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Melanie Leupolz: How to combine World Cups and motherhood

Thomas Klein | Matt Ford
July 10, 2023

Motherhood was long considered incompatible with professional sport – but not for Melanie Leupolz. At the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the German international midfielder wants to show it can be done.

Melanie Leupolz playing for Chelsea
Melanie Leupolz is hoping to show that it's possible to combine professional football with motherhood at the World CupImage: Conor Molloy/ZUMA/picture alliance

In the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, home to German sports giants Adidas and Puma, Germany's World Cup preparations are entering their final stages.

Under the watchful eyes of head coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the pace is stepped up a notch and the players push themselves to their limits — including Melanie Leupolz, just eight months after giving birth to her son.

After playing 45 minutes in Germany's final pre-World Cup friendly against Zambia on Friday, plus 14 dramatic additional minutes in which Germany first came from two goals down to draw level at 2-2 before Barbra Banda scored an even later winner for the Copper Queens, Leupolz was nominated for Voss-Tecklenburg's final 23-woman squad for the tournament.

But the midfielder won't be traveling to Australia and New Zealandalone; she'll be accompanied by her young son.

Since giving birth in September 2022, the 29-year-old says she has received support from both the German Football Association (DFB) and her club, English Women's Super League side Chelsea.

"The DFB has been really open about the whole topic," she tells DW. "When I need anything, I just let them know and they try to sort it. The two of us are always welcome, and that's wonderful."

'23 babysitters — and Grandma Martina!'

Leupolz is not the first German national team player to become a mother; former goalkeeper Almuth Schult has already shown that it's possible to return to professional football after giving birth.

Head coach Voss-Tecklenburg, who also had a daughter during her playing career in the 1990s and continued to play at the top level, is relaxed about the prospect of taking a young mother to the World Cup.

"We'll do everything possible to help Melanie," she said recently, saying the team's base just north of Sydney has already been scouted out to provide the necessary support and privacy.

And anyway, she said, the rest of the team are looking forward to the extra addition. "We'll have 23 babysitters," she joked. "Plus Grandma Martina!"

As for Leupolz herself, she's still getting used to her new double role: pulling the strings in midfield on the pitch and her "second job" as a new mother off it.

"When I'm on the pitch, I'm 100% professional footballer, and when I'm at home, I'm just a mum," she says.

"Obviously it's a challenge and it's difficult, but it's nice that I can combine the two. I knew that having a child during my career carries a certain risk, but it's wonderful that I can make it work, with the right support."

Chelsea leading the way for mothers

In that sense, she couldn't be at a better club, with Chelsea considered forerunners when it comes to their approach to mid-career pregnancies and births.

"The club provided me with a specialist pelvic coach which helped me return to my old strength quickly," Leupolz explains.

"I had zoom calls with experts every two weeks where we talked about the exercises I could do. In the end, I wasn't out for that long and didn't have to catch up too much."

Chelsea coach Emma Hayes carrying her young son
Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes juggles professional football and motherhood effortlesslyImage: Steven Paston/empics/picture alliance

Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes was still out on the training pitch while nine months pregnant and accompanied by a pram just a few weeks later. Leupolz herself was back in full team training just three-and-a-half months after giving birth and was playing full matches again by March.

"I had total support and understanding from the coach throughout the whole thing," she tells DW, having also recently signed a contract extension with Chelsea.

"She's a mother herself so she knows what's important when it comes to combining professional football with family life."

Gunnarsdottir: let down by Lyon

Physically, Leupolz feels back to full fitness and ready to travel to the World Cup. But not all female players have enjoyed the same support, as exemplified by the case of Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir.

Shortly after joining French giants Olympique Lyon from VfL Wolfsburg in 2020, she became pregnant in 2021 and, with the club's permission, returned to her native Iceland for the final months before giving birth.

Lyon, however, didn't continue to pay her full salary and eventually stopped paying her altogether. Gunnarsdottir took her case to a FIFA tribunal and was awarded around €82,000 in back-payments, but has since moved to Juventus.

For Leupolz therefore, a place in Germany's final World Cup squad is not just a chance to compete for the title Down Under, but also to focus a spotlight on the topic of motherhood in professional football and show that the two are not mutually exclusive.

"I hope I can set an example, because everything has worked fine for me, and other clubs should see that," she says, hoping that other players can "overcome the fear that they will be abandoned" by their clubs or federations.

"If a woman decides to have a child during her career, then I hope I can provide encouragement and show that it's possible."

Melanie Leupolz, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg and Emma Hayes know that already. But at the World Cup, Leupolz will have a chance to show the whole world.

This article was originally written in German and adapted by Matt Ford.