Monday, April 11, 2016

Being Part of Palace, An American in London

Kelsey Zalimeni played collegiate soccer in the U.S. for Wake Forest University and currently works as Curator and Buyer at the Thompson Art Gallery in London and, of course, plays for the Crystal Palace Ladies.

By Kelsey Zalimeni

Every time I line up to deliver a corner kick, I can hear it. Distant, disjointed, and sorely off-key, the lyrics to the American national anthem ring out from the stands. The source of ‘my song’ is none other than three of Crystal Palace’s finest supporters, the infamous Holmesdale Fanatics.

Typically hung over (or with luck, still drunk) from the men’s match the day before, these warriors trek out to Bromley FC every Sunday to support us Palace Ladies at home. When the journey isn’t too far, they’re with us for away matches. We get the full HF treatment, with personalized songs for every player. Since they can never remember which state I’m from, the group encourage me with the Star-Spangled Banner. I love everything about this club, and it’s through a mixture of luck, timing and hard work that I’m involved with Palace today.

I came to England with two purposes- to obtain my master’s degree and to play for a team in the Premier League. I had my eye on the big dogs like Chelsea and Arsenal, but given a few factors -- namely my injury history (two right-knee ACL reconstructions via college ball) and school schedule -- I looked into more local sides. The fact that I hadn’t played in an organized, elite environment for over a year at this point did not deter me. I moved to London with four months of two-a-days under my belt, ready for a chance to trial.

Luck and timing came hand in hand, when I lobbed an email to the enquiries account for Palace Ladies. They were located close enough to my flat in South London, and seemed to have a good squad of players (I admit to thoroughly stalking their YouTube account and website, all in the name of research). To my surprise, I got a response that next morning from the manager. After a quick exchange stating my position, dominant foot, and former clubs I was invited to trial the following evening. My nerves instantly kicked in, and I prepared in overdrive that afternoon- alone in a muddy park at sundown frantically blowing through technical drills and fitness tests.

That first training was such a rush, I felt like a 12-year-old at ODP first cuts again. Thankfully the adrenaline wasn’t crippling. I smashed through the training session and was signed in the clubhouse that night. I was surprised at how quick the entire process had been, but didn’t question a thing. I was both humbled and thrilled to be playing at all again, let alone with a great team like Palace. Getting cleared by FIFA took over a month, as being from the States sent my registration through multiple laborious checkpoints. I maintained my training schedule with the team and through those sessions alone was very impressed with the environment. The trainings were all structured with purpose to the drills, and usually a full-field game against the Reserves ended most nights.

Once I was freed to play in matches I saw even more sides to the operation. I was surprised to see a healthy group of spectators, definitely hadn’t expected photographers and security to be there, and couldn’t believe that our announcer pronounced my name correctly in the walkout. Wow, the English really do football right! The level of play and fitness expectations are not as high as I had anticipated, but again we aren’t a Superleague team like Man City with a roster full of international stars. Speaking of stars, this brings up my next point -- the men’s side of our club.

What an absolutely drastic difference there is between a male and female footballer at Palace. There are the obvious and expected dissimilarities such as pay, which I won’t launch into but can outline with this simple fact: the annual salary of one U21 Men’s Team player could run our entire Palace Ladies operation (from youth up to the Reserves and First Team -- facilities, kit, refs, and travel included) for two years.

In other areas, there is next to no camaraderie between our first team and the men’s side, they’re at a separate training and match facility at all times. Our CPLFC chairman is still fighting to get us into Selhurst Park for our big matches like FA Cup semi’s and league derbies.  The only time we even share a room (and it’s a big, big room -- try theatre hall) with the men’s team is once a year on Palace Awards Night, an occasion upon which we only take the stage as a team if we’ve won our league or individually if we pick up an accolade. For all these differences however, we Palace Ladies remain happy. There are definite perks to being part of the club, like the odd free ticket to a men’s match or occasional video features of our team in action on the main Palace website. There is a growing visibility to our side and the women’s game as a whole, made largely possible by the recent success of the English women at the 2015 World Cup.

In all, I am truly grateful to be part of Palace, to wear the Red and Blue, and to hear our Fanatics belting America’s song at the corner flag each Sunday. It’s a thrilling time to be part of the women’s game; there’s this great volcanic energy building up beneath. Even next year Palace Ladies will be miles away from the point at which I joined them. The interest is building, the funds are around the corner, and I know I’ll see the day when every home match is at Selhurst.

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