Sarina Wiegman began her soccer career as an outlaw. The Dutch Women’s National Team head coach first joined a team along with her twin brother at age six, cropping her hair so no one would suspect she was female. “There was no girls’ soccer at all at that time,” says Wiegman. “I played with the boys’ team, which was actually illegal. Sometimes we had problems from parents, but I really enjoyed it, so I didn’t care.”
Over 40 years later, Wiegman has become a driving force behind the evolution of women’s soccer in Holland and a pioneer as both player and coach. In 2001 she became the first female Dutch player to earn 100 caps and in 2017, she coached Holland to its first UEFA championship. FIFA named her as 2018’s World Coach of the Year and she is currently ranked number one on FIFA’s list of international coaches based on her win/loss record for the past twelve months. She is the third Dutch woman to earn a UEFA Pro coaching license and the first to serve as assistant manager for a men’s professional team.
The UEFA Cup victory was a gamechanger in Holland, a nation known for stopping work and turning orange during men’s championships. Matches began selling out within days of going on sale – and then within hours. “We wanted to get into the hearts of the Dutch population, and we did,” says Wiegman. “It was really amazing what we accomplished that summer.”
All of which is a long way from the years of shorn hair and dodging disapproving parents. At the time Wiegman grew up, it would have been hard to imagine her current career. “The opinion was that soccer was for girls who wanted to be boys,” she explains. “I had friends whose parents wouldn’t let them play, but my parents were open-minded and said, ’You should do what you like, and we’ll support you.’”
A turning point came when legendary University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance invited Wiegman to join the team during the 1989 season amid a run of nine consecutive NCAA championship titles. “Playing with the Tar Heels totally changed my mindset,” she says. “In the Netherlands, I always thought that I was different from other girls because I wanted to play every day. People told me, ‘You’re too fanatic.’ When I went to Carolina it was like a soccer paradise for young women.”
Returning home, she had one goal: to bring the level of women’s soccer in the Netherlands up to what she had experienced in the U.S. “I wanted to help,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t do it alone, but I wanted to make a difference in the part of the sport I could control. We needed facilities to train every day, good programs and good coaches. After twenty years, we finally got a system like that.”
As much as she wanted to play, from an early age Wiegman also knew she wanted to teach sports. Coaching, however, wasn’t an option – yet. “There weren’t any prospects of being a coach as a woman when I was young,” she says. “When I got older, the game improved and there were more chances.” During her playing career she earned a UEFA A coaching license, working as a physical education teacher both before and after retirement to supplement her income.
In 2007, she made the leap to full-time coaching. “At the time it was kind of a risk because the career wasn’t very stable,” says Wiegman. “But I wanted to work with ambitious people and make a difference in soccer, so I made the choice.” In 2016 she became one of a handful of women to earn a UEFA Pro coaching license after completing the Dutch Football Association’s coaching course and completing a one-year internship at Sparta Rotterdam, where she was an Assistant Coach for the men’s professional team.
Having coached both men and women, she sees both the similarities and a few distinctions in how they need to be approached. No matter who you’re talking to, providing clear feedback is important, she maintains. “If you want to improve the game and the players, you should always be specific. That’s why it’s good that we work with video analysis.”
She believes in open communication and discussion, with a focus on the importance of understanding behavior. “If you want to have a group work together, it’s important to try to understand where behavior comes from,” she says. “It’s important with men also, but with women, when they don’t understand each other they can quickly separate into little groups because they look for support quicker and more easily, and that’s not what you want. You need to have some acceptance and understanding of each other.”
When it comes to coaching, Wiegman thinks role models are critical but sometimes modesty or self-doubt can deter women from pursuing positions they deserve. “When there’s a job available, a lot of men think, ‘Okay, I’m just going to jump’ and afterward ask, ‘What is this about?’” she says. “And a lot of women think, ‘Am I good enough?’ I know I’m generalizing a bit, but I’ve known a lot of women who think that way. We just have to go for the challenge because there are so many women that are very good at coaching.”
As the sport continues to evolve, Wiegman wants to see opportunities for girls to grow with it, including a pro league where women can earn a living wage. Players who simply want to enjoy the game with friends would have the opportunity to do so, but for more ambitious girls, the facilities and opportunities to play at a top level would also be in place. “For every player, there would be a place where she can play, at whatever level,” she says.
Globally, she envisions women in positions throughout governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA with upgraded facilities and more opportunities for playing and coaching. “It’s really important to educate women,” she says. “We want more women to be coaches and involved in other ways in soccer. They have to get those opportunities.”
Wiegman has been creating her own chances since she began her soccer career. Now, thanks in large part to her efforts, no Dutch girls will need to hide their identities to play the game they love.