Emma Coolen is a professional Dutch women’s footballer, with a fairly unique background. Like many in women’s football she worked her way up to highest level all on her own. She never took no for answer, persisted, and became a feared fullback. She has just signed for Belgian Super League club KSK Heist. I was lucky enough to pluck her away from both school and football to interview her about her career.
For those who haven’t been blessed enough to read your blog posts (which you can read by clicking here), please tell us why you decided to pursue a dream of playing professional football. You went from dancing on a bar table holding a beer, to flirting with playing in the World Cup. What flipped that switch in your mind?
It was almost literally a switch that was flipped, actually. I was on holiday in Sweden in late 2013, and had bought a ticket for the UWCL game between Tyresö FF and Fortuna Hjørring. Not because I liked football so much, but because I was trying to collect Christen Press’ autograph (who played for the Swedish home side at the time) to impress a girl I really liked! But when the match kicked off, I suddenly thought to myself: ‘This is what I wanted to do with my life. I want to become a professional football player!’ To this day I don’t know why that happened at that moment, but of course I’m extremely grateful that it did!
What kind of development did you experience? What was your previous football experience before the pros? Were you ever in an academy, and/or did you play for a school?
Before I realized I wanted to go pro, I had never played higher than the 8th tier in Dutch club football, the lowest one available in my region. I had never been scouted, never shown any kind of aptitude or talent for the sport, and all of that was perfectly fine with me. I was more than happy to play football once a week with my friends, which gave us an excuse to drink a lot of beer afterwards, haha!
I asked this question of Emma because women’s football does not seem to be taken as seriously as the men’s, and I wonder if both clubs and national setups are utilizing the resources they have available to find the best talent and develop them. Emma mentioned she has never been scouted nor been put into a development academy or set-up, and that is telling. Aside from colleges (especially in the United States) and maybe a few national sides, I highly doubt women’s football talent is found through scouting, which can be a costly and timely process. Instead, some women’s teams have only tryouts. Which can sometimes restrict the talent to only local talent.
A big issue in male football is the stigma shown towards gay players. There are reportedly quite a few gay players, but they have not been revealed and do not come out themselves. This is because of the fear of receiving abuse and shunning from both fans and football institutions and the culture within them. Many female players are openly gay (at least here in the US). There is clearly a cultural difference. In your experience, how open is the women footballing culture to gay players? If you feel it is open for the women’s game, in what ways do you think male footballing culture can remedy their issues with the stigma around gay players?
I can only speak from the experience I’ve had, in the Netherlands and Belgium, and that is that the women’s game is indeed very open towards gay players. I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to create a paradigm shift in the men’s game, but some good work is already being done. A lot has to do with visibility and with players speaking out. In the current climate, I can absolutely understand that some male gay players choose to not come out, and I count myself lucky that I’ve never felt treated differently in the world of football because of my sexuality a single day.
In a similar vein, there is a massive stigma surrounding mental health, especially in male sports where men are expected to be “tough.” In women’s football, how is mental health looked at? Do players often hide their feelings and what they go through, or do they support each other and take mental health seriously?
It kind of depends. I always try to be very honest about my struggles, and have gotten a lot of positive responses both on the internet and from my teammates, but there are still certain issues that are not talked about that much. That’s why I have a lot of respect for players like Ashlyn Harris, who openly talk about their mental health struggles and how they got through that. I speak from experience when I say that it truly makes a difference to know you’re not alone.
You say you are going to school and playing a high level of football. Because of the lower pay in the women’s game, is it common for many female players to be both top athletes and working/attending school?
Absolutely. In the current women’s game, you can only have football as your fulltime job if you are among the best in the world. Even in many ‘pro’ leagues, like the Dutch and Belgian ones, it’s not uncommon for players to be paid very little, or not at all. While I definitely think this needs to change over the next few years in order for the women’s game to grow even bigger and stronger, for me personally, it’s not that much of an issue. Of course, it’d be a dream come true to have football as my job, but in the meantime, I’ll do whatever I need to be able to focus on my football as much as possible. I’m also very lucky that the college I go to (Avans University of Applied Sciences in Den Bosch, the Netherlands), is extremely flexible and helps me in every way they can for me to combine my education and my football dreams.
There was a massive push for the US Women’s National Team to get “equal pay” to the men’s team. What were your thoughts on that story? And what is your experience with pay in women’s leagues? What glaring problems (if any) do you see and how do you think they can be improved?
While I definitely support the USWNT’s campaign, I feel that ‘Equal Pay’ might be a bit of an unfortunate slogan. Many people from outside the women’s game that hear it for the first time get upset when they hear about it, and are quick to point out that of course, the men make more, because more people watch the games on TV and in the stadiums and so on. What I’d like to see is clubs and federations taking the step to invest in the women’s game, without expecting to break even or see profit within the first two to three years (and cancelling the entire program if that doesn’t happen). I always think, in an oversimplified analogy, it’s a chain reaction: invest money in the women’s game and its promotion -> more full-time players -> quality of play goes up -> more people in the stadiums -> more money and so on.
Making a drastic change in your life, as well as traveling all over and moving clubs can take a toll on friendships and relationships with family. In the age of social media and cell phones, are you able to keep those relationships strong?
Absolutely. In the first few years, I was extreme about it, the whole ‘no days off’-mentality. I hardly kept in touch with any friends, cancelled all birthday parties, and spent every waking second dedicated to football in some way. Of course, that backfired immensely, and I had a bit of a mental and physical burn-out earlier this year. These days, I try to find more of a balance, working hard on my football but also taking some time to spend with friends and family. It took me a while but I realized that in the end, taking a break every now and then is also what’s best for my football in the long run.
