to hug or anything like that. It was a bit of a strange feeling but of course, we’re just grateful to be back and training again.

The reaction to this return to sport from the German public has been quite divided, with the German Football League (DFL) confirming that they are ready for the Bundesliga to resume from 9 May, albeit behind closed doors and with strict player hygiene measures and testing in place.

At the time of our conversation on Thursday evening, it was looking like the women’s league would follow suit, but reports on Friday reveal it could be terminated along with the men’s third decision.

The general opinion on the potential soon return of sport is “mixed,” Caldwell reports.

“I think it would lift a lot of people with it being back on TV again. But then a lot of people will say, ‘Is it ethically correct to have all those tests being taken away from hospitals or people that really need them?’

I think it just depends really on the Government to decide on that. If they are comfortable and confident that, ‘Okay, we have X amount of tests for the public, hospitals and schools and whoever needs them first, and we still have these extra to be distributed to the Bundesliga then, okay it will work.’

“Obviously, I think the Bundesliga has enough money to pay for those tests. I think the way it will have to be legislated is you have to get tested before and after each game in order for it to proceed.”

“The women’s league is kind of a bit up in the air, I think they have another conference today and next week as well to decide more on what’s happening,” she added at the time.

“We basically got told that it could still be all cancelled, but the hope is to play in the middle of the May — similar to the men’s start.”

It’s still a rather strange time, but Caldwell is thankful to have a bit more normality and structure to her life. Going from training as a full-time professional on top-class to trying to motivate oneself between four walls wasn’t exactly easy.

But like most others in the current climate, she was just counting herself lucky to have her health, and that those closest to her are safe and sound.

I mean obviously you’re grateful to be back doing what you love and training but obviously you do look at the bigger picture and there’s much more important things in the world than football and sport right now,” she continues.

“I would obviously love to finish and continue the season but it has to be considered safe to do so for everyone and everyone’s health. If it was to have another spike after us all coming back, it would be disastrous and definitely, the Bundesliga wouldn’t want that for their image.

diane-caldwell-celebrates-scoring-their-first-goal-with-louise-quinn Celebrating her goal against Montenegro with centre-back partner Louise Quinn. Source: Filip Filipovic/INPHO

“They’ve eased up on restrictions here since Monday in Germany so small shops started to reopen, but [Chancellor] Angela Merkel has warned that if it’s too much of a drastic change, it will spike again.

Right now, it’s very much in control in this country, they have enough ventilators, enough beds, they’re very much in control of the virus but of course, if it was to spike again, you don’t know what’s going to happen then. It would be unprecedented. 

“She has warned that easing restrictions has to happen very slowly.”

Slow and steady. Easy does it. With less of a focus on football, Caldwell has plenty of free time to do things she normally wouldn’t get the chance to.

For one, she and her team-mates undertook some volunteer work on a local farm with fruit and vegetables last weekend.

“It was basically just helping out. This area has a lot of farmland and very prestigious wineries so it’s quite a well-known area for fresh produce.

“They couldn’t get their workers over from Poland due to the virus. We had heard that they wouldn’t get their vegetables and fruits picked and the crop might fail. There was a group of us here with the club still so we just decided to go and help out and give back to the community a little bit.

The community really support us a lot here so it was nice just to give back and do something for them. We obviously had the time and we were just more than happy to help out.

“I think they had problems in Ireland also with the same situation, not being able to get the workers in to pick the crops,” she adds. “Not only did we want to help out with the farm, but it was also to kind of send a message and advertise that they do need workers.

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“There’s a lot of people here living in the area that are out of a job now or working only part-time, and everyone can help out. It’s not too taxing of a job, it’s good money and it’s open to every one to help out, not just farm workers.”

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 17.18.40 Source: Diane Caldwell Twitter.

It’s been a time for reflection too. As League of Ireland great Conan Byrne tweeted this week: “To all players, now is the time to think about the future and chase what you want to do post football.”

A strength and conditioning specialist with her Uefa B license completed through the FAI last year, life after football is something Caldwell has certainly been thinking about.

“I actually used this time through the four weeks of lockdown, I did a lot of webinars online,” she says. “The strength and conditioning industry were great, they really came together and provided a lot of free content for everyone.

There were so many learning experiences and learning tools out there that were accessible during that time. I did a countless number of free webinars, I was learning a lot and reading a lot. It was a bid to be thinking of the future and just preparing myself more for that stage of my career, when I go into coaching.

But that’s very much to the back of her mind, and she’s fully focused on the brilliance she can continue to produce for her club and, of course, in the green jersey.

Before everything came to a standstill across the globe, Ireland were riding the crest of a wave, unbeaten in Euro qualification and Caldwell was certainly leading the charge as Pauw’s side look to reach a first-ever major tournament.

“At that time, you’re thinking it won’t be so big, it just won’t explode to the heights that it did,” she reflects. “I mean it dramatically did. It put a stop to everything in the world, not only sport but everything. It just puts everything into perspective, doesn’t it?

“I suppose it was a shame that the games were postponed, and we lost probably a bit of our momentum but at the same time, I just try to look at it in a positive way.

Perhaps, now, we’ll have more time to work with Vera and perhaps we will be even better prepared to play these games when they come around. Maybe there’s going to be an advantage behind it.

“Vera’s been great,” she adds, noting that there’s still a brilliant vibe in the set-up from a distance, as they prepare for a very different women’s international calendar.

diane-caldwell-celebrates-scoring-the-first-goal-with-rianna-jarrett Celebrating scoring against Greece. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“She tends to keep up to date with us regardless anyway, she’s good at that. She’s just checking in to see how we’re doing, and providing programmes to home-based girls or whoever wants them. She’s always checking in.”

Pauw was surely the first person on the phone — before this annoying journalist interrupted the sunbathing — or in the group chat when news filtered through on Thursday afternoon that Euro 2021 is officially rescheduled for 2022.

There had been talk about it for quite a few weeks now so it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but clarity was certainly needed. Caldwell isn’t too phased. Although delayed, the same job must be done.

“I think it was inevitable to be delayed the year,” she concludes. Straight to the point. “Yeah, it’s a long wait but if we qualify — which I hope we will — I think the wait will be worth it.”

Just like the wait to get back on that balcony and catch the last of that evening sun. Always look on the bright side.

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Emma Duffy

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