At the entrance to the headquarters of the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB), in the forest of Zeist near Utrecht, two things catch the eye. The first is a giant football on the grass; the second and most prominent is a huge sign covering the front of the main building, the ‘centre circle of Dutch football’ as the people here call it.
On the canvas, there is no Sneijder, Robben or Klaassen, instead there is a group of women celebrating, accompanied by the words Geniet komende zomer van het EK in Nederland (Enjoy this summer with the Women’s EURO in the Netherlands). Starting on 16 July, the Oranje Leeuwinnen (Lionesses), as the women’s team is nicknamed, will take part in their third EURO, this time on home soil. It brings back memories for some, especially Pierre van Hooijdonk, the former Netherlands international (46 caps) and an ambassador for this summer’s event.
“The atmosphere is likely to be different from what we experienced at the men’s EURO in 2000, but one thing is certain: the Netherlands women deserve to be there,” underlines the former Celtic player. “I accepted this role as an ambassador because we have the unfortunate tendency to criticise women’s football and compare it with men’s football. But they’re two totally different things. What’s more, the women’s national team is currently having success that the men haven’t had for some time.”
Top team sport in the Netherlands
Talent is not something that Dutch women’s football is lacking. Sadly it does suffer from a lack of visibility. With little media coverage, the game is trying to divest itself of this inaccurate amateur image that it has been labelled with. Nonetheless, 153,000 women and girls are currently registered as players with the KNVB football department. “That makes us the top team sport in the country in terms of numbers, and also the fastest-growing sport, because we have twice as many participants as we did just over a decade ago,” says Bert van Oostveen, the former KNVB director of professional football who is now tournament director for Women’s EURO 2017 and KNVB general secretary.
Moreover, lots of Dutch players are now playing in the top leagues around Europe: Danielle van de Donk and Vivianne Miedema are at Arsenal, Mandy van den Berg is at Reading FC, Stefanie van der Gragt at FC Bayern Munchen, Lieke Martens at FC Rosengard, Loes Geurts at Paris Saint-Germain FC and Anouk Dekker at Montpellier. Furthermore, FC Twente smashed the Dutch attendance record for a women’s football match last season with a crowd of no fewer than 15,637 spectators against FC Barcelona in the UEFA Women’s Champions League.
“Supporters won’t only see that women’s football is competitive, they’ll also see that this group of players is cool, that they have fun,” adds Minke Booij, an Olympic field hockey gold medallist in Beijing in 2008 and head of women’s football at the KNVB since 2015.
Better still, EURO 2017 will make it possible “to reconnect the sport with its fans” according to Van Oostveen. “Why’s Dirk Kuyt so popular here? It’s because he’s a simple guy. We have to acknowledge that going to watch men’s football is less accessible, in terms of connecting with the players and getting tickets. That won’t be the case with the Women’s EURO. The players are accessible, as are tickets to matches. All tickets for the Netherlands games are already sold out. Girls will be able to identify with new role models like Vivianne Miedema and Anouk Dekker.”
Women’s football has undergone a far-reaching transformation and been on the up for several years. The first results are already visible and the full impact will be seen in 10 to 15 years.
“The average age of female footballers in the Netherlands is 13,” recalls Van Oostveen. That is more or less the same age as the initiative to overhaul women’s football in the Netherlands. In 2001, the KNVB laid the foundations of its Jeugdplan Nederland (national youth plan), or JPN as it is commonly known, to provide a favourable environment for the up-and-coming youngsters of Dutch women’s football. “We have 3,000 football clubs in the Netherlands, 2,500 of them have a link with women’s football, ranging from clubs with one girl playing in a boys’ team up to those with full women’s teams. 100 of the 2,500 clubs are doing well, 20 extremely well. We’re approaching the 100 clubs to ask them if they would like to play a part in creating an optimum environment for developing women’s football, at club level, in collaboration with the clubs around them. In a way, we’re asking if they’d like to be the model clubs for others,” explains Booij.
The first Centrum voor Topsporten Onderwijs (CTO) was established in Amsterdam in 2007, followed by the one in Eindhoven in 2013. These two institutes, financed by the Dutch Olympic Committee and the ministry for health, well-being and sport, serve the country’s top sports talent, including the best footballers - providing a centre of excellence for the best female players between 13 and 17. “The girls selected at the CTO play in the official U15 and U17 championship against boys. It’s a very good approach because they have excellent facilities, they train almost every day during the week, and they play at weekends,” underlines former Willem II and PSV player Marlou Peeters, who is now in charge of the U13 training set up. “For the moment, professional clubs aren’t engaged in the JPN, but we hope that they will be within the next five years and all the big football clubs in the Netherlands will have a high-performance women’s section. The goal is to ensure that every professional club has its own CTO.”
From grassroots to the professional game
While waiting for AFC Ajax or Feyenoord to set up their own training centres that embed amateur female footballers in a professional environment, women’s football must rely on the grassroots game to develop. “I think we’re responsible for the education of the players who come into the national team. However, it’s not for the national association to educate the players on a day-to-day basis. That’s the job of their clubs. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the professional clubs, but directly by means of amateur women’s football. That’s where everything starts,” asserts Booij.
To do this, the KNVB has selected seven development centres. Utrecht has been the most successful so far, with ten women’s clubs that Marlou Peeters is responsible for coordinating by “injecting [her] professionalism. The project is supported by multiple stakeholders. It brings together the KNVB, FC Utrecht, the Utrecht municipal authorities and local multi-sport authorities”.
