Field Wide Open for Tinja-Riikka Korpela

Today’s society is more than capable of posing its fair share of hurdles for citizens all over the world. But thanks to sport and people like Tinja-Riikka Korpela, some of those barriers can be steamrolled and eradicated. The Finnish national team and Bayern Munich goalkeeper may not be a household name, but who says you have to be a global superstar to leave a lasting impact on the lives of others. Korpela has done just that through her Unique path in international soccer and willingness to lead as a Role Model. In hearing of her experiences and contributions, Athlete CRUSH sat down to interview Korpela to learn more about her story.

Tinja-Riikka Korpela has proven a savior all over Europe

Growing up in Finland, Korpela spent her teenage years as a multi-sport standout. Invitations to join the U-15 and U-16 national basketball teams for a moment had her leaning away from soccer until the U-17 national soccer team came calling and convinced her otherwise. At the age of 18, she left home to play in Finland’s highest soccer league in Turku.

Stops at FC Honka, near capital city Helsinki, Kolbotn and LSK Kvinner, just outside of Oslo, and Tyresö FF, on the outskirts of Stockholm, ensued over the course of the next several seasons before global brand Bayern Munich reached out with its own offer in 2014. Although the Bayern women’s team has now joined the men’s squad as an international superpower, things weren’t always so golden. “Obviously, everyone knows the men’s team here, and that’s a big thing. But the women’s team wasn’t that successful. They were building something new, having a lot of new players. They wanted me to be part of that, taking a big role as the number one goalkeeper.”

And step up she did. The team has since won the 2015 and 2016 Bundesliga titles, snapping a near 40-year drought in the process behind her play and leadership. Pictured bottom right below, Korpela enjoyed hoisting the 2015 trophy alongside Bayern counterpart Manuel Neuer in a celebration at Munich’s Rathausbalkon.

Unsere Meisterinnen und Meister #DieBayern (Fotodank @photoloungelauer )

A post shared by FC Bayern Frauen (@fcbfrauen) on

Away from soccer, Korpela is openly gay. As many other homosexual athletes and individuals have experienced, the process of coming out was not always easy. She received support from her family early on, but mentioned “it’s not that easy if you come from a religious family like I am. You don’t want to put them in a difficult situation either.”

Korpela admitted she was afraid of what people might do upon hearing her sexual orientation, especially when living in smaller European cities. “But then I realized that I can’t live my life through other people,” she said. And as she’s grown as an adult and come to peace with living openly, she’s also gained further perspective from living in some of Europe’s bigger metropolitan areas, where she’s found a more accepting attitude amongst the people.

That welcoming nature allowed Korpela to allay her fears and speak out for others in similar circumstances. “Now when I think about it, it’s unbelievable. I realized that I should have acted openly. But of course, it’s different when you’re younger. You’re just scared.” She added, “If I would have known when I was a teenager that I’m not the only gay soccer girl in the world, it would have helped me a lot.” In closing, she offered some advice. “I hope that this helps some younger girls – and why not boys also – to see that it’s totally fine and the sport world generally is quite open.”

Korpela has been an advocate for the LGBT community, but also the religious one as well. “I believe in God but I don’t see there are any problems being gay at the same time.” She’s been involved with the Peace United organization in her home country, helping to spread the Finnish church charity campaign. “The idea is to bring people together with football no matter what your background is, no matter where you’re from, what your religion is.”

It took little time to convince her to jump on board.  “I heard from my former national team colleague, Laura Kalmari (the all-time leading goalscorer for Finland). She was asked to be the captain of Peace United team. She got the task to ask other players and celebrity people. She wanted me to join and I said I was willing right away.” And Korpela has been pleased with what the program has been able to offer since joining. “You have to work together and you learn to respect different kinds of people. That’s why I’m in there.”

At one particular summer church event near Helsinki, tens of thousands of people from all over Finland came out to partake in a variety of festivities. With Peace United and Korpela in attendance, a soccer game was organized for the visitors. The makeup of players was especially noteworthy to Korpela. “People from church and some priests were playing. Also, immigrants were playing. People from Syria that had left their home. So people really from different backgrounds were playing together.”

Despite those differences, Korpela and Peace United noticed a unifying force provided by the game. “Some of the players, they didn’t have a common language but still, the game worked. That’s what it’s all about – to use soccer or sports generally. You can make new friends even though you can’t even speak the same language.”

Speaking of different languages, Korpela has had to rely on English, German, and perhaps her favorite language – soccer – in order to communicate with many of her teammates over the years. One of her closest teammates at Bayern Munich, Gina Lewandowski, hails from the United States, and has helped ease her transition to German life. “We have a lot of good conversations off the field and we share some common things.”

Serving as two of the team’s veteran players, they’ve brought a calm presence to the field and locker room. That’s also helped bring the two closer together. “I think we are the same type of person…also the values that we have outside of soccer are quite the same. That’s why we get along so well.” It’s friendships like these that have made playing away from home and interacting with others particularly rewarding for Korpela.

Outside of major games and events, Korpela has also been known to run after-school children’s programs and teach elementary school gymnastics. “I really love to be with kids and play with them and teach them sports and see the joy when they learn some new things.” Despite whatever differences in age, sexual orientation, nationality, and language she may have faced over the years, she has developed an incredible ability as well as willingness to selflessly reach across and relate to others.

Korpela has continually placed emphasis on fostering genuine and meaningful relationships, whether that be at Bayern Munich, through church, or in elementary schools. And at the end of the day, such values only lead to greater understanding and harmony. In other words, a knocking down of hurdles and barriers, that can make a life that much better.

To round it up, below is a collection of Tinja’s favorites.


Tinja Riikka Korpela's private highlight collection

Click here to read up on part 2 of Tinja-Riikka Korpela’s feature on Athlete CRUSH:

Follow Tinja-Riikka Korpela on Twitter @tinnikorpela

Written by Athlete CRUSH Staff

Posted 15 September 2016