Lia Wälti is no stranger to pain. The small tattoo behind her ear, the earth with a Saturn-style ring around it, was the result of a bit of a fascination with the feeling.
“Oh no, don’t ask me, I’m not a tattoo person, I don’t know why I did that,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to see how it feels, you know, because everyone says it is so painful, but it wasn’t. I’m glad I can’t see.”
With that somewhat trivial dalliance, pain this year has been a much more serious and dominant feature of the Arsenal midfielder’s career. From missing out on World Cup qualification with Switzerland in a play-off against the Netherlands for the final European place, to a promising season stunted by injury, and the death of an international teammate, Wälti wears the burdens of a more testing season than usual well.
The 26-year-old is unlikely to feature in the Arsenal squad that travels to Manchester United on Monday night but is finally back in full training after seven months on the sidelines having sustained knee ligament damage while on international duty in January.
“The whole summer was pretty hard. But the team trained really hard, many sessions and really good pre-season tests against world-class teams, which we unfortunately mostly lost, but I think it showed us what we had to still work on.”
The pain of initially being told she was out for four weeks, before surgery was deemed necessary in April, has gone, though. “I’m actually not that gutted any more. I had my time where I had my downs. It was probably harder for me to see the last games of the season, I wanted to be part of it, to lift the trophy and to be also a bit longer part of it than just the first half of the season.”
Despite the injury she did take to the pitch as the Gunners claimed their first league title in seven years at Borehamwood but the photo that stung, and stayed with fans, was not the trophy lift but Wälti arm in arm with teammates Jordan Nobbs, Viki Schnaderbeck, Danielle Carter and Tabea Kemme all with knees raised and trousers rolled up showing their surgical scars.
“I’ve never really experienced anything like that,” Wälti says of the injury crisis that forced the team to make the league a priority over cup campaigns as they limped towards the season’s close. “Last season was really, really hard. And I’m even more proud when I think about what we reached in the end.
“Because there was a time between November and January, where we mostly had just 11 or 12 players and we won almost every game and I think that can make us proud. That shows how big the quality in the team is.
“The mood changes a bit in a team when something like that happens. I think last season it made us even stronger. And we just try to win for these people who couldn’t play and I hope we’re not going to have this bad luck this season with injuries.”
There is one benefit, though, that with title retention extremely tough there is a layer in the team hungry to contribute more significantly. “I hope that every person that is/was injured comes in with a positive energy. I know that Jordan Nobbs is buzzing to be back. When you can’t touch the ball for so long you just enjoy everything.
“I also have had my own first experience now of long-term injury. I think, for me personally, in one way it was a bad experience but in another way it was also a good experience, because I know what people go through. I didn’t know that before. You just see people recover from an ACL or whatever and you try to understand them, but you don’t. And I feel like that can also make you a bit stronger mentally. And yeah, if everyone is a little bit mentally stronger than last season, then that will surely help us this season as well.
“And we just try to win for these people who couldn’t play and I hope we’re not going to have this bad luck this season with injuries.”
Winning for those who are suffering or have suffered is a theme that follows her into the national team. The death on 29 June of the 24-year-old Switzerland midfielder Florijana Ismaili, whose body was recovered days after she had dived off a boat into Lake Como but not resurfaced, is something with which the young group have to grapple.
“It’s something you never wish for,” says Wälti. “I never had the experience before, luckily, and I hope won’t happen again. I don’t really know how a team reacts to that. We need to see. But we are all together to look forward and to win for her.”