Related to that, what is your experience with joining a new team, in a social aspect: Do they work to integrate you (via the club itself or through the captain or team leaders) or are you on your own and have to “work” your way into the team?
It really depends on the team and the country, but I’ve had only positive experiences so far. I always enjoy meeting new people, and of course, when you join a new team, you have one big thing in common: a love for football. I’ve never felt like I had to ‘work’ my way into the team, I just chat to everyone and after a while you kind of naturally figure out who you get along with best!
Do you play any football video games like PES, FIFA 18 or Football Manager? Even if you don’t, do you feel that having women’s teams and players in those games would help grow women’s football’s popularity?
Not anymore, but I have in the past. My brother and I used to spend hours playing FIFA 2001 (yes, I’m that old, haha!), and he would constantly annoy me by playing with my favourite men’s team (we support different Dutch teams) and just scoring 40 own goals in a match, haha. I definitely think having female players in those games is important, not just for the visibility of the players and teams, but also as a statement from the developers! Plus, I do also secretly dream of seeing myself in one of those games one day…
What kind of tactical system(s) do you feel best fit your playstyle? (Do you prefer a counter-attacking game, a high press, a possession based game, etc.)
My favourite system to play in is a 4-3-3 in which I am one of the two overlapping fullbacks. I love being a defender and trying to win the ball during a 1 v 1 with attackers, but if I don’t make it to the opposition’s endline at least 4 or 5 times in 90 minutes, I had a boring game, haha. As far as the tactical plans, I don’t really have a preferred one, although playing high press and making my direct opponent nervous every time she touches the ball is always fun!
Do you one day hope to get into football management/coaching? In your experience, are the majority of coaches/managers you train and play for women or men? Do you think a female manager will ever manage a team at the elite levels of the men’s game?
I don’t have any plans in that direction at the moment, mainly because I’d grow tired of having to deal with players like myself all the time, haha! I’ve played for more male than female coaches, but I do think both have their own strengths and weaknesses. Seeing a woman coach a men’s team at the elite level is something that would truly be a breakthrough for the women’s game, and I hope the day that happens is not too far away!
What are you going to school for? What made you decide to study that subject?
I’m currently studying Communication & Multimedia Design. A lot of my (former) teammates study something a lot closer to their football, like physiotherapy or something sports-related, but I’d go crazy if I did that! I enjoy having the balance of football, which is mainly about putting the physical work in, and then going to school and talk about graphic design, film, and social media content.
What plans do you have for your blog and other social media? How careful are you before you press “post/publish,” or do you just say what you think/believe at all times?
I have no plans at all, I just go with the flow of what comes to my mind, haha. Maybe my blog would have a lot bigger reach if I took the time to carefully plan everything, but for me, keeping it so casual is what makes it fun. If something is on my mind, I write or post something, and if that doesn’t happen for two months, so be it. No deadlines, no goal-setting, no future plans. And yes, that also means that I sometimes post stuff I regret later, haha. When I really doubt if I can write a certain thing, I let my brother read it beforehand, he’s always honest with whether or not I can post something. He has definitely saved me some trouble over the years…
What is your most exciting/dramatic story in a football game?
The most dramatic one has got to be my red card last season, the only one I’ve ever gotten to date. We were playing an away game, and I was on the bench for the first time in ages since I was battling a hamstring injury at the time. We were down 1-0 at halftime, but were still pretty confident we could turn the game around. I was subbed in at the start of the second half, when out of nowhere, the referee suddenly decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. She gave 2 red cards to players on our team over the next 10 minutes, both of them were hardly fouls, and when I went in a bit late on a challenge right after that, I was shocked to see that I also got a direct red! Yes, I was a bit late, but it definitely wasn’t more than a free kick, or perhaps a yellow. By that time, we were so convinced that we were being treated unfairly, that we decided to step off the pitch. That referee would have continued giving us red cards until we had no players left, haha! So yeah, my first game back after months of injury problems ended with an unfair red card after 18 minutes… I’d say that’s pretty dramatic!
What is the funniest story you have from a football game or practice?
To many hilarious things have happened throughout the years, to be perfectly honest with you. One incident that I’ll never forget is when we had a big game a few season ago, and right before we’re supposed to go out to the pitch, our goalkeeper suddenly gets up from her seat in the dressing room and runs out at full speed, only to return 10 minutes later. When we asked her what happened, she replied that she needed to take a ‘stresskakske’, which loosely translates to a ‘stress poop’. We had a really good laugh about that one!
What advice do you have for young girls that dream of achieving what you have done and play football at the highest level?
The cliché says that reaching your goals is simple, but not easy, and that’s very true. The best advice I could give anyone is to never give up, don’t let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do, and never forget what made you fall in love with football in the first place. I know, a list of terribly overused clichés, but they’re clichés for a good reason!
Do you have any pre-game rituals? Is there a certain song that pumps you up everytime?
I do have a pregame playlist on Spotify, but whether or not I listen to it depends on what mood I’m in. However, the Dutch song ‘Bloed, Zweet en Tranen’ (Blood, Sweat and Tears) by André Hazes always works, because whenever I hear that I can just picture myself playing in a sold out stadium, wearing the national team jersey.
With a name like Coolen, are you subject to many puns regarding the word “cool”? kind of a joke question, but also we should totally make pun t-shirts)
Haha yeah, I can no longer keep count of how many times people have said ‘Coolen? Wow, that is the coolest last name I’ve ever heard!’ In Dutch women’s football, people have often asked me if I’m related to Nadia Coolen, who plays for PSV in the Eredivisie. Unfortunately, that is not the case as far as I know, because she is insanely fast and it would’ve been nice to know I also had some of those genes!
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