Ella Masar is on one of the biggest journeys of her life right now.
The former Wolfsburg, PSG and FC Rosengard forward is currently getting to grips with being a mum for the very first time alongside her partner, Real Madrid defender Babett Peter.
Their son was born earlier in September and, just as with any new parents, it is sure to be challenge particularly with the small matter of a global pandemic still going on in the background.
But Masar has already experienced massive challenges in her life – from struggling to accept her own sexuality by the age of 25 to the difficulties presented in her teenage years where money was tight, and her mum was battling with bipolar disorder.
But throughout it all Masar has always held on during the tough times for that light at the end of the tunnel.
We spoke a matter of days before the US international was due to give birth – the couple’s home was fully prepared for their new arrival – and it’s clear just how much the 34-year-old has learnt from her incredible life experiences already.
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“As a 14-year-old kid and in teenage years, when people ask me what I’m most worried for about for my son, I think being a teenager is hard,” she says.
“That’s what I’m most scared of coming into motherhood. Now I realise going back I was angry.
“I was so lucky, because we come from a small town, so I was a footballer. No one saw me as the one with a crazy mum.
“I was still cool because I had football and if I was on the other side, and didn’t have sport that people identified me with, then maybe I would have been really bullied.
“You know, my mum would come to my basketball games and she would tap dance on the floor.
“Now I can laugh about it but at the time, at 14 years old, you’re in high school in the States – seniors, juniors, sophomore and freshmen – and you don’t understand it’s a chemical imbalance. You just think your mum is trying to embarrass you.
“I think I was angry, but I think football was a huge outlet. It was my saving grace where I would put my shoes on, and I was a normal kid.”
“I think football was my psychiatrist”
Sport, and football, has been huge for Masar. It’s defined her life but even during the dark times it was there acting as “her psychiatrist”.
“How football helped me was that moment where I had all this anger that I didn’t understand,” she explains.
“Then instead of holding onto it, and keeping it, I would go on the pitch – maybe get a yellow card or run myself into the ground – but after I walked off that pitch it wasn’t inside me anymore.
“It was my hour and a half therapy session because I could do what I needed to do, let it all go on the field, and then when I stepped off the pitch, I was ok.
“I think that was just how I learned to deal with it from a really young age – I don’t know if it’s healthy or not – but I didn’t have anything after that time to hold onto anymore. Some of it was gone.
“Of course, you go home, and you get hit with the reality of, ‘oh crap what’s going on’ but for that moment I was free, and I didn’t have a weight. Maybe it was a 5kg weight on my shoulders instead of 20kg.”
With time also comes the benefit of hindsight and now Masar values her mother, and her family, more than ever.
If it weren’t for the current coronavirus her mum would be right by her side helping her with the new arrival.
“Being with a German puts a little bit more structure than I was on for sure,” Masar adds.
“We’ve had the baby car seat for the last three weeks in the car whereas I came home in a laundry basket.
“There’s a little bit of a line but absolutely I want my mum. If corona wasn’t here my mum would be here now – she’d be sitting right next to me.
“But she’s 70 and she’s put her body through its fair share, so she’s high risk.
“Unfortunately, she can’t be here but otherwise there’s no one else I would want my son to grow up, see and to be around because she is so fluid and free.
“It’s her world and there’s lessons he should learn through her own unique way.”
“I will never feel ashamed for loving someone again in my life”
Masar came out as gay back in March 2015 but the journey to get to that point was by no means straight forward.
By the age of 25 she was still unsure of who she was and was forced into asking herself some huge questions after the sudden death of her father.
But even now she still has to treat her scars every now and again despite the fact she is in a living relationship and has fully accepted who she is.
“I think even at 34, with a same-sex partner and a baby on the way, I still think I deal with a little bit of it,” she says.
“I can’t say I’ll go outside in Madrid and hold Babs’ hand. If I was with a guy would I do the same? It wouldn’t even be a thought.
“I’ve completely accepted, I’m so proud that she’s mine and I’m so proud of this journey.
“But at the same time, it takes a lot of time to undo those scars that you have physically – and maybe not even understanding emotionally – engraved in your body.
“I think now, compared to five years ago, and especially in Europe it’s a lot more of an open world.
“If I tweet something about here it’s a lot more accepted than my American followers – a lot of them comment because there’s still such a battle with religion and what’s right.
“Also, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, I mean I’m not worried about dying. There they are still being persecuted for being gay and this is still 2020 things going on in the world.
