Sarina Wiegman tells young girls: ‘Whatever you want to achieve, go for it. There are no boundaries.’
‘Whatever you want to achieve, go for it. There are no boundaries.’
That is the message from England head coach Sarina Wiegman as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
When Wiegman started playing football in Netherlands as a six-year-old, she had to pretend to be a boy as it was against the rules for girls to play competitively.
But the former midfielder refused to let that stop her. She would go on to play more than 100 times for her country, become the first woman to join the coaching staff of a professional men’s team in Netherlands, and guided the Dutch to their first major trophy at EURO 2017 after being appointed head coach.
Wiegman believes the growth of women’s football is helping to show young girls they can achieve anything they want in life but stressed more needs to be done and believes days like today can help do that.
International Women’s Day strives to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A day which looks to celebrate women's achievement, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.
You can hear Wiegman’s thoughts on International Women’s Day and the growth of the sport she loves below.
How important is it that we have days and campaigns like International Women’s Day?
“First of all I’d like to express my special thoughts and solidarity to all in Ukraine. Thousands of them are caught up in a war, with absolute disregard for human life and dignity. I pay my deepest respects to those who have been killed, and my thoughts are with those who have been injured.
“As for International Women’s Day, I think it is very important that we have days like this and it is necessary. It shouldn’t be necessary but it is because worldwide women do not receive the same opportunities and in some situations are suffering from verbal or physical abuse.
“That is why we want to put more attention on the issue and hopefully it will stop or help some women across the world.”
How important is it that organisations and workplaces create environments where women and everyone feel as though they are treated equally and given the same opportunities to flourish?
“For the FA, it is very important because football connects people and worldwide it is such a big sport. Through football, we can inspire people and I think that is why it is really good that we talk about this and put extra attention on it and show by example; to put a message forward about equality and inclusion, again not only for women but everyone.”
Black, England & Proud | Hope Powell
Celebrate International Women's Day with the latest episode of Black, England and Proud with former England boss Hope Powell
How important are sports like football in helping to break down those stereotypes and biases when it comes to women? It seems football has the opportunity to be a huge force for good?
“Yes. In the last year, with women’s football becoming more visible, now you are seeing more and more little girls who want to be Fran Kirby or Leah Williamson or in the Netherlands want to be Lieke Martens or Vivianne Miedema. Girls want to be like them and that is one of the things that we have reached all together over the years and that makes such a change.
“Now when little girls start playing football, which they couldn’t do a long time ago but now they can, you learn so many things. You learn about yourself, you learn social skills, you learn about physical abilities, you build connections with other girls and boys and it changes so many things - for boys too.
“You get stronger women as a result, so it is so empowering as well.
“Whatever you want to achieve, go for it. There are no boundaries.”
It is also a day where we celebrate the success of women and where they have broken down the bias. It made me think of your time as a coach at Sparta Rotterdam. Am I right in thinking you were the first woman in Dutch football to be hired by a professional men’s team’s coaching staff?
“I was the first women who was involved [in a professional men’s team in Netherlands] and it was with the Sparta Rotterdam second team. It was for a certain amount of time because I was involved with the Dutch national women’s team already so I did an internship the year before and then the year after they had a coach who was out for a while and in that period, they asked me to support them and help them, which I did.
“People found it special but I looked at it as I was just doing my job and helping out.”
What was that environment like? How were you received as a woman going into that male-dominated environment?
“Well I had been there for a year [before]. At the beginning, you have to get used to each other.
“In the men’s game, people weren’t used to having women as coaches so I got used to that and they got used to me. Then it was about performing and having respect.
“I always felt that at Sparta the people were respectful and I looked to do my best. When I do something in coaching or training, I had to make sure I did it well so I made sure – like I always do – that I prepared really well and did the job.
“I think by performing and behaving as a professional that helps. It was a good experience.”
Did you ever experience any discrimination during your time as a coach in the men’s team environment?
“To be honest, I didn’t experience anything. In the football world across my life, of course I have had some remarks once in a while but I just didn’t pay attention to it and I continued with what I was doing.
“Recently I haven’t had anything like this. Earlier on, women’s football was not respected and was not accepted. That has changed a lot but I think we still have a way to go.
“I still think in the women’s game and the development of the girls’ academies and in girls’ football, opportunities and the facilities can still grow but I think steps have been taken already. But we are not there yet which is why we still need days like today [for International Women’s Day] to get extra attention to catch up.”
Looking back on your career and whether it was insisting that ADO Den Haag hired you as a full-time coach when they had previously only had part-time coaches, the time at Sparta Rotterdam with the men’s team and the way you helped the Dutch Women’s team reach levels they had never reached before by winning EURO 2017, are you proud of the impact you have had personally in women’s football and the impact you have had for other women coaches?
“Yes, of course I am proud but there have also been many, many people who have been involved and have worked so hard to change the women’s football environment and the football environment, to make it better and to get more women involved in football.
“So it is not just me. There are so many other people and players who have broken down barriers and there are so many people who did things to force change before I came along.
“I am just really proud that I have had a contribution towards this, along with lots of other women but also men who have helped make a change.”
Reflecting on your recent success in the Arnold Clark Cup, how much do you think the environment you’re building amongst your own staff team supports the players’ ability to perform on the pitch?
“The environment we are trying to create is a safe environment where players and staff can be themselves and we have a framework where we treat each other with respect – it all starts with respect.
“In our environment, in the first month we got to know each other better on and off the pitch.
“We are in an environment where it is about performance and getting the best out of yourself. When you are competing with each other, you do need to get out of your comfort zone to compete really hard with someone else for a position. But then at the other end, you are a team-mate and you are supporting each other. So in one aspect you are really competing but then in another you are really supporting each other.”
Looking ahead to the Women’s EUROs this summer, what are your hopes for the tournament in terms of shifting the dial and breaking down gender stereotypes?
“I am expecting so many high-level games. The game has developed so much and there are lots of countries who will be favourites for this tournament and I hope that this tournament is going to show, not only with the England team but other teams as well, how well women can play football and how professional it is and how they are such athletes on the pitch, and I hope that we are going to make a difference.
“I am hoping that the stadiums are going to be full, people are going to be so excited by the games and the levels of the game, and that will help take the development of the women’s game to the next stage.”