‘I didn’t realise how big winning the Champions League was at 19’ – Bayern star Damnjanovic chasing another UWCL dream
Jovana Damnjanovic wasn’t on the pitch when Bayern Munich were last in the knockout rounds of the Women’s Champions League, but she remembers it well.
It was last season’s semi-finals and the German giants travelled to London with a 2-1 advantage over Chelsea from the first leg.
At full-time, that had evaporated. .
Damnjanovic was nine months into her ACL recovery at that point and while her rehab would be setback-free, it was these moments that were difficult for the Bayern striker.
“I think the hardest thing actually, for me, was – especially at the end of the season – seeing the team struggling, especially, for example, against Chelsea or some games at the end and you’re not able to help them,” she tells GOAL.
“You’re there, you’re screaming, you’re trying to be loud, to motivate them, but you cannot actually do anything on the field.
“I mean, the players said it was amazing, that they heard me the whole time, but still just not being there, not being able to tackle someone, to score the goal, to do whatever, I think that was actually the hardest moment for me.”
Fast forward almost a year and Bayern are back in UWCL knockout action this week, .
This time, Damnjanovic can play the role she wants. She made her return from injury back in pre-season and says she feels “even better” now. “I feel like I was never injured.”
The Serbia international, Bayern’s main source of goals in the season before being sidelined, has returned to stern competition for her place, though, in the form of Lea Schuller.
Signed from Essen last summer, she took on the goalscoring burden in Damnjanovic’s absence, netting 16 times as the team won its first league title in five years.
The relationship between the pair is not like it is for most players fighting for the same shirt, though.
When Damnjanovic was substituted at half time against Cologne this month, Schuller took her place with the game goalless and went on to score a hat-trick. She ran straight to her fellow striker to celebrate.
“I came to her at half-time and said, ‘Come on, bro, you’re going to score twice today’ – and then she scored three,” Damnjanovic explains. “After the third goal, she ran to me and we celebrated together.
“It’s always great to have somebody who is pushing you to be even better. I think that is also great for her, and that’s also great for me.
“Sometimes, she’s playing; sometimes, I’m playing, but we are always supporting each other, 100 per cent.
“I’m super happy when she scores. She’s super happy when I score. For us, that’s just a normal thing.
“It’s funny that people are always surprised when they see that we understand each other that well.”
Damnjanovic knows where that unity can take a team.
Before she signed for Bayern, she was playing for Sand, a small club in the south of Germany with resources nowhere near what the German champions have. Yet, the team reached the DFB-Pokal final two years in a row.
“We didn’t have such a strong team in Sand, like other teams, or amazing players. But I realised when you have a good group of people and when everybody is investing 105 per cent, you are going to be able to reach amazing things,” she remembers.
“In those two years, we beat Bayern, we beat Wolfsburg, we beat everybody, literally.
“When people are believing in you and you believe in your team, I think everything is possible.”
There are a lot of exciting possibilities for Bayern in these coming weeks.
They are locked in an intense title race with Wolfsburg, the team they took the league crown from last year and also the team they will face in the semi-finals of the cup.
It was with Wolfsburg that Damnjanovic got her first taste of German football and her first experience outside of Serbia, joining the club as a teenager.
She would leave to play regular football with Sand after two seasons, but what she learned from training alongside such great players was huge. The spell also brought her a Champions League winners’ medal, in 2014.
“I didn’t realise how big that was, at that time.” she admits. “I thought, ‘Okay, cool. I’m 19. It’s my first season in the Champions League. I won it’, you know? Then, you get a reality check and just realise, ‘Oh, it’s not that easy at all’.”
To get the chance to win it again with Bayern then, what would that mean?
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“I couldn’t even compare it with anything,” she says, after pausing to imagine it.
“With this team, with this group of girls and people, it sounds stupid but we are not just team-mates. We are way more than that.
“I couldn’t be happier than to win the Champions League with this group. Every single one of them is amazing in their special way. Not just like two of them – all of them.”