Last month, the U.S. U-18 national team fell, 6-0, to the Dutch, at the Women's 12 Nations Tournament in La Manga, Spain. We spoke with Wiegman about the rise of Dutch girls and women's soccer.
SOCCER AMERICA: What was your childhood soccer like?
SARINA WIEGMAN: I started playing when I was 6. I had a twin brother, and my father and mother were involved in a club team in our neighborhood in The Hague where I grew up. It's very common here to be a part of a local club association. In the U.S. you have college football [soccer], football in high school, and when I grew up, we had a little bit of that, but it was mostly gymnasium [P.E.] in school and football at the local clubs. In the Netherlands, you have a lot of club teams, which are a social thing that isn't just for the soccer. Every weekend we went to the soccer club and I wanted to play soccer with my twin brother. At that time, girls weren't allowed to play, there was no girls soccer, but they let me. I started to play and I really enjoyed it.
Did you have a favorite team or player?
As for role models, I didn't really have any examples because women's soccer wasn't really popular at all. But I just loved to play and had some players I really liked: of course Johan Cruyff, but also Marco Van Basten. It wasn't that they were my role models, but I just enjoyed watching them play.
How did you end up coming to the USA to play college soccer for Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina?
When I was 16 I trained with the Dutch national team. In 1988, FIFA held the women's invitational FIFA tournament to see if a Women's World Cup was feasible, and I went with the Dutch national team. Anson was coach of the U.S. team, and we got in touch, and I told him I'd like to play in the U.S. so he invited me the year after. They followed me for a little bit and it worked out. I knew women's soccer was further developed than we were in the Netherlands, and we weren't really respected at that time as female athletes. They let us play but that was it. So I wanted to combine studying with soccer and got the chance to go to UNC.
Sounds like a dream come true...
Well, I didn't really know what to expect. It was a different world. But I knew it was better, and the level in the USA is very high at the time, higher than it was in the Netherlands, but I had never been there, so it was an experience.
It's interesting you say women weren't respected in the Netherlands when many people would say Northern European countries, like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, historically have been most progressive in closing the gender equality gap ...
Yeah, we weren't a part of that at that time. Definitely not. The Scandinavian countries were a lot further, and it definitely has to do with equality. It also has to do with history. In the Netherlands, they saw soccer purely as a men's sport. They didn't see it as a women's sport. In the U.S., they have sports like American football and baseball which are men's sport, and soccer was more for women. The sports cultures are different, too. Germany is also different: they were more open, and of course they have more people, which helps. Regardless, we needed about 20 years to catch up to them.
What was life like for a female soccer player in the Netherlands when you grew up compared to now?
Oh yeah, there's a huge difference between 20 years ago to now. Of course, the [European Championship trophy] has helped. Because of the Euros,we made a huge step, because we got visibility, we are acknowledged, we have a lot of recognition and respect. Before, they say "soccer's for men" and ridiculous statements like that. If I said "I play soccer" when I was 18 years old, people would say: "Oh, I wouldn't say that." Now they don't. They see the women as top athletes. And we are. Now a lot of girls start playing soccer. When I was growing up, most of my female friends weren't allowed to play. Their parents said "No, that's not a sport for girls." So it has totally changed.
We needed the visibility and you get visibility if you perform well. So the last 10 years the Dutch national team started to perform better. A lot of good Dutch coaches put a lot of effort into the team and the players for a long period of time. The players developed throughout the years, and now, because of the Euros, we can grow a little faster. And you can see that with the Dutch crowds at games. We were happy with about seven or eight thousand people in the stadiums, and now we have 30,000. In June, we play in the Abe Lenstra Stadium [in Heerenveen] and within an hour they sold 11,000 tickets. What a change. We have a life before Euros and a life after the Euros. We want to keep up with that and we want to keep on performing well.
So what happened from when you were growing up to you leading the Netherlands to a European Championship? Was it social progress, better soccer infrastructure, or both?
It was both. You can't take one away without the other. We had the game develop but the structure changed, too. There were a lot of coaches who put in the effort to help with the women's game, to get better facilities and to develop players. In 2007, we started with the Eredivisie Vrouwen, which is the top league. Vera Pauw and some other people put in a lot of effort to start the league. It made it possible for facilities to get better, so players started to train better, train more, with better players and against better players. We started getting good, competitive games where players improve at a faster rate. And that's what we needed.
