Viktoria Schnaderbeck has been through a lot since she captained Austria to the semi-finals of the European Championship five years ago.
A series of injuries limited the now 31-year-old to 40 Arsenal games in four years while her national side changed managers and had an influx of young talent to boost their squad ahead of the next Euros, which begins on Wednesday.
But for Schnaderbeck there is still a light at the end of the tunnel.
Decisions inside and outside of football, from her move to Arsenal’s north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in January to multiple deals, have helped her overcome the challenges that have come with repeated knee problems to reach her goal, this summer to get into the EM squad.
Schnaderbeck was set to become an integral part of Joe Montemurro’s Arsenal side when she arrived as his first signing from Bayern Munich in May 2018. She was injured behind closed doors in a friendly against Everton that summer, underwent knee surgery and would not make an official debut until a 5-1 away win against Liverpool the following March.
After 16 WSL appearances under Montemurro over the next two seasons (unhelped by the midway cancellation of the 2019-20 season due to the pandemic), knee problems resurfaced as Britain went into suspension for a third time. As 2020 drew to a close, those dark, cold winter months brought with them an even greater task of dealing with this latest injury because what many people fear most: the unknown.
“It was mentally tough,” says Schnaderbeck the athlete. “I’ve had days of crying on the sofa because I was the first to get into the gym and last out, doing extras, everything you can do for rehab and nothing has changed. It was the uncertainty of what would happen.
“You feel like you’ve done everything, but nothing changes. I remember in lockdown getting my MRI scans back on my 30th birthday (January 4th 2021) and it was a nightmare. Firstly we were suspended and they told me my scans came back negative and that my knee had deteriorated. You’re just thinking, ‘Why?! When will it stop?”, but then you develop strategies for dealing with it.
“Finally I had my knee surgery (last May) which was game changer in terms of physical condition. Then I could actually feel an improvement.
“With (my) knee history, you don’t want to decide immediately for an operation, but after all the trial and error it was the only option. Heading into a year with the upcoming euro, I knew this was my only chance. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to play at Euros but here I am in camp preparing for Euros.”
Taking action in the second half of last season was a must given that the decision to have knee surgery again was made in hopes of getting fit again for this tournament.
Schnaderbeck was fit again in October last year but was unable to oust Leah Williamson and Lotte Wubben-Moy, new head coach Eidevall’s preferred centre-back pairing.
Williamson’s hamstring injury in November didn’t change much of Schnaderbeck’s playing time, with Jen Beattie and Steph Catley coming on. As a result, the Austrian only made three substitutions until the New Year, two of them in the 89th minute.
The decision to join Tottenham on loan wasn’t as surprising as it might seem for those who mainly follow men’s football.
Scotland full-back Emma Mitchell took the same step when her time at Arsenal came to an end in January 2020 before securing a permanent deal with Reading this summer.
In addition to the prospect of more playing time, the move offered more security in aspects of life that are easier to solve in men’s football.
“I didn’t even think about the emotional part. I know the rivalry is there but I had to be so focused and focus on what’s best for me because I had this big goal to come back from injury and play at the Euros,” said Schnaderbeck.
“The offer came and I knew I didn’t have to change my location and that I could keep my safety network the way it was while still moving and challenging myself. So I had a very good feeling and looking back I would do it again.”
After two appearances for Spurs before the international break in February, including an opener against Birmingham City, the road back to the national team took another step forward.
“Austria had two friendlies in February. I played both games (45 minutes against Romania, the full 90 three days later against Switzerland). We played well as a team. I really enjoyed it. I felt good and was part of the team again,” says Schnaderbeck.
“When you’re not physically there, it’s different. You don’t feel the same. One side of me knew I couldn’t look too far ahead because there were still a few months to go, but it was good to feel like, ‘Yes, I’m back with the team’.”
Although the move to Spurs provided Schnaderbeck with a path back to European Championships on the pitch, personal development away from football was crucial during her recovery from surgery.
There was a mix of coping strategies. The week-long hiatus helped her mentally recover and her partner was available for constant conversation, and other aspects of her life weren’t halted by injury-related setbacks.
“I did my bachelor’s degree in sports management in Munich and started my master’s degree in business psychology when I moved to London,” she says. “There is life off the pitch and I have always been willing to do something outside of my (football) career. My priority would be football, but the degrees helped me – especially when I was injured.”
Since 2019 she has also been giving lectures in lectures in addition to her studies. This has since evolved into a more interactive concept, with listeners engaged in a back-and-forth conversation, be it in person or digitally—a format Schnaderbeck calls “impulse lectures.”
Great careers tend to be anything but straightforward. Arsenal London star Viktoria Schnaderbeck shares her story: https://t.co/g3RVaYbS9g pic.twitter.com/sggA6zAbJP
— Fifteen Seconds (@wethinkahead) May 20, 2020
They not only occupy the mind, but are also comparable to sport.
“As a keynote speaker, I was able to experience that I’m good at something other than football, namely learning,” says Schnaderbeck. “That helped me a lot because I was not only defined as a footballer, but also as someone who is good at other things. That was a very important lesson that I want to share with other players, men and women.
“When you go to a football game, you feel adrenaline. You’re nervous, almost a little scared. I realized that I also experience this before speeches. You can feel the pressure building and I can see that there is something other than football out there that makes me feel this way.
“It felt good to be in a place where I can inspire people, it was very encouraging. I was also able to earn something financially outside of football. It gave me a sense of independence because I have something to draw from that isn’t just football.”
This sense of growing independence has been an issue in Schnaderbeck’s career since the last European Championship in the Netherlands five years ago and will now help that her Arsenal contract has expired and she is a free agent.
After moving from home club LUV Graz to FC Bayern in 2007 at the age of 16, Schnaderbeck settled in Germany.
She won two Bundesliga titles, made 132 club appearances and became a permanent fixture in the Bayern team and became Austria captain.
But after a decade in Bavaria, the time was ripe for a new challenge.
Arsenal were nearing the end of their first season under Montemurro, a replacement for Pedro Martinez Losa earlier in the season, and had expressed an interest in the defender/midfielder. Schnaderbeck became the Australian’s first signing four days after the end of the 2017-18 Women’s Super League season.
“It was very interesting getting to know Joe and seeing the culture in the team,” says Schnaderbeck. “I looked at the facilities, met the coach and just felt, ‘This is it’. I’m always thinking about things, but sometimes when you know, you know.
“If you play in Germany for eleven years, you get used to the German mentality. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing because I’ve learned a lot of good things, but it’s very straight forward – in one direction, with nothing in between.
“I realized that, especially since Joe is half Italian/half Australian, you can be very laid back, have fun and still be professional. That was something that blew my mind. I didn’t experience that in Germany, not just in football. It was really helpful.”
Schnaderbeck’s versatility, allowing her to play as a central defender or in midfield, is what made the now Juventus head coach such a huge admirer.
We can’t say her time at north London went as planned, but Schnaderbeck remained a respected member of the Arsenal team on and off the pitch throughout her four years.
Finding a challenging environment allowed her to grow from both football and soccer.
Now uninjured, she can put that experience to good use at Euros – starting on Wednesday night against hosts England at Manchester United’s Old Trafford.
(Top Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)