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Football is just a branch of science for Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten

Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286827)
Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286827)

A quirk of fate or divine intervention? Whichever way you look at it there seems to be some degree of inevitability that Gisela Otten would find her way into the heart of Cambridge United Women’s midfield.

A footballer from a young age in her native Netherlands, professional endeavours had meant that sport had to take something of a backseat during the past seven years.

It was not so much that 30-year-old Otten was no longer playing, it was just that the involvement in the game had become more a social kickabout than something of a competitive nature.

But a chance encounter one Sunday changed all of that.

“I went to church and sat next to this couple and we got chatting,” says Otten.

“It turned out I was sitting next to Graham Daniels (the Cambridge United director and chairman of the club’s community trust), and he said ‘Why don’t you train with the girls once?’. I did miss playing 11-a-side competitive football a lot but it was hard to combine with work.

“He put me in touch with Liz (Pamplin, of United’s women’s team), and the next week I was playing – and I have absolutely loved it since, having not played competitively for seven or eight years really.”

The extended break is as much about Otten’s career as a scientist as anything else.

She originally went to do her masters project at Newcastle University for half a year, but stayed for a further four years to do a PhD.

It was another chance meeting – this time at a conference in the US with her now boss – that ultimately led to Cambridge and her current role as a postdoctoral researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

“I work in innate immunities so it’s how our cells fight bacterial infections,” she explains. “It’s molecular biology so I’m working with DNA, proteins and microscopes.

“I work on bacteria, like food-borne pathogens, like faecal matter for example, the ones that give you diarrhea and cause a lot of deaths in the world really.

“It’s really the battle between the bacteria and our host cells. The pathogen gets into the host, the host tries to defend themselves, the pathogen has an attack against whatever defence mechanism we have and it’s like a continuous battle.

“It’s mostly to find targets for antibiotics really. The ultimate ambition is rewarding, but it’s a very slow process.”

Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286825)
Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286825)

The scientific hub of Cambridge is a far cry from Otten’s life growing up.

She was raised in a village in the north of the Netherlands called Fluitenberg, close to Groningen, on her parents’ dairy farm.

From a working family, football was always considered more of a hobby than a potential career, but it did not stop Otten kicking a ball with the boys from the age of six – with a football-playing auntie the perfect role model.

“I was always one of the boys really,” she says.

“In school, I was the only one going to the boys’ birthday parties, just being one of them and playing with them all the time.

“I think it is good for girls to play football with boys when they are young, it makes you a lot better.

“With boys, opponents first point at you ‘it’s a girl, weak spot’ but soon enough they figure out that you’re not the weak spot in the team so you get accepted.

“It makes you hard, because boys are harder, faster, stronger so physically it is good as well.”

In her early teens, Otten joined a girls’ team, SV Pesse, and she was soon on the move up to HZVV Hoogeveen – the first club of Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema – in the first tier of the Netherlands pyramid, before the start of the professional league.

They were promoted to the league when Otten was 17, but the average age of players was late 20s and there were also some in their 30s.

“When I joined I was the only young girl playing in the first XI,” she says. “The team was over the top because they didn’t have enough young girls coming in to take over.

“We stayed in the league for two years, and then we were relegated but the team was fantastic – I learned so much.”

Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286831)
Cambridge United Women midfielder Gisela Otten. Picture: Gary Reed Photography (43286831)

With the creation of the professional league, back then it amounted to provision of equipment such as boots and a little bit of money, but everyone had other careers.

That helped focus the attention of Otten.

“It was professional, but at the same time I think I was quite realistic that there was not really that much future in it because it was just coming up and it’s not like you get paid properly,” she says.

“I was also not quite self confident enough.”

At secondary school, Otten had wanted to practise medicine, but biology soon became the first choice as she committed to the subject.

While studying first her bachelor and then master of science at the University of Groningen, it was easier to combine work, playing and faith, as the leagues were held on a Saturday afternoon.

But in this country, women’s football tends to take place on a Sunday and that was a contributing factor in Otten not playing, as well as the studies and finding a team conveniently located in Newcastle.

It is why social football with work colleagues became the necessity. However, now Otten has joined United it has provided the perfect balance to the high-pressured demands of her profession.

“As you’re working with academics, you’re surrounded by quite similar minded people as well and using your brain constantly, so on a Tuesday and Thursday evening to get onto the pitch and just switch off and run around is incredibly refreshing,” says Otten.

“But also to get to know and meet people who are not scientists and just normal people is also really refreshing.”

She is also enjoying the whole ethos of the U’s.

“I love the club, the women’s side is amazing but also how the men’s side and the whole club is backing us,” says Otten.

“I also love how the whole club is doing stuff for the community – it’s not just the men’s team and that’s the whole focus.

“The club is much bigger than that. I really started to appreciate that a lot.”

So however you look at it, that chance meeting in church has certainly been to both Otten and United’s gain.

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