We were competitive, we were close to qualifying for tournaments, but we never did. But when the Eredivise came, we made another step and qualified for the women's European Championship in 2009. Professional soccer clubs started women's teams. Some clubs had given up on that, which was very disappointing to a lot of us. But players started coming into environments where the standard is very high. That's what I like so much about this whole development.
[Editor's note: Vera Pauw, who was a Dutch national team teammate of Wiegman's, is currently head coach of the NWSL's Houston Dash.]
Much different that when you were a youth player ...
It was hard when I grew up because I had to do everything myself. I wanted to train at a higher level so I went to a professional club and asked if I could train with the guys. A lot of players didn't do that because it's too big of a step for them to take. That's what I really like: 20 years ago and now, the difference in opportunity and development. Now I see good players who are properly developed, athletic, and intelligent players. It makes me very happy.
Sarina Wiegman was named 2017 Best Women's FIFA Coach.
Professional women's soccer even in the USA struggles financially. Is it different in the Netherlands?
No, it's the same for us. While we have a professional league, most players aren't fully professional. Some are, but most just get their costs covered. That takes time. Of course it would be great if there were fully professional players, but it's not there yet. They want to play but they need to make a living. You come to a point where you would like to train more and to do more, because then you become better and better, but you need to work, so it's a struggle. And of course it's better when you can dedicate yourself to soccer. And we see that when our players go abroad. They get a living out of soccer and you see how much they get better.
What's the state of girls youth development in the Netherlands?
We still have a huge step to develop our youth but we have taken a lot of steps already. There's still a difference between how boys get an education in soccer vs. girls. We need equality in that way also. The Dutch soccer federation has put a lot of effort in girls soccer but we also have competition where girls and boys play all together. I think that's the best thing we can do, especially in between the ages 6-14 before puberty.
They get social, emotional things out of it where they help each other and learn from each other. We want to get to a point where we see both girls and boys as soccer players, not a girl soccer player or a boy player. You throw them all together and then divide them on their ambition, ability, and age. We have these programs for very talented players, potential international players, where we bring them in to live with each other, train, and get an education [like an academy]. We don't have the huge distances like the USA, so it's accessible for more people. We're in a transition period because a lot of professional teams are starting their own female development programs. So we're learning to cooperate with them and work with players in their programs and bring them together for the national team so they have an education also.
At the professional league clubs, the girls train everyday, play together, then we bring them in periodically for the national team. When I started, this wasn't imaginable. When I was younger, I would play and people would find out I was a girl, and parents and coaches would sometimes force me to stop playing.
Tell me more about the co-ed training.
We have girls and boys playing in actual teams together. We have girls teams in competition with boys teams and mixed-in. We want to continue with it but we have to explain to people why we're doing that. We try to focus on bringing the players together with the same ambition, the same talent, at the same young age regardless of gender.
The Dutch beat Denmark, 4-2, in the Netherlands-hosted Euro 2017 final after wins in the semifinals over England (3-0) and quarterfinals over Sweden (2-0) following group-stage victories over Norway, Belgium and Denmark.
Your men's national team hasn't been performing well while your program has flourished recently. Where do you see the limit for your program?
We want to always compete in the World Cup and European Championships. We want to compete at the highest level. We were getting there, we were close in the years before, but now since we made it, the expectations are so high right now. Our top players want to perform and compete in the tournaments. That's our ambition here. We need to keep developing, keep working hard, and keep doing the right things. Sometimes you need to change things to become better or because of the development of the game brings other things. So it's very interesting and very challenging.
Is there a shared philosophy between the men's and women's national teams?
There's always some sort of shared philosophy. Men's soccer is in a different state right now, and if our team keeps doing the same things, we're not going to win. Of course, we have principles, but the men's team needs to change things to adapt. In women's soccer, there is also change. Maybe in one or two years, the development of the women's game will be such that we have to do other things. You have to be aware of the changes of the game and adapt and look further than just the right now.
What changes are you seeing in the women's game?
The game is getting quicker and quicker. Youth players are coming in at a higher level because of the improved development. Things are going to be more technical and tactical also in the future.