Be Like Ronaldinho

Mar 8 2018
Photo by
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
Mar 8 2018

D reams are funny things, aren’t they?Why do we dream what we dream?

For instance, you could say this past year has been a dream come true for me. Winning the Euros at home in Holland and becoming the player of the tournament. Signing for Barcelona, my favorite club. Sharing a plane with Lionel Messi.

Being named the best player in the world.

Sometimes it’s hard to even comprehend it all.

But I have to confess something. As a little girl, I never really dreamed about any of this. I never thought about winning the Euros. I didn’t even see myself playing for Holland.

And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to dream it. I just couldn’t.

Let me explain. I grew up in a tiny village called Bergen, on the border of Germany, with just a few thousand people. Back then, women’s football in Holland wasn’t as big as it is now. Today, little girls can see the path that leads to the top. They have female role models. They can dream about playing for Ajax, Barcelona, Manchester City… big clubs.

But I couldn’t. All I knew was that I wanted to play football, all the time. I didn’t have any female heroes. I couldn’t look up to someone who was doing what I wanted to do.

I didn’t even know that a Dutch women’s national team existed.

So I dreamed about something else. I wanted to play for Ajax, my favorite club in Holland.

Not the women’s team. The men’s team.

I know what you’re thinking, because the people in my town all told me the same thing.

But you’re a girl. It’s impossible.

And I know, it didn’t quite make sense. But it didn’t have to. Not as long as I had a ball under my arm. Not as long as I had my idol at Barcelona: Ronaldinho.

Lieke Martens

My first memory in life is of my mum taking me to see my older brothers play. I couldn’t wait to run out onto the pitch myself, but I had to wait until I was 4 years old. So I’d take a small ball with me to play on my own. That’s how people in the village came to recognize me: the little girl who was always running around kicking the ball.

And when I say always, I mean always. When we got home from school at three o’clock, and my friends would go play with their Barbies, I’d play football with my brothers and their friends. They were all older than me, but they always let me join in. We just practiced and had fun. Even when I had nobody to play with, I still had my beloved ball — and a special companion.

A wall.

That is the beauty of football, you know? When you don’t have any friends to play with, you can always find a wall to be your friend.

I’d be kicking the ball against it all afternoon. My mum would have to call me in for dinner, because I was always out. I think that’s where my technique has come from, because I struck it so many times, with both feet.

Right, left, right, left, right.

My dad would often tell me, “Practice more with your left.”

Left, right, left, left, left.

I was trying out lots of different things. You know the Cruyff turn I did against Belgium at the Euros? I practiced that a lot. Johan Cruyff was a hero for all of us here in Holland.

But an even bigger hero for me was Ronaldinho. I loved his style. I remember there was an ad on TV called Joga Bonito that showed him and other players doing all these tricks with the ball. So I’d go on YouTube and study his moves, trying to copy what he did.

I also did a lot of keepy-ups. My record was, like, one hundred, but I always wanted more. I always wanted to get better, to challenge myself. That trick that didn’t work yesterday, might work today.

At my first club, I played alongside the boys. It might sound strange now, but I was really happy that a club like that actually wanted me. I knew girls who couldn’t play football with boys, and who had to look for girls-only clubs instead. There weren’t many teams like that in Bergen. That’s another way the village came to know me, by the way: the only girl among the boys.

My dad coached me for three or four years, but he always treated me like any other player. And my teammates knew I could play, so they respected me. But our opponents — even their parents — they all said the same thing.

“Ah, a girl on the pitch? She can’t play football.”

Blah blah blah.

And, you know, it’s true: boys and girls are different. At that age, they were a lot faster and stronger than me. So they weren’t used to seeing this small girl dribble past them.

Some of them had problems with it. They didn’t like it.

But I’m really happy that I played with the boys until I was 16. I learned a lot, and I wouldn’t have become as good as I did otherwise. It could be difficult though, especially if we won.


Of course, our team would come together on the pitch after the game and high-five. But then the boys would go and celebrate together in the locker room. I’d obviously shower in a different room, and sometimes I could hear them through the wall, shouting and singing together. And I’d be in my little room all alone, taking off my boots.

It was … Well, it was different.

But I think it was a good thing for me. It taught me how to keep fighting for my dream, even when I was alone. It was a skill that I ended up having to rely on a lot when I was a teenager. Sometimes I would ask myself, What dream was I following? The Ajax men’s team? I couldn’t really see the path, until something happened to me one day.

I made the under-19s national team.

Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images

I was still only 15 years old. And since they were based in Amsterdam, I had to leave my village for this huge city (well, huge to me at least). I had to leave home.

I was living with girls who were 18 or 19 years old. We were team-mates, but we mostly did things on our own, so I’d have to figure stuff out by myself. Things like cooking and washing my clothes. Of course, I didn’t have a clue.

