Netherlands Women, 2017-2021
We knew it was going to be big.
But when the team bus turned off the highway and we saw the huge crowd in front of the stadium – all in orange, all cheering for us... well, then the whole history went through my head.
My history. The history of women’s football in the Netherlands. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
I asked myself: was it really only 30 years ago you weren’t even allowed to play soccer?
When I first started kicking a ball around on the streets of The Hague, it was mostly with boys. There were no girls’ teams then, so I made sure my hair was cut really short and played in teams with my twin brother.
Sometimes, when people saw I was a girl, they made trouble. Other times we got nice reactions. But most of the time it was hard to play.
Getting into the national team when I was 16 opened up a new world for me, though. A year after I first played for the Netherlands, we went to China, where FIFA were holding a tournament to test out whether they should hold a Women’s World Cup.
That trip was one of the big experiences of my career. I think that’s why I remember it all so well. The White Swan hotel. A good field to train on. Going to the games with a police escort.
We got huge crowds, too. Well, not 70,000, but there were 10-15,000 at the games. That was new for us.
In the end, we lost to Brazil – unnecessarily, I still think. But we really grew into that tournament. It showed that when we had more opportunities to train and better facilities, we were a pretty good team, even then.
It was in China that I first met Anson Dorrance. He was head coach of the US Women’s National Team and led the women’s soccer programme at the University of North Carolina.
I told him I was interested in playing in the US.
"America was like a soccer paradise for me. There was recognition, the facilities were great and we had good coaches"
In the Netherlands, it felt like we were always fighting for our place. Like we weren’t accepted. I wanted more and I knew that, in the US, things were better for women’s soccer.
The level was good there, and I would be able to combine developing my game with studying.
So, I went. I had never been away from home for a long time before. I’d never been to America, either. I didn’t know what to expect.
I will never forget that plane journey. I was so nervous. So out of my comfort zone. I kept asking myself: am I doing the right thing?
I shouldn’t have worried. America was like a soccer paradise for me. There was recognition, the facilities were great and we had good coaches – passionate coaches.
The year I spent there changed my life. It changed my mindset.
In America I had found something I was looking for.
I was with a group of women and girls who wanted the same thing as I did. I’m sure there had been a few in the Netherlands, but they weren’t really in the environment where I had been.
You felt that the coaches wanted to make you work hard and develop as a player, but that they also wanted to take care of you.
Anson was very focused on competitiveness, but he was also interested in you as a human being. Not just as a soccer player. He wanted to make it like a little family, and you could feel that.
I still use some things I learned that year in terms of how to get the best out of others, and myself. But the biggest thing I took away was the determination that what I experienced in the US, I wanted in the Netherlands too.
When I came home, nothing had changed.
“It was a risky decision to leave teaching behind, but I just wanted it so badly”
It was very frustrating. I felt I wasn’t understood, and I couldn’t explain it to people because how could they get it when they hadn’t been there?
There were times when I thought I should quit and find another sport.
While I was still playing, I studied physical education and got a job as a PE teacher. It really helped me pedagogically. I developed some skills that have been really important to me as a coach – learned how to treat people, how to communicate and organise lessons.
When my playing career came to an end a few years later, I started to coach, too. I worked with very young children, coached girls’ teams in boys competitions, and did some work for the Dutch Federation with regional teams.
Slowly, things started to change.
In 2007, the Eredivisie Vrouwen was created and ADO Den Haag asked if I would coach the side on a semi-professional basis. I said no.
“If you want me to take the job, I want to do it full-time. That’s the only way.”
If you want to do something well, then you have to be focused. If I had been a mother, a teacher and a coach, that job wouldn’t have worked for me or the team.
It was a risky decision for me to leave teaching behind, because there wasn’t any continuity in the women’s game at that time. But I just wanted to do it so badly.
Some people plan their whole careers. I’m not like that. I know what I want, but I wait until the time is right – until I feel ready to take the next step.
Everything at its right time.
"It was good for me to see how someone else worked. How things could be done, perhaps in a different way"
ADO Den Haag won the National Championship in 2012. The KNVB Cup in 2012 and 2013.
By 2014 I had been there for seven years, and I felt ready for something else.
Working for the national team was something I had always thought about. And now I had the opportunity, as assistant to the head coach Roger Reijners.
After being a manager for seven years, being an assistant was obviously different. Normally, I was very proactive, but now there was someone else in the lead. I was aware of this.
