“Finally speaking Dutch!” With a friendly smile, Sarina Wiegman, accompanied by a press officer, takes her place in a room of the Hilton hotel, which is part of St George’s Park, the English version of the KNVB Center in Zeist. On this late spring media day, the Dutch national coach of the England women’s team has, among others, the BBC, CNN, Sky, ITV and The New York Times talk to. “Everything in sport is three times bigger in England,” says the 53-year-old from The Hague, “including press attention.”
This attention is not there for nothing. Less than a year ago, Wiegman won the European Championship with Les Lionesses, the first gold medal for a national football team since the men won the World Cup in 1966.
Under the leadership of a former physical education teacher, football had “come home”. But from July 20, an even greater challenge awaits him in Australia: the world championship. Can England become the best in the world for the first time, to the detriment of the American favourites?
A lot of attention
As the final tournament approached, Wiegman and his team were receiving a lot of attention in the English press. For the first defeat in 30 games, for example, against hosts Australia (“Big Lesson”). For the injuries of the best players Fran Kirby, Leah Williamson and Beth Mead, the winner of the Ballon d’Or at the last European Championship. For issues with top clubs not wanting to release spesters. For Wiegman’s wish that no transfers take place during the World Cup.
“There’s a lot more media attention for women’s football and that means journalists pay attention to the smallest things. During the European Championships the clothes I wore were sold out in the shops. I’m not didn’t show up. My colleague Gareth Southgate had been through something similar. And there was all the attention for my four color bic pen. A functional pen from Bruna. I didn’t know people were going to write about it. L ‘ordinary turned out to be special, but I’m not going to sit on the sidelines with a golden pen, am I?
After winning the European title with the Dutch, Wiegman had come to England as a born winner. Culture shock, she looks back. “My name was ‘The Boss’, not Sarina. It took some getting used to. I used to ask people I worked with about their ideas and then make a choice myself. .
“Here, the work culture is more hierarchical. You are much more a manager here than a coach. Not only do I have a selection of 23 girls under me, but also 27 staff members. I have a lot of support from Arjen Veurink, who is doing more and more technical work.
His office is located in St George’s Park, a football center near Burton-on-Trent, a town in the heart of the country known for its many breweries. The complex was opened in 2012 by Kate and William. In addition to being crown prince, the latter is also honorary president of the Football Association.
Driving (or cycling) along the Sir Alf Ramsay Way is greeted by a herd of cows. “Yes, those cows, they always run away when I’m jogging. The Dutch cows would stay put,” Wiegman says with a smile.
This jog usually takes place on Mondays and Tuesdays, as those are the days she is in the office. “The rest of the time she attends her players’ matches, from Manchester to Munich, to Wembley for commercial or media duties or with her husband and daughters in The Hague.”
“It’s a beautiful area, not really, but I am and always will be a city dweller. And my daughters are studying, they really don’t go here. During the pandemic, we learned that we can also do a lot of work from home.
St George’s Park, where she sometimes drinks coffee with her colleague Southgate (“Super nice guy”), she lives like a football Valhalla. “The facilities here are really great. In Zeist it was good too, but that’s another level. Earlier this year, she traveled to Australia, a country she had never been to. The English play in a relatively light group with Haiti, China and Denmark, an old acquaintance from his glorious days as Netherlands manager. With the English, she plays the Dutch way, offensively and emphasizing possession.
“I work really hard,” she explains, when asked about the high expectations, “that’s all I can do.” Even though the World Cup is 17,000 kilometers away, the attention of the English press will be high. The media can be tough, but there’s also a lot of respect as she saw at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, an impressive sports gala. ‘Really cool. Of course, sport is about winning, but other things also count on such an evening. Find out how England rugby players were honored despite losing to New Zealand in the World Cup final.
“Very moving was the attention given to a former rugby union player with a muscle condition who was pushed across the Leeds Marathon finish line by a colleague. There is also attention for special athletes from other countries. Usain Bolt. Lionel Messi. The Netherlands is a sporting country, but sport is much more embedded in society here. It is therefore the cradle of many sports. There is always sport on TV and the newspapers are full of all sorts of sports, if it’s not football then it’s rugby or cricket.
Women’s football really matters, according to Wiegman. “Wembley were full for the cup final and the football app pays as much attention to transfers in women’s football as in men’s football.” An example of how football is part of society at large is the letter my players wrote to the government after winning the European Championship to offer all school girls the opportunity to play football during school lessons. ‘physical education. The minister listened and that helped. Sodeju. I was proud of this initiative. England are a step further than the Netherlands in women’s football, but there is still a long way to go.
Wiegman himself was awarded the title of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire after the European Championship. ‘It was very special, I’m super honored’, to add with a laugh that he’s now sometimes called ‘The Commander’ at home. “I’m waiting for an invitation from the palace to pick him up.” It turned out to be useless. A few weeks after the interview, Prince William came to St George’s Park to personally present the certificate to ‘The Boss’ after playing table football with the Lionesses.
“Introvert. Avid gamer. Wannabe beer advocate. Subtly charming zombie junkie. Social media trailblazer. Web scholar.”