It’s April 9th, 2008. Together with two classmates I’m off to Tilburg, to participate in the ‘talent day’ hosted by the women’s team at Willem II. The club plays in the first edition of the Eredivisie Vrouwen, the professional women’s league, and has invited potential talents to show their skills on the turf besides the King Willem II stadium. We’re joining, partly because we really have ambitions to play in the Eredivisie, partly because getting an afternoon off school to play soccer is probably the coolest thing you can think of as a 14-year old.
What we didn’t tell our school was that it was very easy to register for the talent day, by filling out an online form. After that, the club sent you a formal letter, with the Willem II logo in gold at the top, which said that you were ‘invited’ for their selection training. As if you were personally hand-picked and chosen to come train with them. Naturally, we took that letter straight to our student coordinator, who didn’t hesitate to give us the day off.
Anyway, the training. I was young, way too nervous, and quick to realise that I wasn’t even going to come close to getting an invitation for the second round. But that wasn’t gonna stop me from having a good time. ‘What does that 8 stand for?’ Willem II player Kirsten van de Ven asks, when she suddenly shows up next to me on the pitch and points at the pen-drawing on my hand. My face turns red, my heart rate shoots up to 180 and I stutter my answer. ‘Eh, I had an 8 for my test, today.’ She smiles. ‘Wow, well done. Don’t forget it, if you become a professional player one day, school is also important!’ I nod diligently. Oh, the irony, if I look back on that comment now.
Stopped at the gate once again
Eight and a half years later, last night, I’m walking on the Willem II grounds for the first time since that day. Tonight, the Dutch women’s team plays England in the stadium, and I’m early. At the moment I take my phone from my pocket to see if my faltering mobile network is working again, I hear a men’s voice beside me. ‘Well, where would we be without our phones, right?’ I smile. ‘To be honest, sir, mine hasn’t been functioning all day!’ We start talking, and when we approach the press entrance to the stadium, he says ‘By the way, I’m Kirsten van de Ven’s dad, do you know her?’ Before I can stop myself I answer ‘In fact, she’s one of the reasons I hope to play there’, I point at the pitch through the stadium, ‘one day!’ Mister van de Ven sighs. ‘Yet another fangirl…’ I see him think. While he makes his way to undoubtedly a comfortable chair in the VIP-lounge, I am stopped by the stewards. No press pass, no entrance. Fine. Another lap around the stadium it is.
Debut in the summer, please
When the game starts, large letters appear on the LED-screens in the stadium. ‘Only 229 days left until the Euros!’ I smirk. ‘Come on guys, you stole that from me, the counting down to a big tournament…’ But when the national anthem sounds over the stands and thousands of people sing along at the top of their lungs, I get a lump in my throat. The European Championship in Holland is getting closer and closer, and all the signs say that’s it’s going to be one big soccer celebration. ‘A few more years, dad… You’ll be here by yourself, and I’ll be on the pitch!’ I joke. But my dad knows better. That was far from a joke. ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘If you make your debut when it’s this cold I’m not coming!’
Willem, are you hearing this?
I might never play in the red-white-blue Willem II jersey, because the club currently doesn’t have a women’s team and there are no indications that’s gonna change anytime soon. But that stadium in Tilburg will remain a place close to my heart. Eight years ago it was the last place where I dared to dream of a career as a professional soccer player, before I lost myself in a life of partying and skipping school. This summer, the stadium will be one of the theaters for the European Championship in the Netherlands. Let’s all make sure that it’s going to be one hell of a party. Maybe, after that, the big bosses of the Tilburg-based club will change their minds and see the advantages of having a women’s team in the highest league. And that many more around the world may follow their example…
Thanks for reading, talk soon! 🙂