Ahead of the 2019 season, Finland international Natalia Kuikka joined Göteborg FC in the Swedish top flight.
She signed her first professional contract with the Swedish side after playing college football in the United States at Florida State University. Now, the defender has signed with Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League.
“When I was growing up I had two role models – Laura Kalmari and Anne Mäkinen,” Kuikka told Her Football Hub. “They both were top players in Finland and in Europe. They were also the first Finnish players to play in the professional league in the USA.
“They inspired me to dream bigger and they gave me hope that one day I could play in America, too.”
Kuikka played 39 games and clocked in 3,605 total minutes in the Swedish league Damallsvenskan. During that time, she had 55 shots on target and scored six goals. She also had a passing accuracy of 81.8%, while recording 2.85 successful dribbles, 7.41 interceptions and 18.8 successful duels on 90 minutes per average.
The versatile defender alternated between various positions during her time in Sweden. These included left centre-back, left-back and left winger.
“My time in Sweden was my first glimpse into being a professional football player and it really taught me how to be one, how to put myself first and what it means to be a pro player,” Kuikka continued. “The league is good and it showed me different styles of play. More importantly, I learned more about myself and what type of player I want to be.”
Dedicated viewers of the Swedish league saw the Finnish defender quickly prove her importance for Göteborg. Her physical and running abilities shone through. While Göteborg were on the rise, so was Kuikka’s development as a player. Her path to a bigger football stage then became obvious.
“Playing a few different positions helped me become an even more versatile player and adjust my skills and abilities to the needs of the team,” she said. “I’d say that the environment and the players in the league pushed me to be better every day.”
The Swedish league has proven to be a good place for young players to develop and grow. The league that offers a fair competitive edge has hosted several players seen today as the world’s best.
Pernille Harder, Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir, Christen Press and Marta Vieira da Silva have all played in Sweden for different teams.
“I chose to go to Sweden because it felt like a safe option for my first years as a professional football player, and it was also closer to home.
“I wanted to challenge myself, but to be really honest, I also wanted to play and felt that my chances would be high in the Swedish league. I knew that the Finnish league was growing and becoming more challenging and competitive, but it still had a ways to go in comparison to Sweden.”
Finland national team
Back in December, Kuikka was a part of a massive performance with her national team. Finland stunned Scotland after Amanda Rantanen scored a game-winning goal with her face during injury time.
Scotland were massive favourites to go through to the European Championship in England 2022. Not only did they lose the game, but also the opportunity to qualify for the tournament.
Finland’s Scandinavian neighbours Sweden, Norway and Denmark have all played in some of the biggest tournaments for a long time. Meanwhile, Finland has been a bit behind in development. This is something Kuikka recognises, but thinks things are changing.
Indeed, Finland secured their EURO qualification on Friday with an emphatic win over Portugal.
“I feel that Finland is a little behind our Scandinavian counterparts, but I think we are well on our way to catching up,” Kuikka divulged. “We have so many players now competing on top teams across the globe, improving individual skills.
“With so many players gaining more experience, when we all come together to play on the national team, our overall talent and skill are elevated. This allows Finland to be even more competitive than we have been in the past against countries that have traditionally had top players on their rosters.
“Our team atmosphere continually improves and I’ve seen our confidence grow tremendously, believing more in our ability to compete against top teams. If you watched our last few games in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Women’s EURO, Finland has really shown that with grit, determination, hard work and loyalty to our game plan, that anything is possible.”
Another Finnish national team player that still plays in the Swedish league is Olga Ahtinen. Compatriot Emma Koivisto was also a part of the same Göteborg squad as Kuikka. Though, Koivisto has since signed for Brighton & Hove Albion in the Women’s Super League.
Seeing more players from Finland playing abroad has positive effects for the national team, says Kuikka.
“I think that the players get tougher games, quality competition, better training environments and better opportunities to develop individually. And when our individual level is higher, it lifts our whole team up.
“The collective individual experiences allow us to push ourselves and achieve greater success. It is quite an accomplishment to see us playing at higher levels and with better quality football.”
Finland’s Player of the Year
At the end of 2020, Kuikka received the ‘Player of the Year’ award in Finland. In some ways, it was a perfect conclusion to a very special and difficult year.
“Last year was an incredibly difficult year for everyone, so to even be able to play football was such a gift,” the defender admitted. “Despite the challenges with Covid, I was, fortunately, able to compete at a high level for both club and country. Winning the award was great recognition for what I was still able to accomplish, and it felt especially rewarding coming after playing what I felt was one of my best seasons so far.
“Of course, I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, so I owe them a huge thanks as well.”
Life as a footballer puts high demands on players every day to be able to perform. Located a long way from home and far from close family and friends in times like these can be tough.
It’s overcoming these obstacles that comes with the life of being a professional athlete. But what motivates someone like Kuikka to keep striving and put in all the hard work?
“I am motivated and inspired by the people who show up and work hard to be the best teammate they can be. This signals to me that they care about me and I can show that I care about them by doing the same.
“Both on and off the field, I am fortunate to have a lot of people in my life who provide an incredible amount of support and mentorship. They are always there for me and encouraging me to be the best version of myself.”
“I think one of the hardest parts for me is finding the balance between football and life outside of football,” Kuikka said. “Being a professional athlete, you have to always take care of your physical self even when you are not on the pitch – eating, sleeping, recovering, etc.
“There are days that you sort of wish you could unplug, so it is important to find stability with my mental health, which can be challenging sometimes.
“However, for all the challenges that come with being a professional footballer, I know how fortunate I am to earn a living doing something that I love. One of the best parts of this job is being able to see the world and experience new places, culture and people.”
USA and the NWSL
Kuikka’s time in Göteborg ended with a league title. For the first time ever, Göteborg won the league last season. This came after having finished second the year before behind long-time dominants FC Rosengård.
Before the season ever ended, speculations about the futures of several Göteborg players were already ongoing. Therefore, it was no surprise when the announcement came through that Kuikka was to join the Portland Thorns.
Most European players seemingly steer towards England, Spain, Germany or France. However, Kuikka explains why it was natural for her to want to return to the US.
“After I left Florida State University and headed back to Europe for my first professional contract, I knew that I wanted to one day play in the NWSL, but I never gave myself a timeframe of when that would happen.
“Portland contacted me and showed interest, and they offered an opportunity that I thought was a good step at this point in my career. I thought, ‘why not?’
“I felt it was a great challenge both on and off the field, and of course, I want to see how well I can compete against the best in the world.”
The Finnish defender has only recently joined her new team in the States. Yet, it is no wonder that she is eager to begin and looks forward to the season and time ahead.
“I am looking forward to learning from my new Thorns teammates and I’m especially excited to see how well I can compete in the NWSL against some of the best players in the world.”