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  • Nicole Kozlova

Sharing the Beautiful Game: Bridging Soccer Across Continents

By Nicole Kozlova

On the pitch, I like to attack. I create for myself and my teammates. I see things not everyone sees.

I’ve seen the differences between soccer in the United States and Ukraine, where my family is from and the country I play for internationally. Soccer in Ukraine is looked at as a male sport, so few girls play –– only around 3,000 to 5,000 nationwide. The sport isn’t funded for girls in Ukraine like it is in the U.S. There aren’t hundreds of leagues for little girls to play in.

The girls that do play often get lost. They don’t feel like there’s a future in the sport. The smaller pool of players makes it easier to make youth national teams, but making the jump to the full team is hard and is a competitive group to try to get in. Even if you stand out, you might have to wait a few years before joining. At that point, girls often say, “What’s the point?” They move on with their life because soccer seems like a dead end.

Athletes in Ukraine also tend to only focus on sports. School isn’t taken seriously enough. Growing up, many athletes go to sports schools, where they go to class, but not really. If soccer doesn’t work out, school doesn’t work out either. I grew up in Canada (where my parents and I emigrated from Ukraine before I was born) where academics are good but collegiate sports are still in the growing stages.

Nicole takes a shot in Ukraine match

I came to the U.S. because the NCAA system gave me the chance to play competitive soccer while getting a free education at a top-level university. I thought, “Why can’t other Ukrainian girls like me have this experience?” That’s when my dad and I came up with the idea to make that happen ourselves.

The problem is most Ukrainian girls don’t even know an opportunity like this exists, so my dad and I made ourselves available for girls to reach out to learn more about the NCAA and the chance to play soccer in the U.S. A lot of times, the first thing they asked was, “Is it really like it is in the movies?” Most players in Ukraine have never traveled abroad except for soccer. They would never have the chance to visit the United States otherwise. But to get there, they needed to work and we needed to help.

We narrowed down a list of girls to focus on and explained what they would need to do –– make a highlight video, keep up with their studies, and learn English. My dad arranged for everyone to work with a tutor to learn the language and pass the TOEFL and SAT. My head coach, Chugger Adair, then sent out their highlight tapes to coaches around the country. Suddenly, we were making connections across the world. I am very thankful for all his help and support throughout this entire process.

Nicole and her father walking for Senior Night

Unfortunately, the first girl we thought had a chance to succeed quit. She was a talented goalie talking to a couple schools, but she didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. She was scared to go through with the plan. It was a new endeavor for her and for us. She wanted to stay in Ukraine with her friends.

It was upsetting for me and my dad. We spent so much time, effort, and money, which was frustrating, but we continued with all our focus on another girl we were working with, Yuliia Khrystuik.

She had her doubts, too. There were times where she said, “I can’t do this. I’m never going to pass this TOEFL. I’m not going to learn enough English.” I spoke with her a couple of times and told her, “Hey, look how much you have done already, It is really possible. You’re stressing about it, but all this work you’re putting in is going to be worth it. You’re not going to regret the decision.”

Sometimes I even sent her some clips of the facilities at different schools she was talking to. I showed her Lane Stadium, and she was like, “That’s a football game?” She didn’t even know what American football was. I showed her our weight room and training facilities at Virginia Tech. Stuff like that, it’s mind-blowing. I told her she could have that too.

Yuliia eventually verbally committed to Old Dominion, and when she passed her TOEFL and SAT, she signed her letter of intent and is on a full scholarship. She tells me she loves playing with her teammates at ODU (the Monarchs had their best season in program history, winning the Conference USA title) and was recently called onto the senior Ukrainian national team. She’s a rising star, and I’m sure as time goes on and we play together we will become good friends.

Finally, we had our first success story.

Yuliia and Nicole at Ukrainian National Game

We hope with Yuliia and now another girl playing in Chicago, our program will grow. We have a Facebook page set up called NCAA Scholarships Ukraine with more information for prospects. We planned on setting up clinics in Ukraine this past summer, but unfortunately, COVID-19 put that on hold.

With some success under our belt, our goal in the short term is for my and Yuliia’s success to inspire more young girls from Ukraine to play soccer and study in college in the United States. In the long term, however, we want this organization to no longer have to exist. The end goal is that we don’t have to reach out to anyone; little girls and their parents will want to do this on their own.

We want to break the stigma of girls in soccer. Girls belong in the sport. Girls have a future in the beautiful game of soccer. We want little girls to start dreaming about playing in the NCAA. They’ll start learning English at eight, nine, ten years old. They’ll know right away that they want to go to the States. We will get more Ukrainian girls coming overseas, growing the popularity of the sport and setting these girls up to succeed.

Edited by Sam Alves

Photos provided by Nicole Kozlova

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