Her Football Hub spoke to San Marino’s recent arrival Nika Babnik about her football journey so far, her love of Italy and the pride of playing for her country.
Racconterò Di Te
Slovenian international Babnik joined Serie A newcomers San Marino in January to begin a new experience in Italy.
This is not the first time she has played in the Italian top flight. She signed for Tavagnacco at the start of the 2019/20 season.
“In Slovenia, women’s football is not so strong, so after finishing high school I knew if I wanted to improve I needed to go abroad,” she told Her Football Hub. “At that time I didn’t exactly know what a football career looked like, but I wanted a new challenge.
“So being in Italy for the first year, it was a great experience for me and I could see that being a footballer could be my career and so far I’m enjoying it.”
Like many girls, Babnik started out playing football mostly with boys.
“When I was little I would mostly spend time with boys,” she admitted. “So for example, in kindergarten, I didn’t have much choice but to play football with them. From then I just fell in love with the game.
“At 10 years old, I went to my first female club in my hometown, but the girls were quite a bit older than me. So for half a year I trained with them and later I joined the boys’ team – who were the same age as me – so I could compete in tournaments.
“I played with them for two years and then I was old enough to join the women’s team again.”
Il Ballo Delle Incertezze
Whilst certainly very keen to explore the opportunities wherever she could find them, Babnik is also well aware of the difficulties that lie ahead.
“As we know, a football career has a time limit and the salary is not as big as in the men’s game, so I also need to think about my future,” the forward said. “That’s why I’m also a student. I do online classes with a Slovenian university. I’m studying Sport Management and this is my last year, so I hope I finish it before summer and get my diploma.”
It’s always a challenge moving to another country, for any number of reasons. For Babnik, it was the football side of things which needed adjusting to.
“It was more about getting used to the Italian tempo in trainings than the lifestyle in general. Going from Slovenia to Italy, it was a big step for me.
“In every training I had to give 100%, really push myself so I could prove myself to the coach and the others. Once I got used to how everything worked, it got easier, but there was never a training session where I could take it easy.”
The Slovenia international commented on her love for the country that is Italy and how much she has warmed to the lifestyle.
“Outside of football, I still love the Italian lifestyle to this day. The people, the food, the music… they have something special in them. Until you live there or visit, you can’t understand it.”
Even so, when Tavagnacco were relegated at the end of that first season in Italy, Babnik decided it was time to move on.
“There was a chance of me staying in Tavagacco, but I didn’t know how strong Serie B is. So I decided to go to Austria for half a season.”
Before that, when the Italian league was halted early, Babnik found herself back home.
“When lockdown happened, I went home to Slovenia where I stayed until the next football season started. In that time I mostly focused on training individually, so I could stay fit. I also enjoyed time with my family and did work for my university.”
Her next adventure brought her to Wacker Innsbruck, who play in the top flight, in Austria’s Bundesliga.
With their season on a winter break since November, she didn’t resist when San Marino came calling.
Ovunque Tu Sia
“San Marino contacted me, they knew me from Tavaganacco, so we talked and I decided to joined them now during the winter break,” Babnik divulged.
As well as falling in love with the Italian lifestyle, she was also keen to have another chance to test herself in Serie A.
“Personally for me, my first year abroad was a great experience. We didn’t do so good as a team, but I learned a lot as a player and as a person. So I always wanted to come back to Italy, to prove myself again.
“It’s a strong league and every year it’s getting better and better. Just playing against big clubs can give you a lot of experience.”Embed from Getty Images
La stazione Dei Ricordi
This time round, there would be some old friends to greet her when she arrived at her new club. Both Millie Chandarana and Shino Kunisawa had also been at Tavagnacco in that relegation season.
“I get along great with Millie and Shino,” Babnik said. “We became good friends in Tavagnacco which made it easier coming here. I also like playing with them and I think we understand each other well on the pitch.”
Quella Casa Che Avevamo In Mente
Playing abroad also brought Babnik to the attention of the Slovenian national team. In the current Euro qualifying campaign Slovenia finished in third place, where they recorded five wins with one game still to play.
“In the last few years we have achieved great results and we are moving up and up in the rankings. Even though we are a small country, it just shows that we are working hard and want to achieve more. In the next tournament, I’m sure we will give our all so we can qualify and reach our goals.”
Representing one’s country is of course a huge source of pride for most players.
“Playing football and having the opportunity to represent your country is easily one of the best things,” Babnik said proudly. “Hearing and singing our national anthem gives me goose bumps every time. Because we are a small country, it brings us closer together and drives us to reach our goal.”
I Tuoi Particolari
Back when she was playing with her first club Krim in her home country, Babnik was more of an attacking player. In her last season there in 2018/19, she scored 19 goals in 21 league games. In Italy however, she is usually employed in a more defensive position.
“I’ve mostly played as a midfielder,” she continued. “In Slovenia I was more attacking and here in Italy I have a more defensive role. I believe a good player should know how to play more positions.
“Now in San Marino I play as a fullback and for the Italian football style I like this role.”
San Marino are currently in the middle of their first ever season in Serie A. Right now they are just above the relegation zone, so the rest of the campaign will still be a battle.
“Usually for a club that comes from Serie B the first year can be difficult,” Babnik reflected. “Every game we have to fight. The team’s ambition for this year is to stay in the first league and to go as high in the standings as we can.
“Long term it’s just to grow as a team and to improve San Marino Academy in all aspects.”
As for Babnik’s personal ambitions, it’s all about learning and improving as much as she can.
“Step by step, I want go get to a higher level and sign a professional contract. With football it’s hard to predict the future, so I will see where the road takes me.
“Playing abroad gives you more than just improvement as a player. I’m also learning about myself as a person everyday. Meeting new people, making connections, learning new languages, cultures, lifestyles… Getting out of your comfort zone is where you grow.”
Looking to the future of women’s football, Babnik is optimistic and can already see many improvements since she started playing.
“Women’s football right now is in a very good way, in some of the countries the stands are getting fuller all the time. When I was a child I couldn’t watch women play football on TV, now this is possible for young girls and boys.”
She also encourages fans of Italian clubs to give their women’s team a chance.
“In Serie A, if you are a Juventus fan for example, you could also try giving a chance to the women’s team. If the right amount of money can be invested in women’s football, the clubs can become more professional and eventually women from a young age can have quality trainings.”
Having learned some Italian in her first spell in the country, her time away hasn’t hindered her progress too much.
“My Italian is slowly improving,” Babnik said. “When I was in Austria I forgot a little, but it’s coming back. So far I have no trouble learning it, I find it to be a great language. Listening to Italian music and watching Italian TV shows really helps.”
So if you’re looking to learn Italian, or just want some Italian music, here’s a recommendation from Nika Babnik.