New Football Ferns coach Jitka Klimková speaks to Michael Burgess about the team's upcoming games, growing up in a tiny Czech village and the chance meeting that put her on the path to coaching down under.
When Jitka Klimková first discussed her sporting dream with her parents, they thought she was crazy.
The Czech Republic native, who will take charge of her first Football Ferns match next Sunday, after being appointed as the head coach last month, had a far from straightforward journey into the game.
Klimková grew up in the small village of Moravany (population 1000), around 200 kilometres south east of Prague.
Her father Eduard Klimek was a big time motorcycle racer and her early life was spent at racetracks around the country.
Klimek was quite a sight, hurtling down the straight on his Jawa or Kreidler bikes, at blistering speeds.
"I'm from a motorcycle family", Klimková tells the Herald. "Every weekend we were at the races; that's how I remember my childhood, when I was cleaning their motorcycles and cheering for either my brother or my father."
It was enjoyable, but Klimková had her eyes on another sporting pursuit.
"Between those weekends I was the one who was first on the field, waiting for the boys to come to play football with me."
There was no girls' teams to join, but Klimková joined the informal village kickarounds, getting increasingly attached to the sport.
Later, as a teenager, she wanted to join a proper team, in a neighbouring town.
"My father had been saying, maybe you can start racing, like [your] brother. And I was always thinking - this is not what I want to do," says Klimková.
"My passion is somewhere else. My mum was like, 'I don't think this (football) is a sport for women; look you can't even play [in a team]."
But her determination eventually swayed them.
"[There] wasn't much support in the beginning," says Klimková. "But then I was riding my bike to the sessions that were 20 kilometres away.
"When [they] saw how much I loved it, they supported me. My father took me, he started to be my personal driver. And my mother was my biggest support, coming to games … she loved it."
Klimkova didn't play an official match until she was 15, but progressed quickly. She scored plenty of goals for a lower division team – "I thought, this is not bad" – before two seasons with Sokoi Cejc in the second division.
Klimková then spent four years with Slavia Holic, a first division team in Slovakia.
Her stint coincided with the formal separation of Czechoslovakia in 1993, following the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
"There was just a bridge across and I remember the first time I was driving across after we split," recalls Klimková. "They stopped me and asked 'Do you have a passport?' I said, 'What, really?' Now of course it's normal."
The most memorable years of Klimková's career were at Compex Otrokovice in the Czech first division, as they regularly challenged the giants from the capital, Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague.
They finished runners-up in the 2001 and 2002 seasons, a period that coincided with Klimková's international debut, the culmination of a dream.
"When I was 15 and I finally started playing games, I said to my sister 'I will make the national team'," recalls Klimková. "She was like, 'you just started, slow down sister, slow down'."
Klimková made a couple of national squads, before getting caps for games against Yugoslavia and Greece.
"I made it - I achieved my goal," says Klimková. "Was I a superstar? Nope. But I knew I started late, and players were ahead of me physically, technically, tactically. But I worked hard and did everything to make it. And I knew already I wanted to be a coach, so I was already thinking 'okay this is great experience', even if I'm not on the field so much."
Klimková began doing her coaching badges in her twenties – "I thought this is my future,
I love football, I don't want to be without it" – and became assistant coach when she was still playing, before transitioning to the top job at 30.
"They were my teammates, then all the sudden I was their coach," said Klimková. "It was quite a tough time for a young coach."
Compex Otrokovice finished third across six consecutive seasons, while also reaching the national cup final in 2009.
"We always were fighting for the title, a little town compared to Prague," says Klimková. "We beat them a couple of times but not regularly. I remember once we just needed a draw at home to win the title and finally beat Sparta Prague. And we lost 2-1, it was crazy."
Klimková expanded the club's women's programme, before taking on the Czech Under-19 team. But she always had overseas ambitions, taking note from Pavel Nedved, her hero as a player.
"He was a lefty and a midfielder, one of my favourites to watch," said Klimková of the Lazio, Juventus and Czech Republic legend. "But it was great to see his career, how he went from Sparta and abroad. It showed me the options are open; you don't need to just stay in the Czech Republic, you can experience something else."
Klimkova attended the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup with the Czech federation, where a chance meeting changed her destiny. Klimková ended up sitting next to Canberra United chief executive Heather Reid at a conference, discussing her desire to coach overseas.
"During lunch Heather got a message from her former coach that he [couldn't continue], so she was like, 'Okay, this is interesting'. It was a little bit of a miracle."
The pair talked more, with Reid offering her the W-League job a week later, after doing some research on Klimková's background.
"That [lunch] was my life changer," she laughs.
Canberra United topped the 2011-12 W-League table, crowning an unbeaten season by beating Brisbane in the final, with Klimková named coach of the year.
They finished fifth the following season, before Klimková accepted a position as New Zealand under-17 coach. Her application was filed after the deadline, but she agreed to meet "for a coffee" a few weeks later, during a vacation in this country.
"It wasn't a coffee," says Klimková. "It was actually an interview. But it was a good fit."
Klimková took the Young Football Ferns to the 2014 Under-17 World Cup and was an assistant for the under-20 team, before six years working in the United States, where she coached national age group teams, including the under-19 and under-20 squads.
"Nobody is more competitive than Americans," says Klimková. "So they really pushed my competitiveness. No doubt about it. I found my feet as a coach; became clear how I want to play, who I am as a coach and what the team should look like."
Klimková, who speaks four languages including Russian and German, has been handed a rare six-year mandate but isn't concerned about her lack of international senior coaching experience.
"I started as a senior coach, right, in the Czech Republic first division," says the 47-year-old. "I really believe that coaches should go through the stages, with younger players. I was Under-17 Coach, Under-19 coach and I'm ready to coach the seniors."
Klimková's first assignment is a tough one, with two games against Olympic champions Canada.
"I'm excited that we can start this journey," says Klimková. "The players are aware about what is next, what is in 2023. There is nothing better than to have the World Cup at home in New Zealand. I can't wait to start working with them."
The Football Ferns take on Canada in back-to-back game on October 24 (8am) and October 27 (12:30pm)