From Sarajevo to Glasgow and Prague to Paris, Liv Cooke has travelled across Europe this season watching the UEFA Women’s Champions League. After meeting some of the game’s most inspiring players, she believes the competition’s influence reaches far beyond results on the pitch

LIV COOKE: EUROPEAN TOUR

'MORE THAN JUST WINNING'

Best known for her breathtaking ball skills, Liv Cooke has been gauging the temperature of women’s football across Europe this season – and the former freestyle world champion has found plenty to celebrate.

Cooke made headlines by winning her world title at the age of just 18, and since then she has been encouraging girls everywhere to take up the game. An ambassador for UEFA’s Together #WePlayStrong campaign, the Lancashire native has been crisscrossing the continent as part of the related #PlayAnywhere content series, in partnership with UEFA Women’s Football sponsor Visa. As well as watching UEFA Women’s Champions League matches at every stop, she has been meeting some of the remarkable women who help the sport thrive and, of course, freestyling in iconic locations. 

“The standout moment for me had to be during Slavia Praha’s game against Bayern,” recalls Cooke, who recorded her travel adventures for a series of popular video blogs to support the campaign. “Slavia were 1-0 down and it was around the 75th minute and Kateřina Svitková scored an absolute screamer out of nowhere. I just lost it – it was incredible. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”   

The 19-year-old’s trip to the Czech capital also brought her face to face with Slavia goalkeeper Bára Votíková. Like Cooke, Votíková has become a role model for young female footballers, raising the sport’s

profile thanks to her YouTube channel, which boasts more than 400,000 subscribers. “It’s pretty crazy,” says Cooke. “The fact that she can juggle both at the same time is really impressive.”

Another inspirational figure is Azra Numanović, not merely a defender for Bosnian champions SFK 2000 Sarajevo but also the club’s hard-working general secretary. Cooke met up with the 29-year-old during her visit to watch Sarajevo’s round of 32 opener against Chelsea. “I wonder how Arza has a spare hour in the day,” she says. “Her story is incredible. It really reminded me why we all play football, why we started, and that’s just the passion, just for loving it.”

Cooke got a feel for that same passion away from the top-tier thrills of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Touching down in Glasgow, she spoke with Rebecca Sellar, an international for Scotland’s amputee team whose life has been transformed since she took up football to relieve chronic joint pain. 

"Rebecca was an absolute inspiration. She taught me never to give up"

“Rebecca was an absolute inspiration,” explains Cooke. “She’s leading the way for women in that sport. She taught me never to give up, and she’s a key example of overcoming obstacles and how, if you really love something, there are ways around them. I never knew about amputee football – I didn’t know that they had national teams. I was opened up to another form of football, which I’m always appreciative of.” 

Cooke’s tour of Europe gave her a close-up view of the game at various levels and in several different guises, but it would not have been complete without a homage to her freestyle roots. That meant an excursion to Amsterdam, where she juggled a ball on top of a canal boat and met freestyle trailblazer Rocky Hehakaija, whose Favela Street Foundation aims to help young people in marginalised communities through street football. 

"It's about creating a future where women can live off what they do because they deserve that"

“I love Rocky – I’ve been friends with her for a while,” says Cooke. “She was actually one of the first female freestylers ever. She’s an absolute legend, so it was really nice to sit down and share her story. And I think what I took away from her is that, as long as you’re confident in who you are and you are strong with it, and you are just doing what you love, then it will all work out. She’s just amazing. She’s changing things over there.” 

So too, of course, is Cooke, who has built up her own following as a high-profile advocate of women’s football. And while the two finalists tonight will be aiming to lift the trophy, Cooke is keen to stress that the game has so much more to offer. “It’s about way more than just winning. It’s about creating a future and creating somewhere where women can live off what they do because they deserve that.”

Subscribe to WePlayStrong on Youtube for the full #PLAYANYWHERE series and follow @UWCL on Instagram to see Liv behind the scenes at the final.

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UEFA WOMEN'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL 2019
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