Sophie Howard has heard it all before. Born and raised in the German town of Hanau, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, the tough tackling, no nonsense defender has a ready reply when it is suggested that playing at the World Cup is something of a fairytale.
“You could say the icing on the cake!” she responded, with a comedic reference to the siblings’ famous tale of Hansel and Gretel.
Who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour? ButHoward is influenced by more than the place she still considers home.
The 25-year-old sports science graduate is a world citizen. Born and raised in Germany to a Scottish mother and English father, she has also spent time playing football in the USA. But it is in France where she is hoping to write the next significant chapter of her story.
A member of Shelley Kerr’s Scotland squad since her debut in April 2017, Howard, who now plays her domestic football for Reading in the English Women’s Super League, is hoping to play her part as the nation is introduced to the highest echelons of the game in France this month.
Having made history by becoming the first Scotland women’s team to qualify for the World Cup, they kick off on Sunday with their Group D opener against England, before tussling with Japan and Argentina, in the hope of booking safe passage into the knockout phase.
Had things turned out differently, Howard may have been harbouring loftier ambitions, of perhaps going on to lift the trophy on 10 July.
A graduate of boys’ teams, she was identified as quality operator early on and was a member of the Germany set-up when they lost out to USA in the final of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup seven years ago. She did not get any game time and dropped out of the reckoning but she was then called up to a 2016 training camp for England’s new Next Gen team but that did not pan out either and instead of battling for a place in the starting line up for two-time winners Germany or the Lionesses, who finished third in Canada at the 2015 tournament, Howard says she is proud to be in the Scotland squad where she feels at home.
“Germany went into that tournament as one of the favourites and having experienced that, I do know how to deal with pressure. But this is a completely different story. This is the full national team and this is Scotland. We have the whole nation behind us. But the pressure on us is the pressure we put on ourselves. We all want to do well.
“Obviously, [the U-20 World Cup] was a great experience but that’s not the highest you can go. I knew even then that I didn’t just want to be involved in the squad, I wanted to play a part. I played in the warm-up games but not the tournament itself. Then I was at a next generation camp, which came through my club at the time and if it had gone further then there may have been a choice to make. But once I came here, it felt like the right place. I instantly got that feeling.
“I had a rough season with injury last year – a double hamstring tear. I got a lot of messages from the Scottish girls and I hadn’t known them that long – two or three years but there were constant messages telling me to ‘keep going’. They knew I had had several setbacks but that made it clear how much this team means to me and how much I mean to them as well. It makes you feel accepted.”
That means that mum Sarah can get right behind the Scots as they look to run rampant against their southern neighbours. It is suggested that dad Neil’s loyalties could be tested, though.
“Eh, no! Obviously he’ll support me. He has no choice!” said Howard, displaying the kind of uncompromising determination that attackers come up against on match day.
“They have always been supportive, whatever I’ve done. When I was playing for Germany’s youth team, that was the same. My mum’s heart is obviously with Scotland, though.”
Regular holidays home to visit family, near Edinburgh, and in London means there have always been bonds with Britain, while inherited traditions influenced her childhood.
“I had a very British upbringing. I went to a German school and I had German friends, but when I got home, it was quite British. We had British traditions. We celebrated Christmas on the 25th. For everyone in Germany, it is the 24th.”
Howard has always followed her own path. While her sister joined a girls’ team, she chose to play with a boys club for as long as possible.
“I played with the boys till I was 16. I tried with the girls, tried to play with my twin sister but I didn’t like it so I went back to the boys. That kind of defines my playing style as well, which is quite aggressive. I had to fight for my spot against the boys, not only on the pitch but within the squad, just being accepted. I am glad I did it. I think it helped me.”