Malta's highest-profile female player Rachel Cuschieri has become the first to turn professional, with Apollon LFC – and as her team prepares for the last 32, she discusses the move.
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Malta are still relative newcomers to the world of women's football, but 22-year-old Rachel Cuschieri is blazing a trail.
An international regular since her teens, the San Gwann academy product began her senior career with Birkirkara FC where she won three league titles amid an array of honours, being the club's top scorer seven seasons running and landing Malta's female player of the year prize in 2011 and 2012.
Her ambition was for a move abroad and, after a trial with FC Bayern München three years ago, she has joined Apollon LFC, for whom she scored in the UEFA Women's Champions League qualifying round to set up a round of 32 tie with Brøndby IF, with the first leg in Cyprus on Wednesday. UEFA.com found out how Cuschieri is shaping up.
UEFA.com: What was your feeling about the summer move and how have you adapted to playing in Cyprus?
Rachel Cuschieri: I have been waiting for an opportunity like this for quite a while, so I was looking forward to starting this new experience. At Birkirkara I had huge support from everyone, on and off the pitch, and when I moved to Cyprus I started feeling the pressure that now I'm one of many and that I had to work hard to gain respect. But from day to day my relationship with club staff and team-mates has got stronger.
I never imagined I would be this happy with another club apart from my home club, Birkirkara.
Two other [Maltese women] played for a Swedish team [Ylenia Carabott and Stephanie Cremona]. But I was the first to get an official professional contract rather than just playing for a foreign squad.
UEFA.com: How are the team ahead of the Brøndby tie?
Rachel Cuschieri: There is a good vibe. Since we played the qualifying round group in Lithuania, we have trained really hard for this tie. In Cyprus our games won't be as competitive and demanding as this match, so our peak has to be in these games against strong UEFA Champions League opposition.
UEFA.com: What are your immediate ambitions?
Rachel Cuschieri: I'm just focusing on my job, which has got me to Cyprus. Playing for Birkirkara, I used to train really hard to get an opportunity like this. Now I'm playing for Apollon I will work even harder if possible so that hopefully this won't be the first and last opportunity.
UEFA.com: Finally, do you miss your native country Malta and what is the memorable moment you treasure most?
Rachel Cuschieri: You cannot not miss your home. We are raised in a certain environment, close to friends, team-mates and even closer to our family. I treasure every minute I used to spend at home with my parents, brothers and close friends. Even though there is contact every day, there are still moments when I just feel the urge to hug them. But now I'm here I try to keep myself busy, make new friends and enjoy the moment.