It was good for me to see how someone else worked. How things could be done, perhaps in a different way. I always like to take experiences from other coaches, and this was something that worked really well.
The year after I started, we went to the World Cup in Canada – it was my first major tournament as a coach. We were knocked out by Japan in the last 16, but we saw lots of potential. Overall, it was a positive experience for us.
One that we needed in order to grow.
I needed to develop as a coach, too. So after the World Cup I did the Pro-Licence course. I wanted to have the highest degree – not only because I wanted to develop myself, but because I knew that having the highest degree meant I would be able to work wherever I wanted to.
Or wherever I got the opportunity to.
As part of my studies, I spent some time coaching as part of an internship at Sparta Rotterdam – a professional men’s team.
I remember the first time I spoke with the head coach Alex Pastoor. He put everything out there straight away.
“Well, you’re a woman and that’s a new situation for us,” he said to me. “Of course I see your CV, which looks very good. So just come in one day a week and we’ll see.”
The players had to get used to me and I had to get used to them, too.
"When you perform well, you become visible. That helps you to develop and get recognition"
As the only female coach there, I knew I had to show that I had quality. That’s what I worked on all day. Work hard, put quality into everything and deliver.
It was a new environment for me – the first time I was working with a professional men’s team. At first, I was always asking myself: am I doing the right things? But I observed how Alex and his coaches worked. Figured things out.
I also got some confirmation that what I had been doing was working.
After my first day went well, Alex pulled me aside: “You can come every day, if that’s okay? Whenever it fits your schedule with the national team."
When you perform well, you become visible. That helps you to develop and get recognition, and that improves you again. So, you can go up all the time.
At my other job, with the national team, things were difficult after the 2015 World Cup.
We wanted to take the next step, which for us meant qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio. And we were close. But we just weren’t quite good enough yet. In the important moments we were falling short.
We played a pretty good game against England in November 2016, but lost 1-0. Of course, they are a top team – but we were very close.
We just needed a win against a top-level team to show ourselves we could do it.
By the beginning of 2017 there were six months to go until the Euros, a tournament we were hosting – and we had no head coach.
"We had some players who were always talking about how good players from other countries were. We had to change the way those players looked at themselves"
Arjan van der Laan was let go at the end of 2016. It was a situation that had to be solved. The federation talked to the players, to several other parts of the team, and then to me: “What shall we do?”
“Well, I think this is the time that I should do the job.”
I had been in charge for short periods, after Roger Reijners left and also since Arjan’s departure. Now I felt really ready to take over.
At that time, the team was searching for things. Results were fluctuating and the players were a little insecure. We knew we were getting there, but we needed the players to believe in themselves.
That meant we needed some good wins. Because we can tell the players all we like how good they are, but they have to feel it. Experience it.
Having the Euros in six months gave us a deadline. A good pressure, because we knew we had to work hard.
We had some friendly games, and these gave us opportunities to train our playing style. I didn’t change it, but I put some emphasis on certain things: arranging our counter-attack, our transitions between attacking and defending. We put a lot of effort into those things.
The biggest focus was on our mentality, though. We had some players who were always talking about how good players from other countries were. We had to tackle that and change the way those players looked at themselves.
“Why should she be better than you? You should bring yourself up. Because you are that good. You have to believe.”
Yes, you need to be humble – but you have to be confident, too. In the six months leading up to the Euros, we had lots of discussions around that. We also asked ourselves: what is our goal for the tournament?
"For me, the world has changed a little bit. The Euros gave me a lot of recognition. A lot of respect. And it’s the same for the players"
If you look at the history of our national women’s team, then you see our chance to win is small. But there is always a chance.
We go for that chance.
July 16: our opening game. By then we had done everything we needed in terms of our development on the field and other things away from it.
But still, there was that moment – when our bus turned off the highway and we saw the people. We knew people were enthusiastic and it was sold out, but this was something else.
These people were there for us. They were coming to watch us. It was inspiring. Emotional.
“Well, now we have to show Europe that we are a good team. And show the Dutch how good we can play. That we have something to win.”
Of course, that is what we did.
For me, the world has changed a little bit. Winning the Euros gave me a lot of recognition. A lot of respect. And it’s the same for the players. These days we play in front of packed stadiums. And they are recognised as some of the best players in the world.
Almost 30 years after I came back from America, I have finally found what I was looking for. And it is right here, in the Netherlands.