Scotland Women 1998-2004, Netherlands Women 2004-2010, Russia Women 2011, South Africa Women 2014-2016, Houston Dash 2018
“We cannot cope with this little girl anymore, she just wants to play football.”
I was 13 years old when my dad wrote this in a letter to the Dutch football association. I grew up playing football in the street with my two brothers – we’re triplets – but after primary school there was nowhere for me to play. I would go to my brothers’ matches and run along the line with a ball, just to show that I had a little bit of game too.
But then my dad decided he had to do something, so he asked the FA for their help. They gave me special dispensation to play in a women’s team – normally, you had to be 16 to do that. I was the smallest, but at least I could play.
I went on to play for the Dutch national team for 14 years. For 12 of those I was also working for the Dutch FA, because women’s football was purely amateur then. You couldn’t live from playing, so you had to work. And because football was my life, the only place I wanted to work was the Dutch FA.
Over 12 years there, I learned so much. At the beginning, I was focusing on the development of girls’ football in the Netherlands; then later, the development of the amateur game – for men and women, boys and girls.
The Dutch FA is also where I became friends with Bert van Lingen, who later became my husband. Before that, though, Bert was my coach. He coached at the top level of the men’s game too, spending many years as assistant to Dick Advocaat and founding the philosophy of game-related training.
When we fell in love, he stopped coaching the women’s team. Back then, I did not understand the necessity of it, but now I realise it was the only option to keep our values up.
Apart from the fact that Bert is the love of my life and my greatest friend, he has always been my mentor too.
"Players in Scotland would run through brick walls for you"
Together, we moved to Scotland in 1998, right after I finished playing. Bert and Dick had taken the job of managing Rangers, and I had been given the opportunity to become technical director and head coach of the Scotland women’s national team.
Bert and I talk a lot about our time in Scotland. It was the warmest period of our lives in terms of the way people took care of us, the joy and the laughter that we got from everybody.
Where I’m from, you have to kick butts to get people going. In Scotland, it was more often that you had to put your foot on the brake. I used to call the players my Scottish terriers, because they would run through brick walls for you; when they caught their ‘prey’, they would never let go.
And, away from the pitch, people were willing to explore the possibilities around the women’s game. That meant we could build things without barriers being put in the way.
When I took on the Scotland job in 1998, the SFA had only just taken over the running of the women’s game. That’s why my role was both technical director and head coach – because when a sport is in development, you need the top level to help develop the grassroots. To build the foundation.
The first thing we did was to get the key organisations that had been dealing with the women’s game in Scotland around a table to talk. I counted about 69 different organisations, all working independently. Each one had hardly spoken to the others, because each thought that the others did not want to speak.
We suggested a solution: “Let’s sit around a table together, and maybe we’ll find out we don’t have so many differences.”
Once we did that, we were able to build ongoing programmes for talented young players in the country.
When I started my work with Scotland, a woman called Sheila Begbie was already at the SFA as policy director of women’s football. She was the mastermind of all the funding and key relationships that we needed to build the women’s football programme in Scotland. Together, we were a great combination – I did the technical part, she did all the brilliant work behind the scenes. I have never met anyone who is so well informed about all the opportunities out there for women and girls.
"They told me it was their last attempt to make something out of the women’s game"
We set up a four-year development plan, but after a year and a half we had to rewrite it – create a new plan. Why? Because we had already ticked everything off.
By the time I left in 2004, the number of female players in Scotland had exploded. It was something like six times the number it had been when I arrived.
Usually, when you leave a job, the next person comes in and wants to do something different. But Sheila was staying on as Director of Women’s Football, and together we identified the dream candidate as my successor in Anna Signeul. I was confident that the game would continue to develop further.
We had put strong foundations in place. As long as people continued to build on what was there, we believed it would keep moving forward. In any development programme, continuity is the main thing to take care of.
In my next role as head coach of the Netherlands (above), there was pressure on my shoulders.
Initially, I turned down the job because of some negative aspects (which, in the end, came out). But then they told me it was their last attempt to make something out of the women’s game. If it didn’t work, they were going to give up.
For the next five years, we put our entire lives into that job. And we changed things. In 2007 we set up the Eredivisie Vrouwen, which had as a rule that every team had to be connected to a senior men’s club. It meant that, finally, there was somewhere for our top national players to train and play in a top environment on a daily basis.
Everybody started fresh; there was no history. This gave a common commitment between the clubs, the staff and the players.
Players were developing in two talent teams, with the talents divided across the teams at the end of each season. The key goal was to have all the teams at an equal level. A huge task – but if you have the absolute will, at the end everyone commits to it.
Every year, the league was decided on the final day.
"After 25 years of fighting to reach a major tournament, I stood on the side of the pitch and thought, this is a feeling I will never have again"
In the 1990s, we had already worked on a big project around mixed gender football, putting years of research into it and developing opportunities for girls to play in the youth league. That work continued now. It was an example to the rest of the world about how female footballers can be developed.
We put in place rules and regulations that girls and boys could play together throughout their whole youth process, changing the name from boys’ leagues to youth leagues. It was a small but very important step in the development of the women’s game.