At just 26, she is one of 38 women with a UEFA B licence, which recently allowed her to take charge of the first team at Sporting70. “It’s the best women’s team in Utrecht” she says proudly. Sporting 70 play in the Hoofde Klasse, the third division of the Dutch national league. “And we have Hercules, another women’s team, on the pitch next to us, so that creates a bit of rivalry at all levels.”
Peeters’ predecessor was asked to step down because he did not have the qualifications that are now mandatory. It is a little revolution on a day-to-day basis according to 20-year-old Fenna Hiemstra, who has played at the club for three seasons: “We’ve only had four training sessions with Marlou, but we’re seeing the difference already: the warm-ups, the tactical exercises are much more elaborate, for example. It’s more complicated, but in a good way.” As for the training pitches and the dressing rooms, “thanks to men’s football, we already have the facilities to develop players from the youngest age groups, so it would be a pity not to make use of them,” summarises Booij, adding that the internationals use the same facilities as their male counterparts at the KNVB campus which was redeveloped in August 2016.
In this environment of professionalisation and structuring of women’s football, the method is working: this year, the U17 national team reached the semi-final of their European Championship, while the U19s successfully defended the title they won in 2014. In addition, the decision to appoint Sarina Wiegman as the new national team coach is very symbolic. A former international with 104 caps, she is one of only three Dutch women to hold a UEFA Pro licence. The others are former Netherlands coach Vera Pauw, and Hesterine de Reus, who was Australia’s coach until 2014. What is more, she is the only woman to have coached a men’s team, Sparta Rotterdam B, as assistant to Ole Tobiasen.
Sarina Wiegman embodies the bridge between amateur and professional that Dutch women’s football is currently crossing, and the bridges that it will cross in future. It is also significant that the Netherlands coach retired from playing a few weeks before the KNVB introduced the JPN.”When I was playing at Ter Leede, everyone was amateur – players, coaches ... Now a young girl can become a professional footballer and I’ve had the chance to become a professional coach. The difference to when I was a player is like chalk and cheese. We’re moving closer to what I experienced in the American college system when I played over there for a year when I was younger,” she explains. “It makes you think about the future.”
“Stop comparing women’s football with the men’s game”
If Dutch women’s football is thinking about the future, it is because its story still remains to be written. Two years ago, the Oranje Leeuwinnen qualified for the World Cup for the first time, while the first time they took part in a EURO was in 2009. “Qualifying for the EURO was the breakthrough for us. That was the moment when we launched a bid to host the EURO,” appraises Van Oostveen.
It was the key achievement of Vera Pauw, Netherlands coach from 2004 to 2010, who took her team to the semi-final of the tournament. “Every generation is preparing the ground for the next one. When Vera was coach, she created a platform at the KNVB that has made it possible to improve the conditions for women’s football. That’s the reason why she ultimately led the national team to the EURO for the first time in its history,” says Sarina Wiegman.
Pauw also planted the seeds for others to follow her path. “She’s a real inspiration for me. In any event, women’s football is a sport of passionate people. You can do a lot with very little,” confesses Marlou Peeters.
Another reason for thinking about the future is not to repeat the errors of the past. Bert van Oostveen launches into a mea culpa: “It was important to stop comparing women’s football with the men’s game. We don’t have the same sponsors. In women’s football, we have to find sponsors who can make a long-term commitment, who are looking to achieve something with us rather than make a profit at all costs. We don’t have the same fan base either. There’s more of a family atmosphere in women’s football. It’s more ‘Olympic’, you could say. We also made the mistake of creating a closed league, a completely artificial concept, then the BeneLeague, made up of clubs from Belgium and the Netherlands. That’s when we realised that it’s better to build for the future, to plan for the long term. That’s also where our slogan comes from: ‘Celebrating the new generation of football’.”
Women’s football has long been casting envious eyes at the men’s game because, as well as the success it has achieved, football is one of the rare enclaves that men dominate in a country that is often a standard-bearer for equality. “Concentrating exclusively on men’s football is overlooking 50% of the population of our country,” points out Van Oostveen. “In our country, the board of every major company includes women. In Europe, we’ve seen several women become prime minister or president. It’s not like that in Dutch football, yet diversity is necessary.”
While men’s football may not serve as an example, the situation is perhaps better elsewhere. There is neighbouring Germany, of course, where the work coach Silvia Neid did between 2005 and 2016 has won praise from all sides. There are good examples at home as well. “In the Netherlands, history has shown that women fare better than men in sport. That’s something we can see in the Olympics. I’m convinced there’s more to learn from other team sports in the Netherlands than from men’s football,” says Booij with a smile.
She was hired by the KNVB not for her expertise in football, but for her philosophy on athletes and her culture of success. The victories of field hockey, handball and volleyball teams, even Dafne Schippers’ win in Rio last summer, can only vindicate the former Olympic champion, who goes on to expand on her theory: “Initially, no one was interested in field hockey. Then we started to win medals at the Olympics, and the number of registered players grew exponentially. That was when the public authorities came in. They invested millions in facilities to develop the sport. Today, we have stadiums with capacities of almost 8,000 for women’s hockey. That might not seem much, but it is huge in the context of the sport. It is that kind of snowball effect that we want to replicate in women’s football, with the help of the clubs, the authorities and the KNVB.”
And that snowball effect is what it has already had, as nearly 6,000 spectators come to watch every international match played by the women’s national team. Between now and next year, the KNVB expect to see the number of registered female players increase by 10%. In the meantime, the Netherlands have a EURO to host and take part in. Ambassador Pierre van Hooijdonk is hoping for only one thing: “That the girls do better than we did in 2000; in other words, they win!” And let us hope that a good summer will leave a legacy for the future of Dutch women’s football too.