Senior Chaima Khammar and sophomore Ioanna Papatheodorou are both student-athletes playing soccer here at UMass Lowell. Additionally, though, they both play for their national soccer teams overseas. Khammar plays for the Tunisian National Team and Papatheodorou plays for the Under-19 Greek National Team. Playing on behalf of a nation is an honor not many can lay claim too, but these two River Hawks are not letting the opportunity pass them by.
“I couldn’t really believe it; it was just an incredible feeling,” Khammar said when asked how she felt when she was offered an opportunity to play for the Tunisia. “I was just really happy and proud of myself.” Khammar was not given this honor by chance, she earned it. For years Khammar had been playing in the Frauen-Bundesliga, the top women’s soccer league in Germany. She played for FC Koln, a well known and very prestigious club in European soccer, not just in Germany.
“I enjoyed my playing time in Germany, but it was definitely a learning experience”. Khammar said. “It was definitely a little bit intimidating, but I was just happy I made it and I made the most of my time to continue to learn a lot.”
During her time with the FC Koln first team, she made seven different appearances. Her performances were solid and she began thinking about her next step. Being in high school and playing in such a competitive league made Khammar desire a change in her life. After graduating from high school, she decided to attend college in the States and picked UMass Lowell as her school of choice. According to Khammar, this change has been a great one.
“When I first arrived at UMass Lowell, I was really shy and quiet. Now, my senior year, I am a completely different person. I am more independent, more outgoing, more direct too. Not even as a player, but for the personal development I had, it was so worth it to come to the States.”
This change and continued growth on and off the field earned her an invitation to join the Tunisian National Team in 2021. She made her first appearance for the team on June 13, 2021, in a game against Jordan where Tunisia won, 2-0. Her next appearance would come a few months later on October 20, in which she played her part in beating Egypt, 6-2. Six days later she would register her first start for the national team. Her play pushed the team past Egypt, 1-0.
Next up, Tunisia will compete in July for the Africa Cup. The winner of this tournament will qualify for the Women’s World Cup next year. Fellow River Hawk teammate Ioanna Papatheodorou has also been gaining experience at the international level, representing her home country of Greece. “It was an amazing feeling,” said Papatheodorou when asked how it felt to be a part of the Greek national program. The passion when you play for your national teams is crazy. You’re playing against the best of the best, which makes you play your best.”
She was first invited to the Under-17 squad back in 2019 while she was playing for Artomitos FC in the Super League Greece, the country’s top flight soccer league. Her strong performances and hard work later earned her a spot on the Under-19 squad. Papatheodorou performed admirably on the U-17 team, scoring four goals in six games during the 2019 UEFA Qualifiers. In her most recent outings with Team Greece’s U-19 team, Papatheodorou has been playing stellar soccer, netting two goals and an assist in six games during this year’s Euro Qualifiers. Although Greece came up just short in making it past the group stage, Papatheodorou was happy for her country. “We were so close, so I think that’s an achievement on it’s own to come that far,” she commented.
It is apparent when talking to both Papatheodorou and Khammar that soccer is their true passion in life. They have been playing since childhood and they both want to continue playing for many more years to come. That is one of the reasons they both chose to come to Lowell, to play NCAA Division I soccer. During their time here, the duo has realized just how different soccer is in the States compared to overseas, and how their experiences in Europe can help them play better collegiately.
“I learned that athleticism is really important here in the States,” Khammar explained. “Where as in Germany, it’s more tactical and technical. We spend most of the time in the weight room, which isn’t true for Germany, where we spend more time on the field.” As a result, Khammar has greatly benefited from this contrast. She is becoming more athletic thanks to UMass Lowell and is becoming more technically sound due in part to her play with the Tunisian National Team. She is always improving an aspect of her game thanks to this polarity and it shows on the pitch.
Last season, Khammar played in a career high thirteen games, four of which she started. She registered three assists and seven shots on goal for the River Hawks.
Papatheodorou echoed the differences in the style of play at the collegiate and international levels, and how these differences have made her a better player as a result.
“The two teams are very different. I get less chances as a striker with Team Greece, so, I learned that when I get chances, I need to make them count. This has led to me being more creative when I have the ball and pushed me to be a better finisher when I take my chances.” That work has paid off in strides. In her freshman campaign with UMass Lowell, she registered ten goals in sixteen games. Those ten goals marked the most scored by a single player in the America East Conference all season.
Soccer has given this pair far more than just athletic opportunities. It has allowed both to travel the world, visiting numerous countries and experiencing different cultures.
“Traveling to different places allows me to make connections with people all around the world, and you never know when you’ll need them,” Papatheodorou explained. “It gives me peace of mind that someone will always be there for me. My favorite place to travel is America, I’m not going to lie. It’s the closest to Greek culture and I think they are awesome. I’m definitely looking forward to traveling more in America and seeing all the different places.”
“I love traveling so much, and it was something that I recently discovered about myself,” Khammar added. “Seeing these different cultures has been great and so interesting. It has really helped me develop as a person. Also, I would definitely say my favorite place I visited with either team would have to be Niagara Falls with UMass Lowell.”
As standouts both at the collegiate level and on the national level, both Khammar and Papatheodorou have already achieved so much early in their careers. However, neither are satisfied just yet. All eyes are on the upcoming season in Lowell.
“I want to win the America East Championship,” Papatheodorou exclaimed when asked about the future. “That’s all I care about and all I really want at this current moment. The other stuff doesn’t matter to me.”