Shenel Gall is small in stature but she has shown the heart and tenacity of a giant during her first full year in professional women’s football.
The 21-year-old Caymanian has just completed a season in the Switzerland second tier and helped her club, Neunkirch, gain second place in their league out of 10 to be promoted to the Swiss first division, joining the likes of FC Zurich.
It is a remarkable achievement for Gall, the first woman player from the Cayman Islands to turn pro. Initially, last year she went to world renowned FC Indiana, but that stint at the US club did not work out.
Not discouraged, using the experience as a learning curve, Gall received an offer to play for tiny Neunkirch and, along with the other expatriates in the side, made them into contenders.
Bigger crowds and more international props beckon, but her European baptism has been far from easy. Cold weather and a complete change of culture has been as much a challenge as earning her place on the team.
Gall played in every game since joining last summer. They had a break for Christmas and the worst of the winter weather from mid-November to early February and scored twice as right-back.
“I’ve settled in pretty decent, still trying to adjust to small things,” said Gall, now in Cayman until the season starts again. “The facilities are pretty good, just the fields, they aren’t the greatest due to the weather. It rains pretty much every day there, so when we play games, it’s usually on turf fields and train on an indoor turf field.”
They may be a tiny outfit, but the professional attitude is impressive. During preseason they normally train two or three times a day and in the regular season they train daily and play games every Saturday night.
When schedules and energy allows, recreation is limited. “I usually go down to the city with my friends and hang out if we have time. I’m usually too tired or the weather isn’t great to do anything.”
Never one to sit on her laurels, even in Cayman she is training hard.
Already a role model for the next generation of Caymanian girls coming through under women’s technical director Thiago Cunha, Gall can give insight into the hardships of being thousands of miles away and trying to fulfil her dreams.
“It’s not easy, especially if you are looking to play in Europe,” she said. “It gets lonely without friends and family. But you have to keep strong, determined and positive, also to continue to work hard for what you want and have faith.
“I would like to thank everyone who has always supported me all the way through everything, especially my friends and my family and also thanks to Chris Goddard* at Winners Circle, who became my first official sponsor.”
The regime is tough. “We usually train once a day, Monday through Friday. On Monday, Wednesday and Fridays we train at our club’s fields and on Tuesday and Thursdays we train in Germany at an indoor turf field facility. They give us training gear, clothes and a bag. We travel to away games by bus and there is no overnight hotel stays.
“Training runs from 6.30 to 8.30 or 9am. We do a lot of ball work and drills, shooting and scrimmage each other a lot.
“They believe in a lot of playing time. We also do a lot of core work. The coach emphasises on playing really quickly and being very aggressive. Everything is done at a high, intensive pace.”
The Swiss speak French and German. “The coach doesn’t speak English too well, so a player translates what he wants us to do.”
Not much Cayman sunshine there, unfortunately. “The weather is terrible, as it practically rains every day.
“I hate it. If the sun comes out it’s not out for long. I remember before I left and also when I returned it was snowing, the temperature was around 8 degrees Fahrenheit coming down into the negatives.
“I wear leggings sometimes, an Under Amour neck, playing scarf and gloves, sometimes sweat pants and, of course, two or three jerseys.”
In her last game it started raining and hailing at the same time and seemed much colder than 6 degrees.
The choice of take-out food is not great in Neunkirch. “There are basically no junk food places, just a lot of local restaurants but very fresh, quality food. They grow everything there.”
The team is mainly made up of Germans and foreigners mixed with a few locals. The age range is young, roughly 15 to 25.
Neunkirch/Hallau is an extremely small town with few English speakers, making it hard to talk to locals.
Neunkirch is basically a farm town with a lot of vineyards as wine is a major income source. People for the most part are OK and friendly, Gall said, but there is not too much in the town centre to do, just a few restaurants and mini-bars.
“My overall experience is that it has been a good one so far, with a lot of ups and downs.
“I’m getting used to a different culture, the people and the language has all been a challenge.
“Being far from home, I miss the simple things I can’t get anywhere else and it was hard not having them.
“The six hour difference made things hard the most, not being able to talk to friends and family when I want.
“Food that I miss the most is mainly local and home-cooked food, especially my grandmother’s cooking.
“I miss rice and beans, oxtail, Al La Kebab, chicken and others. I don’t really watch TV that much, but I do miss hearing English on TV.
“Oh yes, the beach. I will always miss that. Those people probably don’t even know how hard it is to be away from such a beautiful place like Cayman.”
Throwing players from such a diverse background has led to tensions, Gall says.
“Like on an any other sport teams there are ‘drama’ players sharing their opinions, not liking players’ attitudes or not even getting along with the coach.
“I do like the training sessions for the most part, though, the intensity and the fast pace. It’s a challenge.
“Most of the games are played that way. The girls are very technical over there. When we played FC Zurich for the cup game it was a huge crowd, but it’s just an OK-size crowd usually.
“Overall, it was a great experience playing with a team for a full season, especially a team like FC Neunkirch, a very small town team making history for the people there.
“It was a great achievement being a part and helping them succeed to be in the National League A next season.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to play in the Swiss premier division. To be playing against FC Zurich, FC Basel, Young Boys and others will be a wonderful experience. I’ve reached my goal I set out and words can’t explain what I’m feeling.”
Naturally, Gall gravitates to the two Americans in the side.
“My closest colleagues are usually the Americans, just because it’s easy to relate and speak to them.
“I became really close with two players from Texas and Tampa. We still keep in contact with each other and we always have the same play style because of playing in college.
“The foreigners are very important to this team because of our level of playing and understanding of the game. We each bring different strengths that the team needs.”
e women’s technical director.