Freescoring Laura gearing up for UEFA Women's European Championships
Laura Österberg Kalmari is that rare combination of top footballer and mother
By Petteri Ala-Kivimäki
Laura Österberg Kalmari, the alltime highest scorer in a Finnish national shirt and a member of the AIK Stockholm side in the Swedish league, acknowledges that she has a footballing flame inside her.
"Yes, you could say that. I've been bouncing a ball ever since I learned how to walk. Every now and then the flame dies down a bit, but the spark is still there", she says with a smile.
The last time the flame for the game guttered and nearly went out was in 2007, when she became pregnant.
However, Österberg Kalmari returned to the pitch after the birth of her daughter Meja, and she is now that extremely rare blend of top footballer and mother.
Meja is now just over a year old, and the flame inside her mother burns perhaps brighter than ever - and with good reason.
It has the oxygen of the UEFA Women's European Championships being held in Finland in August and September, and it is also fanned by a stubborn determination to overcome setbacks through injury.
Most recently Österberg Kalmari, who will turn 30 on Wednesday of this week, was forced out with a broken collarbone sustained in an international tournament in Portugal in March.
"When I was younger I was very fortunate to avoid injuries almost completely, but the last three years have been pretty tough. Maybe age is starting to catch up with me", she says at a press briefing held by the Finnish national squad in the Olympic Stadium on Monday.
"When you are on the sidelines for a while, your passion for the game just gets stronger as the energy levels build up. Now I'm right in the zone again. After a two-month layoff I have played three league matches. I'm not quite 100% match-fit yet, but I can get through 90 minutes on the field all right."
As a member of the AIK Stockholm side, which she joined in 2007 after playing for other Swedish league outfits, Österberg Kalmari has not played competitive football in Finland for nearly three years.
After spending her youth in Kirkkonummi and Espoo, she left for Sweden in 2002, and does not see herself returning.
"I'm in my seventh year there now. My home is in Sweden, and everything else that goes with it: family, husband [Niko Österberg], and my studies", says Österberg Kalmari, who is studying to become a teacher.
Laura Österberg Kalmari has once commented that the only thing that bugs her about Sweden and Finland is the discrepancy that exists in salaries between men and women.
So, how is it? Have you and your female colleagues come any closer to bridging the pay-gap with AC Milan's striker Filippo Inzaghi?
"Hahah. Nice one. No, I certainly have not. Then again I can completely understand the disparities in pay in football, because all the other differences, for instance in public visibility, are quite plain to see."
After returning from maternity leave last summer, the veteran of 105 international appearances for Finland is enjoying her football again, but she recognises that the practicalities of life could put an end to her career quite soon.
"I can't say anything about next year as yet, but right now things are going fine. Still, everything could change in the autumn when our daughter goes to kindergarten and I go back to my studies - I have another year to go. I'll keep playing as long nobody suffers from it. The family always comes first."
The Finnish national squad now preparing to host the 12-nation European Championships has been short on firepower in front of goal of late, but a fully-fit Österberg Kalmari could be the best medicine for this ailment.
Even if her last goal in a Finnish shirt dates from 2006, she remains a potent weapon, and has found the net 29 times in her international career to date.
Finland meet Italy on Thursday in a friendly in the Olympic Stadium as part of the warm-up for August's tournament, where the Finns, under their coach Michael Käld, will have to play Denmark, The Netherlands, and Ukraine in the group stages. Italy are also going to be present, playing England, Sweden, and Russia in Group C.
The three-week tournament will be held in Helsinki, Turku, Tampere, and Lahti, with the semi-finals and final being played in Helsinki.
Finland sprang a welcome surprise at the 2005 UEFA European Championships in England, overcoming Denmark and drawing with Sweden to progress into the semi-finals, where eventual champions Germany were too good for them.
Lately the results have been less inspiring, with the Algarve Cup tournament seeing defeats to Germany, Sweden (when Österberg Kalmari had to go off after 25 minutes with her arm injury), and China before a win on penalties over the Portuguese hosts.
"The Italians are a bunch of bruisers. They play dirty and hard, but at the same time they also have a very good passing game. A win on Thursday would give us a nice dose of extra confidence going forward", says Österberg Kalmari.
"And it's a great honour to get to play in the Olympic Stadium."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.5.2009
Finland vs. Italy, Olympic Stadium, Helsinki 28.5.2009, kick-off at 17:00.
More on this subject:
WHO? Laura Österberg Kalmari
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland happy with group stage draw for UEFA Women´s Euro 2009 (19.11.2008)
UEFA Women´s Championships 2009 (Wikipedia)
Finnish National Women´s Team (Wikipedia)
PETTERI ALA-KIVIMÄKI / Helsingin Sanomat