Life After Soccer is a series about taking the next steps in life. In this series, players discuss what came — or will come — after their formal playing careers are over.
That is the thing — I am so happy with what I achieved.Joshephine Henning
Football. Tennis. Boxing. Three sports that aren’t the usual opening gambits for interviewing a footballer, but former Germany international Josephine Henning is no longer a footballer, walking away from her original passion before she hit 30 to pursue her new-found love of the arts. When we speak, Henning has just returned from the Nürburgring, live painting the recent Formula 1 race in the German mountains, something she now calls her career.
“I had always been interested,” Henning enthused from her new home and life in Cologne. “When I lived in Paris, I had done some studying and work in graphic design and I kept on with that while I was in the last few years of my career.
“The F1 last week was amazing, insane. I was stood right in front of the start/finish line, just watching these cars fly past, it wasn’t easy! There is a bit on the outside of the first corner where the photographers go and the cars were a bit slower. Next time I would love to go and paint cars from there.”
Live events have become somewhat of a specialty for Henning. While she has seen exhibits shown in museums around Europe, she most recently painted a Euro 2021 qualifier between Germany and Ireland, among others.
“I’m doing Champions League, the tennis here in Germany next week, and I think boxing the week after. When I did Germany versus Ireland lately, I messaged Katie [McCabe] and joked about it, but I really enjoy the live stuff. I went to a Braga game not long ago in Portugal because their stadium basically has a rock face behind one goal, that was amazing.
“I would love to do the Euros in England, maybe following the journey of the tournament through different games and players. I think that would be a great experience. It is quite intense doing a whole game, I was sweating like shit after 90 minutes of trying to paint a live game!”
In true German style, Henning is refreshingly honest, as she is about the rest of her career, one that saw her represent the likes of Olympique Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, VfL Wolfsburg, Arsenal, and Turbine Potsdam, as well as her national team.
Despite retiring before hitting 30, Henning has an incredible amount of medals to show for the time she did spend playing football.
She is one of a few outside of the regular Lyon superstars to be able to boast four Champions League medals, four Bundesliga titles, a French league title, and four domestic cups in three different countries, including an FA Cup during her first spell at Arsenal.
All she is lacking is a World Cup after also winning the Euros with Germany as well as Olympic gold in 2016, but she feels more than fulfilled with what she achieved, and rightfully so.
“That is the thing — I am so happy with what I achieved,” she said. “I look back and it was an honor to play with the players I did and the teams I did. I’m sometimes like, it was not luck, I worked really hard, I worked like shit to get those moments, but in some ways you are lucky to have experienced it and won the trophies I won.”
Like many, the passion for football with Henning started in childhood. Growing up in Trier, almost bang on the border with Luxembourg, Henning represented several local clubs before getting her break with FC Saarbrücken in 2005 when she was just 16.
“I used to play with my dad,” she recalled. “In Germany, we have these cages you can play in and he would bring his friends who were like 30 or 40 years old, and I would be there as this young girl kicking a ball around with them.
“When I moved to Saarbrücken, that was my first real taste of football, we got promoted from the second division to the first.”
Impressing during her four-year stay with the team, Henning was snapped up by Turbine Potsdam in 2009, at that time the leading force in German football.
In her two years with the team, Henning would pick up two league titles and win the Champions League in her first season, after a nail-biting penalty shootout victory over Lyon.
Under their legendary head coach Bernd Schröder, Potsdam had already picked up three Bundesliga titles during the same decade before Henning joined, as well as their first European trophy in 2005.
After seeing off German rivals Duisburg in the semifinals, they came up against Lyon — which, at the time, was in their first final — in Spain.
After a tentative 0–0 draw, the ensuing shootout went nine penalties deep, with Henning managing to escape the peril of having to step up to the spot.
“I was next,” she laughed. “It’s a strange feeling. A lot is made of the German mentality but I think it is just about winning. In those moments, you just want to win, you have to just do what you can to win. Our goalkeeper made two great saves, scored a penalty, I think she was only 18 at the time.”
The goalkeeper in question was Anna Sarholz, now also retired at 28, but at the time just a teenager faced with stopping Lyon’s penalties.
What she achieved was no mean feat. After Anja Mittag missed, Lyon needed to only score one of their last two penalties, but Sarholz denied both Amandine Henry and Isabell Herlovsen before stepping up herself to score a penalty in sudden death, where Elodie Thomis’s miss eventually sealed a second European triumph for Potsdam.
“We always had the belief we could win that game,” admitted Henning, who started at center back alongside Babett Peter. “Maybe we didn’t have the big superstars but we had a team and we had belief. We had great players like Anja, Nadine [Kessler], Fatmire [Alushi].
“I remember towards the end I was up against Thomis and she is one of the fastest players you could wish to come up against and I had to give everything I had. It was all about belief, giving everything for the team because we knew we could win that game.”
Henning may have had a sixth sense when she promptly decided to depart the all-conquering Potsdam after just two years for an up-and-coming Wolfsburg side.
At the time, the now European giants had never won a major trophy and rarely competed at the very top of the league, but in Henning’s first season they more than contended for the Bundesliga title.
One year later, they won an incredible treble — league, cup, and their first Champions League title in their first final, again against Lyon.
The French side has only lost two finals and Henning is one of just two players, along with Kessler, who can say they started in both.
Incredibly, they defended the Champions League a year later in a thrilling 4–3 win over Swedish side Tyresö FF, Henning picking up her third European trophy at the age of just 24.
