‘Err, good morning. I have a meeting with Merel van Dongen, who plays for the women’s team, and I’d like to wait for her in the cafeteria’, I hesistantly tell the guard at the gates of De Toekomst, Ajax’ training grounds. Almost 120 kilometers away from my pittoresque hometown I’m suddenly extremely aware of my southern accent. ‘Sorry,’ the large man tells me, ‘I can only let you pass if you’re an announced guest.’ Apparently, I am not, so I sit down on the only object nearby that can function as a chair – a bicycle rack – and decide to wait here for a bit. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. I’m at the entrance of Ajax’ training grounds, pretty much the Promised Land for those aspiring a career as a professional soccer player, and I’m not allowed in. Not yet.
A little under fifteen minutes later I’ve been picked up by Merel herself and guided past the gatekeeper, and we are sitting in front of each other in Ajax’ cafeteria. We are meeting here today because I wanted to talk to someone who is going exactly what I want to achieve: play soccer at the highest level and get selected for the national team.
Why women never call each other names
We talk about the differences between men’s and women’s soccer, and how the communication tends to be completely different in those two groups. Merel has experience with that. ‘Well, of course you need to be able to speak up if you’re unmarked and someone doesn’t pass you the ball. But men sometimes call each other horrible names on the field, and you won’t see that happening with women. They’re a little more sensitive when it comes to that. You can be tough, but you need to stay reasonable.
When I tell her about my bizarre training regime of last year, that eventually led to my ‘soccer-burn-out’, I can tell she’s surprised. ‘I don’t even think Cristiano Ronaldo trains as much as you did in those days.’ And that is anything but a compliment. ‘Everyone needs a few hours a day in which you don’t think about soccer and can focus on other things. That will also lead to a better performance within the lines. Balance is key.’
Zlatan and his Playstation
I once saw a documentary on Zlatan Ibrahimović (there he is again), in which he said that during his time at Ajax, he would often spend hours and hours playing on his Playstation after practices. For many female soccer players, who have to juggle being a professional athlete with school or work in order to finance their soccer dreams, this is hard to imagine. ‘We need to look for the middle way here,’ Merel explains. ‘Spending a few hours a day playing videogames is of course an extreme, but around me I’ve seen many good female players quit soccer because they could no longer combine it with school or work. And that is such a shame.’
That balance, we keep coming back to that. In the time after I’d quit college in order to focus on soccer, I often spent days on end at home. When you do nothing all day but counting down the hours until you can go to practice, you become a ticking time bomb on the pitch. ‘I understand you went crazy’, Merel says about that. ‘When you put so much pressure on yourself and your whole life revolves around soccer, every bad pass is the end of the world.’ She hits the nail on the head. ‘You need to be able to let that go. When you pass someone a ball to their wrong foot, you need to analyse, not criticize it. A bad pass is a learning moment.’
Finally, she asks about my goal to reach the 2019 World Cup. ‘Is that really what you’re aiming for? With the national team?’ I nod, laughing. I’ve often gotten surprise as a response. ‘Half the world must declare you insane, but I like it, that ambition.’
When asked about one golden tip for me with regards to reaching the national team, she answers that it would be the balance. ‘Please go back to college, I’d say. In doing things besides soccer, you’ll be more relaxed on the pitch, and you’ll play better. Good luck, in any case!’ I shake hands with Merel, and thank her. Time to start the journey homeward again. And when I get back home, before I go to practice tonight, I might just spend an hour doing something completely unrelated to soccer. Maybe even a videogame.
Thanks for reading, talk soon! 🙂
PS: And also a huge thank you to Merel of course!
Photo Merel van Dongen © Thomas Bakker