“I think you really have to deal with it and accept it, but I don’t know if it will ever be fully accepted.
“But at the same time, I know I am the way I am, and I will never feel ashamed for loving someone again in my life.”
Shame is a strong word. Really strong. But that sums up just how potent Masar’s internal feelings were as she got to grips with who she was.
As she often describes it, it was a full on rollercoaster of emotions over the best part of a decade.
“There was shame – ‘why? Why can’t I be normal?’” she explains.
“I had this amazing guy that was my boyfriend for eight years on and off and he was incredible.
“He was a pastor’s son; a really good guy and I want to love him. I want to but then I fell in love with this girl in college and it was like my whole world opened emotionally.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster and I felt so much in more intimate times.
“My eyes were opened but I felt that feeling because I thought, ‘this isn’t right, I’m not supposed to’.
“It doesn’t make sense in any form when I’m with her but – and again I think it’s the way my family raised me – I have to fight for what I believe in even if it doesn’t feel natural to me.”
She continues: “I met this guy at 16 and he’s like ‘I don’t care – God makes you new, he makes you perfect, he makes you lovely’.
“No one judges you, and you have a chance for a whole new life, so for once it made sense outside the football pitch to me.
“I felt accepted and loved and they didn’t care about my mum, they didn’t care if I was poor. They could see me for me.
“They supported me, they loved me and there was also a personal training gym so I could go there. It was just a mix of feeling really loved and accepted for the first time, which I hadn’t felt for just being on this emotional rollercoaster.
“I maybe put more faith in their family in that section of town than my own but, when I look back, I realise how lucky I was that my mum loved me no matter what.
“My family has supported me through everything and – we joke about it – my mum has a black son-in-law; she has four mixed grandchildren and she has a gay daughter.
“For her this is like her dream and 20 years ago that wasn’t a dream that was so accepted somewhat in the south of America. “
“I wasn’t ready to accept it at that point”
The timespan of Masar’s internal battle is arguably what strikes you most when she takes you through her journey.
But eventually came the trigger point while she was playing for PSG where she decided to face up to exactly who she was.
“At 25 I was still with this guy so that shows you the timeline,” she says.
“In this time, I was with a girl – and I told him – and we were trying to work it out and he was in school.
“I think at 25 when I came home and my dad passed away suddenly it was just like, ‘ok Ella, you’re going back to Paris, you’ve got to figure out who you are and who you want to be’.
“It wasn’t an easy thing and at 25 it’s somewhat late but then I finally started to accept myself.
“At 27 I met Erin [McLeod], my ex-wife, so it was a later transition. But I joke with players that I played with – Formiga, Cristiane and Megan Rapinoe – and they were like, ‘Ella at 22 we were giving you crap that you were gay’.
“They would really joke in front of the guy I was with, ‘come on Ella we know you’re gay’.
“I would be like, ‘no guys, there’s no chance’ but now we can laugh about it because when you look back – wow – there were a lot of signs.”
She added: “It’s also more normalised in women’s football. Who knows, if I retired at 25, I’d probably be at home, maybe with this guy, having kids.
“It was more of an accepted time at that point because you’re around it in football.
“And again, it’s not quite as accepted in Europe but in the US you had these role models that said, ‘listen it’s ok to be gay Ella’.
“Megan Rapinoe, Cristiane – ‘Ella it’s ok, it’s not a problem, we love you, we accept it and don’t fight it’.
“But I wasn’t ready to accept it at that point.”
“When you have a broken heart that’s the hardest point of your life”
Masar has been down that tough road where love can really wreak havoc with your emotions.
But for her the message to everyone else who might be going through similar struggles with their sexuality is clear.
“I would say hold on,” she says. “I think that’s the biggest thing regardless of what situation you’re going through.
“Or, if you think you’re alone or alienated, you have to hold on.
“Whether it’s going through how you don’t want to be this person that you’re in love with or if you don’t have a job, or school, or whatever, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“There is someone out there that loves you for you – 100% for you – and that is meant just for you.
“You just have to hold on and believe that he or she is out there because sometimes love is the trickiest thing in the world.
“It’s not so easy to fix like the rest. You can be poor, you cannot have money, but when you have a broken heart that’s the hardest point of your life.
“But hold on because I promise you they are out there. You just have to see that light because I think it can get really dark sometimes.”
Interview: Alasdair Hooper
Words: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Doyenne Sport
All music in this episode is courtesy of Dan Henig
Extended thanks go to Doyenne Sport for organising this interview