An absolute star for Nicholls State, Sydney’s Jess Coates looked from the outside to be a lock to continue her footballing career post-college. However, it is only recently that the midfielder has returned to the pitch as she laces up the boots for the only team to have won the Bulgarian Women’s Football Championship since 2005: NSA Sofia. We caught up with Jess to find out just how a Sydneysider who went to college in Louisiana ends up on the cusp of playing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
How did playing in college set you up for the opportunity to go to Europe?
I did my teaching degree when I was at Nicholls, and I guess in my head I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it. When I was at Nicholls I met some people that were in the international school career and I thought ‘That sounds like a very cool way to go.’
In my opinion, IB (International Baccalaureate) is the best education system. For teachers, I think it’s the ideal way to go. But then it took a while. I graduated in 2016, but then I had the redshirt year so Nicholls was like, ‘We’ll get you your Masters if you play your redshirt senior season.’
So, I did that and I had a year left, so I taught for two years at a local school in Louisiana, and loved it. So that’s how I ended up being there for a while. And then I went to Thailand for a year to suss out what international schools were like, and I really enjoyed it. It was actually there – there was actually a huge amount of teachers there that were ex-professional footballers or ex-college footballers, and we would play on Tuesday nights, and I was like, ‘Ooh, I actually really miss football.’
So, when I was there, I was like, ‘My next job, I want to go somewhere where I have the opportunity to play.’ So, when Bulgaria came up, and it was an excellent school and they had a good football league, it was a no-doubter. It’s the oldest American school outside of America. It’s been around for a very long time (since 1860), and everything in the school is done in English.
Did you have other schools you could have moved to in other countries?
So, I was working through the recruitment process and I had a couple of options. No one really knows about Bulgaria, it’s kind of this mysterious, interesting place, and then there was the opportunity to play football. When I was looking at schools, I was kind of searching for areas where I would have the opportunity to play.
Did you originally have plans to play after college?
So, it was quite funny, before I broke my arm (in 2015), I was talking to my coach and we were sussing out some options because I was quite keen to continue playing. And we were looking at Europe, and we were discussing it, and I broke my arm, and it was like ‘Okay, we’ll put everything on the backburner for a year.’
And then, when the opportunity to get a Masters came up, school’s always been the first priority, so it was like ‘Ok, we’ll put it back for another year.’ Then, when I started teaching, it was like ‘Oh, this is actually an incredible, fun profession; maybe I’d prefer to do this than continue playing football.’
And then when I found out you could do both together, it was like ‘Why didn’t I think of this earlier?’
How long have you been training with the club?
So, I’ve been training with the club since July, but because of some paperwork issues delayed by COVID, and then getting my ID card for the country, I actually didn’t get to play a game until December which I think was actually ideal.
The team, they’re very good; they’re obviously the best team in Bulgaria and they’re technically very, very good. Understandably, I was rusty, so I think having half a year of training really worked in my favour, because I could get better without the stress of having to put it into games.
You’re playing for the National Sports Academy. How do they compare to the rest of the clubs in Bulgaria?
They’ve won the league for the last 16 years straight. They’re very, very good. I mean, the majority of the players are in the national team, and the coach is the national team coach. I think, if we look at the first of half the season, we won every game and the goal difference was something like 60 goals for and 2 goals against.
Is there something of a target on the team’s back due to the success? Do the other teams hate the National Sports Academy?
It’s hard, with the language barrier, they could and I’d have no idea. Obviously, we’re the team to beat and most people go into games eager to make a go at it. But also, the team plays in the Champions League, so quite a lot of the season is preparing for August when they have the Champions League qualifiers and the regular season. So, the target for our team is to do better at that going forward.
Have you experienced the Champions League with the team?
I was there (last season), but I didn’t get to play because I was ineligible. But I got to go and experience the games. The games were at Vasil Levski, which is the national team stadium so it was an unreal experience, because it was this giant Bulgarian stadium. Growing up, there’s always something about the Champions League, so having all the signs, and the necklaces saying Champions League, it was an awesome experience for me.
Have you thought about the idea of going from teaching to playing in the Champions League?
That would be unbelievable. I think, every day I’d go to school and probably tell my kids about it. Hopefully, if things go well this season and we win, that’s a very good possibility, and it would just be an amazing experience. Hopefully, if COVID is gone, or less prominent, then it would be in a different country, so it would be an incredible experience travelling with the team and playing against some of the best teams in Europe.
Is this something of a football career revival, or are you just taking things as they come?
I think I’m just taking every day as it comes. I’m really happy in Bulgaria, I love the country, I love my job, I love the football, so I’m kind of just taking it day by day and not really planning that far ahead.
For players coming out of college who might be in your position with a teaching degree, what advice would you give them?
100%, do international teaching, play football. I think there’s something really special about being in a different country and not just visiting it but being able to immerse in the culture. Being able to live here, I’ve got friends on the team here, I feel like I’ve experienced the country in a way that I never would have. It’s also an option that your career doesn’t have to end in college, you have the possibility to keep playing and growing.