But the highest moment came in October 2008, when we beat Spain in a playoff to qualify for the European Championships for the first time.
After 25 years of fighting against all odds to reach a major tournament, I stood on the side of the pitch and thought, this is a feeling I will never ever have again.
Reaching the semi finals at the tournament the following year – before England kicked us out in extra time (above) – was a great success. It threw us into people’s living rooms – we came back from Finland to find we were suddenly famous. And that the players now had professional contracts – the top ones received contracts abroad. We earned it at that tournament.
The development plan had reached its last stage. Now it was just waiting on us becoming European champions. We knew it was just a matter of time.
But our success in Finland also meant that some people who had never cared about what we did – or how we did it – were now trying to interfere with everything. They were obviously not expecting me back so quick, because I found them having a meeting about how to scratch mixed gender football away and start with girls’ teams again.
I said: “Hey, listen, we had eight years of research on this – it’s our success story. This is why we are where we are. Don’t touch it. Develop it further.”
"It’s football that binds you. It’s universal: same rules, same starting points, same passion"
But they didn’t want me to interfere into their plans. They wanted to take ownership of the women’s game when, previously, they had no interest at all. They’d spent most of their time laughing at us. Then they ran like elephants through a porcelain cupboard, as we say in the Netherlands.
That was the start of the end for me. Around six months after we returned from the Euros, I stepped down as head coach. There was no choice left. I was bullied and framed. It was a horrible time.
I had put so many years of my life into it. I still don’t think I’m over the way that it ended.
Since then, I have travelled a lot. Worked all over the world: in Russia, South Africa and USA.
These are journeys that have taught me that every culture has its own strengths. When I go to work in a new country, that’s my starting point – to discover the best of that culture and to use its strength to get the best out of the players.
My starting point is not that my own culture is the truth. My time abroad, and meeting people who deal with things differently than me, means that I can see what are the good parts of my culture, but also what are the parts that I don’t like.
There are things that everybody can learn from each other. Together, you come to a way of how to deal with each other. But in general, I remember that I am the guest in someone else’s country and I need to adapt to their culture, to their lifestyle, to the structure of the country and how their FA works. I try to open myself to all of those things.
But they have to open themselves, too, because they have brought somebody from another culture into theirs. Although I adapt, there are limits to it. If my values are overstepped, I have to make sure that my background is respected too.
If you open yourself and not think that your culture is better than someone else’s, then you will always find a way. It’s football that binds you. It’s universal: same rules, same starting points, same passion.
"They did everything to try and stop us, from filming our training to trying to kick us out of our hotel"
Some experiences change you more than others. I spent two and a half years as head coach of South Africa, but I loved the players after only four days.
Over the time I was there, we came through many problems. But the warmth they had and the way that they took care of each other – helped each other when they had no money for food, helped each other to survive – taught me so much.
Whatever happened, they were always trying to look on the bright side. Always saying: “We love life.”
And they had the absolute will to change their lives. That’s why, when we qualified for the 2016 Olympics, it was such a fantastic moment. I knew that achieving that would change those players’ lives dramatically.
And not only them, but also the lives of families, communities and thousands of girls in South Africa. They now had something to dream about.
To do it, we had to get a victory inside the mouth of the lion, against Equatorial Guinea in a stadium where they had never lost. The whole country would have had three days of holiday if they had won that game – that was the impact of it. And they did everything to try and stop us, from filming our training to trying to kick us out of our hotel.
When we won the game 1-0, you would not believe the feeling. Everybody was crying. If you see the pictures of that moment and the explosion of emotions, it is really something.
You remember what I said about the feeling that I had with the Netherlands when we qualified for the Euros? If you take that, and add to it knowing and feeling – and everybody felt it in their toes – that life would change dramatically, then wow... that is such an amazing feeling.
My time with that team definitely left a mark on me. I learned so much about what is really important in life.
Sometimes in our western culture, I see people moaning because they have to miss their phone for half a day or something, and I cannot stand it. They don’t realise that we have everything we want. That it’s the most comfortable place on earth to live.
"Do not forget, in every country there have been other women fighting the same battles"
A lot of people look at my path in this sport and label me a pioneer. To be honest, it’s something I can do without. I am a pioneer because no one else did it earlier. Because I had to open all of the doors.
In a documentary about my life and the changes I have made for girls, Louis van Gaal spoke about it, saying: “That is the prize that she needs to take.” And I know it’s something that, on one hand, I need to be proud of. But, on the other, I wish there was no need for a pioneer – because it means that there was no woman before me who did it.
It also means that, sometimes, people don’t see past that label. They don’t see that I’m a top coach: the quality of my work, the achievements of my teams, the studies I’ve done and how I have proven myself. None of those things are highlighted by the word ‘pioneer’.
I am proud that I created opportunities for players to make a difference in their lives, though. That, without women like me, the game would never have been where it is now. Because do not forget, in every country there have been other women fighting the same battles.
But it’s not about me. It never has been. It’s about the next generation, and making sure the opportunities are there for all women in the game.
And that starts right from the beginning, with little girls who just want to play football.