“Wolfsburg was really my first experience of how to really run a women’s team,” she said. “Ralf Kellermann did such a good job, we were linked with the men’s side, they really integrated us into the club and gave us a platform to go and be successful. I think again in the finals it was about belief, belief that we could go and win those games.”
After adding several more major titles to her name, Henning was on the move again, this time leaving behind home for the first time for French side Paris Saint-Germain, who by this time were dealing with the emergence of upcoming dominant force in fellow French side Lyon.
“I had been at Wolfsburg for three years and I think it was just time for a new experience,” said Henning. “PSG were a great team and I have no regrets about going there, but it was difficult and a challenge.
“I didn’t speak French. I only spoke German and English, so that was a challenge. We had other German players there but actually when they left it was good for me because it forced me a bit more to learn and speak French.”
Whatever the challenges, Henning appeared to have picked another good move at a good time, as PSG reached the Champions League final in 2015, coming up against German side 1. FFC Frankfurt in the German capital of Berlin.
This time, Henning was on the bench in a team of multi-national stars, ranging from Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani to Costa Rica’s Shirley Cruz to Polish goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek.
Coming on for the final half an hour with the game poised at 1–1, Henning’s Germany teammate Mandy Islacker scored a 92nd-minute winner for Frankfurt to condemn Henning to her first taste of defeat in a major European final.
“I talked a lot about belief and I think that final is a good example of when a team doesn’t necessarily believe we are going to win,” she admitted. “Not even because of the coach, we just didn’t believe in our strategy and what we were doing. It was frustrating because Frankfurt were not that much better than us and we had beaten some really good teams to get to the final.”
At the start of the next campaign, injuries began to take hold of Henning, which is what would eventually end her playing career just three years later.
The defender missed the start of the 2015–2016 season before negotiating to terminate her contract in January 2016.
“I had an injury at the start of the season but I didn’t really have that relationship or trust with our doctor. I went back to Germany because I had doctors and physios there who I’d known since I was young.
“I had to pay for everything myself, which is not ideal, but I think that trust is really important, especially when you are dealing with something like this.”
Needing a preseason to get her fitness back up, Henning joined Arsenal in time for the 2016 FA Women’s Super League season, which ran through the summer as opposed to the more traditional winter leagues in Germany and France.
Playing alongside legends such as Alex Scott, Casey Stoney, Kelly Smith, Emma Byrne, and Fara Williams, Henning’s first season ended in disappointment in the league as the Gunners failed to really challenge Manchester City or Chelsea, but they did beat the latter at Wembley to win the FA Cup.
“I really enjoyed it. I loved London and I still do. The league was not quite how I expected, where it would be a point or two difference, that was different for me, but winning the FA Cup was really special.
“I still remember playing alongside Casey, her playing a long ball up to Dan [Carter] and, yeah, that was a great moment for us.”
Henning’s time at Arsenal would last only a year before she got the move any modern day footballer craves when Lyon came calling to recruit her for the back end of the 2016–2017 season.
In her few months back in France, Henning would be involved in her second treble success as Lyon began to firmly put their footprint on European football.
Coming up against former side PSG in the final, it was another nail-biting penalty shootout, this time coming down to a battle between the two goalkeepers, with Lyon’s Sarah Bouhaddi scoring after PSG’s Kiedrzynek had missed.
It gave Henning a stunning fourth European trophy, but for the first time she had played no part in the final, with head coach Gérard Prêcheur putting Canadian youngster Kadeisha Buchanan alongside Wendie Renard.
“They brought Kadeisha in just after me,” recalled Henning. “I actually wasn’t aware of that and maybe my decision would have been different if I’d known, but it was still a very good and successful period for me.
“I think in football you have to expect it, it’s just normal. When you play in teams with such top players, you are not going to play every game. It was the same with Germany, you would still rather win the game.”
The win gave Lyon a second successive Champions League title, and three more since has taken them to an incredible five in a row, dominating European football like no other has done before them.
What’s the secret? Henning believes the support shown by club president Jean-Michel Aulas has proved critical, but isn’t completely sold on Lyon’s way of life.
“He is so big on women’s football and the women’s team,” she said. “He gives you everything. The facilities, the training ground, the chartered flights, the best hotels, even things like the cryotherapy we had access to.
“But, I think you also have to treat players with humanity, they are not robots. That is just me, I’m quite a sensitive person and I think there is a way to treat people as humans and as footballers. I am not a fan of going out and just saying we will spend money and buy all the players.
“They have a heart of the team there, the likes of [Dzsenifer] Marozsán, [Ada] Hegerberg, [Eugénie] Le Sommer, Renard, who have been there a long time and they are incredibly successful, but for me, there is more humanity needed.”
Henning’s spell at Lyon would be the shortest of her career, but with three trophies in almost as many months, the clock was beginning to tick and her career would last only another year, with a return to Arsenal, but only three league appearances as injuries began to take their toll.
“I think at that stage of my career I just wanted to be happy. After the Olympics in 2016, I had achieved basically everything I wanted to and there was nothing really left to win. Like I said, I loved London, I had friends there, I just wanted to enjoy it really because I knew I was coming towards the end and going back to Arsenal was the best decision for me.”
After a season which didn’t yield any further silverware or many appearances, Henning said goodbye to football to begin her new career as an artist.
Yet she has no regrets, as she said, she won almost everything there was to win, many of them on multiple occasions, in such a short space of time, and is now happy in her new life with her new passion.
“The injury wasn’t getting any better. Arsenal were great and offered to send me to St. George’s Park for two weeks to work on my knee. But it was a big injury and I had won everything and for me I always knew when the time would come to stop and say that it’s, and I think that was the time.”