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Musovic mentality key vs. USWNT and in Sweden’s World Cup run

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SYDNEY — Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic caught the attention of goalkeepers and football lovers the world over with in the 2023 Women’s World Cup round-of-16 win over the United States.

Her 11 saves across 120 minutes helped knock one of the favourites out of the World Cup, but heading into this tournament, there were no guarantees Musovic was even going to be Sweden’s No. 1 choice between the posts. It’s been a running theme through her career; she’s always had to fight for the jersey. But she’s never lost sight of her ambition to become the best in her position.

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In a 2019 interview with Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz, she outlined her quest. “Now my goal is to be the first goalkeeper of the national team. I want to win a gold medal in a big tournament, like the Olympics or the World Cup. Also, I want to be the best goalkeeper in the world.”

Her laser focus on that goal, and willingness to work on every aspect of her game, has been key to her recent success.

“I think it’s been a long journey to reach that point where I can actually have those days,” the 27-year-old said on Wednesday. “But also off the pitch, the mental side has been a huge part of my game and, being able to do that performance, it’s yeah, it’s been a long journey that required a lot of hard work and the determination and patience.”

Musovic was born in Sweden to parents who left Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, and has three siblings. On the morning of the USWNT game, she phoned her mother for some last-minute advice.

“She had a good feeling,” Musovic said. “She believed in us as a group and had some good loving words from her. And then I was ready to go.”

Musovic grew up loving table tennis, but the more she kicked a ball around, the more her passion shifted to football. She started her career with Stattena IF, but joined FC Malmo in 2012 — the team merged with FC Rosengard in October 2013, taking their name. It was there, that the teenager started to impress.

Sweden legend Therese Sjogran, who played for the side from 2001 to 2015 and is now their sporting director, remembers the young Musovic.

“She’s shown such patience, and when she got the chance, she delivered. When she joined, I played in the same team as her when she was young,” Sjogran tells ESPN. “She came to us when she was 16, and then I was still playing, but she’s always had that fighting spirit.

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“The main thing is that she believes in herself through all the ups and downs. She always had a strong mentality, and that’s what taken her to where she is now. When she was with us, she was young, so it takes time for a goalkeeper to be their best. But for her, I think the, her main thing is her is that she’s believed she’ll be No. 1 regardless of where she’s at.”

Musovic started working with goalkeeping coach Kenneth Mattson at FC Rosengard in 2017, and he remembers her drive and focus.

“I think one of one of her strengths, like many in the elite game, is the way she improves in the small details over time and in different areas,” Mattson tells ESPN. “She’s very good at goal setting, asking herself ‘where am I?’ and ‘where do I want to go?’

“She’s not afraid to ask for help, but she puts in the effort. She’d be there first on the pitch and many times last off the pitch as she’s practicing goal kicks, passes and stuff like that. Over time, she gets the rewards.”

Away from the on-field training, Musovic worked on the mental side of her game. “I do a lot of visualising and mental training, brain training,” she said on Wednesday. “So a lot of hours of extra work that I think you don’t realise if you’re not in this body.”

That mental strength has been a constant reference point throughout her career. She’s never had it easy, but has somehow won out against the odds over more experienced goalkeepers. When she joined FC Rosengard, she had Iceland No. 1 Þóra Björg Helgadóttir in front of her, then Germany‘s Kathrin Langert, then Canada legend Erin McLeod. Each time she managed to win the No.1 jersey.

“It’s always been a competition for her, but she has the head and mind for it,” Sjogran says. Mattson adds: “You learn a lot in those years. I remember talking to her and she said to me that goalkeeper is not just about saving balls, you also have to get to know yourself. And she learnt to handle the situation with the competition.”

In February 2017, FC Rosengard faced Chelsea in a friendly at Carshalton Athletic. It proved to be a serendipitous moment, as she saved a penalty and caught the eye of Chelsea’s recruitment staff in the process. Manager Emma Hayes and her staff monitored her and in December 2020, Musovic made the move to the Women’s Super League champions.

In London, she had Germany goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger ahead of her in the pecking order and even ahead of this World Cup, just as she was getting more first-team football at Chelsea in the latter half of last season, Chelsea went and signed England goalkeeper Hannah Hampton.

“I mean, Chelsea will be watching her here and seeing how she’s performing against the world’s No. 1,” Sjogran says. “That’s why I think she’s staying also in Chelsea because she believes that she will, she will be the No. 1.”

Ahead of this World Cup, one of the main question marks around Sweden’s team selection hovered over the goalkeeper. Manager Peter Gerhardsson was asked about whether he’d go for Jennifer Falk or Musovic in pretty much every news conference he attended, but when Sweden lined up against South Africa on July 23, it was Musovic between the posts.

She started as Sweden picked up an opening 2-1 win, then kept a clean sheet in the 5-0 demolition of Italy. She was benched for Falk in the 2-0 victory over Argentina at the end of the group stage, but returned to play a huge part (with those 11 saves) in the historic 5-4 win over the USWNT on penalties in the round of 16.

“To watch her and do that, that performance? That is what you wish from every goalkeeper you work with,” Mattson says. “It was such a great, great game. She made great saves, but kept that level throughout and stayed stable. That’s where I’ve seen improvement her, that ability to stay at that level for 120 minutes. Sometimes in these performances, you can see a goalkeeper getting away with it — a little lucky. But that wasn’t the case at all with her. She was outstanding throughout.”

Her match-winning performance against the U.S. is still the talk of the Sweden camp days afterward. “I mean, she had an amazing game,” Sweden striker Sofia Jakobsson said. “She was the star out there. I know Zecira and she’s an amazing goalkeeper and is playing in one of the best clubs in the world in Chelsea. So for me it was not a surprise. I was just waiting for her time to shine and she did that for us, and hopefully she can keep that level in the next few games.”

Musovic admitted that she struggled to sleep after the match as she replayed those saves, and clutched on to the feeling of vindication in her own ability. “I just wanted to win the game,” she said. “I was so determined that I wanted to win the game. I wanted to give my everything to my teammates so they can go forward and score.

“The first night after the game I didn’t get much sleep, a lot happened at the same time. A lot of emotions that were flying around in my head. But I think I come from an environment in Chelsea where we do this on daily basis, and you have to refocus after every game.”

Musovic has frequently referenced the impact Chelsea have had on her at this World Cup, and how the club’s winning mentality and drive for excellence has helped her process. She signed a new contract with Chelsea in February until 2025 but faces a fight for her spot again.

“I really hope she will get to play more for Chelsea, because otherwise I think she should move because she needs to play consistently week after week,” Sjogran says. “They have good goalkeepers at Chelsea, so if they believe in her and put her as No. 1, then [Musovic] should stay. Otherwise, I think she should move. But right now, I’m mostly happy for her and she saved Sweden. I’m delighted she finally took the No. 1 spot and that she’ll now keep it.”

Before Musovic thinks about her club future, she will face the tough test of Japan in Friday’s quarterfinal in Auckland. Sweden’s opponents have looked like the best team at this tournament so far, but the goalkeeper is already visualising the moments where she’ll be called upon, with Japan possessing a fine attack able to work the ball into the box and create goal-scoring opportunities, or test her with efforts from range.

Musovic is ready and unwavering in her self-belief.

“I think you have to be extremely focused and never switch off,” she said. “We trust each other, and then hopefully we can stop their shots. They have really good individual players with really good qualities, not least the finishing part. So it’ll be tough, but nothing is impossible.

I’m an optimist, you know. I dream big and this is one of those dreams.”

Additional reporting by Caitlin Murray.

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