Eventually, for Melanie Leupolz, something had to give.
After a mammoth effort to return from giving birth in time for the World Cup, the Germany international has announced that she is calling time on her international career to concentrate on her club, Chelsea, and her son.
“It was important for me to make my way back into the DFB [German Football Association] team after giving birth, and I’m very proud to have played another World Cup for my country,” Leupolz said in a statement released on Monday.
“The fact that I could experience this with my son made this even more valuable for me. At the same time, however, I noticed that the multiple sources of pressure were draining my energy.
Though far from the first woman to give birth while playing top-level football, Leupolz – along with goalkeeper Almuth Schult – is one of only a handful of players who have done so in the German game.
Though conditions and support for mothers are improving at the top clubs like Chelsea, the demands on the top female players are also increasing. Just two months after the World Cup final, Germany and other European nations are set to kick off the newly formed Nations League.
Focus on Chelsea
With Chelsea’s domestic season and the Champions League set to begin soon after, the travel, training and lack of any substantial break have forced Leupolz to make a tough choice.
“Now it’s time to focus fully on my club, Chelsea,” she added. “I want to live up to the highest level there and achieve all sporting goals with my team at 100% energy.”
As the women’s game has grown, the willingness of top clubs and nations to help players return to the game after giving birth has moved increasingly out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Leupolz told DW at the World Cup that the DFB “has been really open … the two of us are always welcome, and that’s wonderful” — while Chelsea have offered a specialist pelvic coach and a variety of other experts to help the midfielder in her comeback.
Such support was unusual until very recently. Schult told DW that when she gave birth to twins in 2021, the footballing world was not quite ready.
“I was the first player in about 20 years in Germany who returned from pregnancy to play for the national team [a World Cup qualifier in 2022]. Usually, the thinking was that when you were pregnant, your career was over. So they were not prepared for having children around,” she said.
Pregnancy forces career choices
Even her club, Champions League finalists Wolfsburg, was unsure: “For example, the first time I could take them [the twins] to away games or a training camp, there was some kind of fight required.”
For many years, pregnancy usually spelled the end of a top-level career and, lower down the women’s footballing pyramid, where money is scarcer and facilities much worse, it still does.
Schult’s former Wolfsburg teammate, Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir, won a high-profile case last year that ensured that professional female football players are entitled to maternity leave at two-thirds pay for at least 14 weeks. In addition, clubs are not allowed to discriminate against or sack players because of their pregnancy and must reinstate them after giving birth.
However, the number of professional players is still relatively low, and short-term contracts are the norm in a game growing quickly from a fairly low base.
Leupolz a role model
While sacrificing international football to extend a club career is not unusual, Leupolz’s case is perhaps a testament to the particular difficulties of female footballers who choose to become parents during their careers.
“She is a role model for female footballers and athletes,” said Joti Chatzialexiou, the DFB’s sporting director. “She has also impressively shown how to return to professional football after pregnancy successfully. I greatly regret her retirement from the national team, but I can understand her reasons.”
Germany’s loss will likely be Chelsea’s gain, as the London club looks to retain their Women’s Super League title and finally win their first Champions League. But, for Leupolz, the greatest beneficiary will surely be her son.
Edited by: Chuck Penfold