No athlete is truly tested until they’ve stared adversity in the face and come out the other side stronger than ever. For Irish international footballer Chloe Mustaki, these words encapsulate her story so far.
Six years on from being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, 2020 was set to be the year where Chloe Mustaki finally earned her long awaited first senior international cap. Yet she was drawn yet another cruel hand. The night before her potential debut against Greece back in March, she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in training.
“I hoped it wasn’t my ACL, but my gut feeling was that it was that,” Mustaki said. “The pain was too intense for it to be anything else.”
A harmless challenge for the ball with a teammate Heather Payne, near the end of the training session, left Mustaki with another setback to overcome. Initially, the timing could not have been worse – on the brink of an international cap and just a few months into her new club career with London based side, Charlton Athletic.
Although as Mustaki said, “there’s never a good time to tear your ACL”, she won’t miss out on too much football due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, it was announced that the FA Women’s Super League and the FA Women’s Championship were to be cancelled. As a result Mustaki won’t miss any matches for Charlton and can focus on her rehabilitation.
In March, UEFA confirmed that the Women’s Euro 2021 Championship, which is set to be hosted in England, will be rescheduled for July 2022. Drawing on her experiences in dealing with adversity, Mustaki has found the positives – should Ireland qualify, she has a better chance of featuring.
“That obviously helps me in terms of being able to make the team again. Because if it was next summer, that would have made it a bit tight for me to get back in form and playing at my best to be able to make the squad.”
Ireland are on the brink of history as they bid to qualify for a major tournament for the first time ever. An undeniably closed-knit group who have the belief they’ll make it to the Euros this time. “It’s a realistic goal, whereas in previous years it might not have been so realistic,” she said. “I think things have really come together in terms of the group of girls that we have at the moment and the management.”
ACL injuries are serious but common among female athletes, with women four to six times more susceptible to cruciate damage than men. Mustaki is in contact with a couple of girls from the Irish setup who have had or are going through the same injury, and it’s a great support.
“We always come back to the same individual, Rhianna Jarrett. She’s done it three times and look at her, she’s in the form of her life. (She) just signed a professional contract for Brighton and she’s definitely a motivational character for me.”
Mustaki, who was born in Ohio in the US to French and Irish parents, lived in Paris for a few years before moving to Ireland. She was always sporty, and credits her older brother for sparking her love for sport.
At five years old, she played football on the street with her brother and his friends. Mustaki also played tennis, but decided she was doing better in football so dropped it aged 14. She received her first international call up for Ireland at 13 years old. Last summer, Mustaki captained Ireland at the World University Games. Despite being the lowest ranked University team in the tournament, Mustaki captained the side to a fourth-place finish.
The 24-year-old started her playing career at Park Celtic before making the move to St Joseph’s as a teenager. Attending St. Andrews College, the midfielder then made the switch to Peamount United winning the first ever Women’s National League in 2011. A supremely talented young footballer, Mustaki received International Player Of The Year at U17 level.
Mustaki’s job is based in London, but she’s currently working from home. She enjoyed playing for Charlton, and noticed improvements in her game from the training and exposure she had. “It was a good stepping stone to get over to England and kind of bridge the gap between amateur and professional football.”
The pace in London is much different to Dublin, and she found it difficult at times to balance working at training, but it was all worth it.
“Everyone has to go through tough periods to then make it to the next step,” she said. “A lot of players in Ireland, the girls, would know what that’s all about in terms of trying to manage work and football.”
Mustaki is certainly no stranger to tough times and the challenges which she has faced certainly allows her to put things into greater perspective. She was diagnosed with lymphoma shortly after she captained the Irish under-19s to the semi-finals of the European Championships in 2014.
The “History Girls”, as they were known, were drawn into a heavyweight group with experts giving them no hope. Ireland were pitted against previous winners England and Sweden as well as the runners-up from the tournament two-years prior, Spain.
Never bet against the Irish. Led by Mustaki, Ireland beat Spain, England and Sweden to reach the semis, and were the first ever Irish team to qualify for the under-19 championships. The great team included the likes of current Ireland captain Katie McCabe, forward Clare Shine and Mayo footballer Sarah Rowe.
“It’s definitely something I’m hugely proud of, always will be and look back on really fondly,” she said. “Being on such a big world stage like that, being able to captain the girls, getting through to the group stages and playing some of the best players in the world now.”
What was supposed to be one of the best times in her career, 2014 proved to be one of the hardest periods in her life. Despite the incredible success of herself and the team, she felt she wasn’t performing her best. “I was meant to be delighted with how things were going for us and don’t get me wrong I absolutely was. It’s always hard when your performance isn’t living up to your standards to keep upbeat and happy, so that was something I kind of struggled with.”
Her lymphoma diagnosis was “the last thing I could have expected to happen.” She said she was privileged to have good treatment and a lot of doctors in her family, including her brother.
One of the most difficult aspects for Mustaki was shaving her hair, as her hair was something she’d always cherished. “I’ll always remember that day sitting in the salon with one of my best friends with me and them just shaving it off. You know, it’s just one of those things you’ll never forget.”
In order to “keep some sanity”, she kept up a bit of physical activity. When she felt up to it, she went for runs and occasionally went to training sessions. Football was an integral part of her life, so having that to hold on to helped.
“It was a case of literally life or death so missing out on six months of football and six months of nights out was very small when you put things into perspective. I’d say I got through it okay, but I always come back to the fact that I had a really good support system and that’s major when you go through such a life changing event like that.”
For Mustaki, the period following her recovery was difficult. “It was only when I tried to go back to having a bit of a normal life that everything that had happened over the past six to nine months kind of sank in and trying to go back and reintegrate into a life that I lived before just actually wasn’t possible.”
When Mustaki went back to college, she spoke to a professional about how she was feeling, which she has always been open about. “That’s not something I shied away from. It really helped me just to talk through what was (sic) rational thoughts. I obviously would really recommend that to anyone who’s feeling the same.”
For now, the focus for Mustaki is on rehabbing her knee so she can finally get that first cap she’s been chasing. She’ll relish the chance to represent Ireland once again.
“There’s never another feeling that can compare to representing your country. I wore the jersey with pride the whole time. A lot of people will say you’ll have memories to last a lifetime from playing international sport.”
“Hopefully I can get that cap that I’ve been working hard towards since the age of 13.”