So I’d call my mum.

The hardest part was the laundry. I’d call my mum once, but I still couldn’t figure out how the machine worked. I’d call her again. I’d call her a third time.

“Mum? What should I do? What did I do wrong?”

I could say that I never shrank my clothes or messed up my cooking. But it wouldn’t be true 🙂

I had to grow up quickly there, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived. My first tough period came at Christmas. Amsterdam isn’t like Barcelona, where it’s sunny all the time. It’s darker. And I was lonely. My village was two-and-a-half hours away, so I’d go back to see my family and friends. But only for one or two days, and then I’d be back on the train.

Luckily, I had my parents. I am so thankful for them. They raised us in a quiet way — me, my two brothers and my little sister. My mother was at home taking care of us, my dad worked a lot. They would do anything for us. If I called them at three in the morning, they’d be there. If I was in Amsterdam and felt unwell, they’d come over.

If they hadn’t believed in my dream, I couldn’t have achieved what I have now.

Moving to Amsterdam took some things away from me. When you’re 15, it can be hard seeing your friends do things you’d have liked to do, while you’re always putting the effort in. My little sister was 8 years old when I left home. We have a good relationship, but I haven’t seen her grow up as much as my brothers have. It’s different with us, because I was never there. I’m sure a lot of footballers — both men and women — can relate to this.

But you have to make sacrifices. And I knew I wanted to be a professional football player. Soon, I was playing for clubs in Belgium, Germany and Sweden. In 2010, I played at the under-19 Euros, and a year later I made my debut for the senior team. In 2013, we played in the Euros in Sweden.

And two years later, we reached the World Cup — the first Holland had ever qualified for.

Sacrifices pay off in the end.

Mike Hewitt/FIFA via Getty Images

It was a crazy experience. I remember our first World Cup match against New Zealand in Edmonton. Canada, who was the host nation, was playing just before us, so we saw how many people were there. There must have been more than 40,000. We were already happy just to have qualified, and now we were about to play in this great stadium, with a great atmosphere, lots of people, and an opponent from the other side of the world. It was amazing.

But we were also so nervous.

And yet we won, 1-0.

And I scored.

I can remember every detail of it. It was the 33rd minute, and I recall seeing the ball go in, seeing my teammates running towards me. I couldn’t believe it.

It couldn’t have been better actually.

We made it to the final 16, which is pretty strong for a debuting nation. Back home, the games were on late at night because of the time difference. My friends and family stayed up to watch them, but most people in Holland just watched the highlights the day after. That was good, but it couldn’t compare to what would happen two years later.

You see, everyone in Holland is into women’s football now. And you probably know why.

We hadn’t made it out of the group stage at Euro 2013, but this time the tournament would be held at home in Holland. I already knew we had a good group with a good mentality. After the World Cup, more girls had gone to clubs abroad. Before they used to play in Holland, which was good for the competition at home, but not for the national team — if you want to get better, you have to play against the best in Europe.

So I knew our level was going to be higher. But actually winning the Euros?

I had dreamed about it, but… No, come on.

I will never forget our first game against Norway. Before our bus arrived at the stadium, I actually didn’t quite know what kind of atmosphere to expect. And then the bus turned this corner close to the stadium, and all we could see was a sea of orange. It was incredible. Orange shirts, orange flags, orange scarves. Orange everywhere. We all got goosebumps.

We had expected it to be big. But this big?

At that moment, we turned to each other and made ourselves a promise.

Okay, girls. We’re going to play for us, and we’re going to show them how good we are. But we’re also going to play for them. For all these people who have come to support us.

It all started right there. That moment gave us so much power, and we never lost that feeling. Every time we played, we saw people in orange everywhere. It helped us a lot.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images

We won the group and reached the final. It’s true that we had some luck, but luck is also earned. Everything felt good. We had a good team spirit, everyone supported each other, and everyone knew their role, from the first-choice striker down to the third goalkeeper. The further we got in the tournament, the closer we grew to each other.

At some point, I felt we were unbeatable.

And as it turned out, we were.

We beat Denmark in the final. Our first ever title, at home in front of our own fans.

One moment was particularly special for me. As we were celebrating, and I had the gold medal round my neck, I saw my parents. They knew how much I had done to get to that point in my life. I knew how much they had done to encourage me, to support me, to help me follow my dream.

I cried. Of course I did.

They did, too.

We had never expected it would happen like this.

My friends were also there. That I could share that moment with them was amazing. Some of them gave me a little book they had made during the tournament, with pictures and all. It showed how they had followed the Euros from their side — as fans, and as friends.

They said, “Your tournament has finished. But so has ours.”

After that, my life became a whirlwind. I was named the player of the tournament and the player of the year in Europe. I had already signed for Barcelona, where Ronaldinho had played — soon I would be wearing the same famous shirt that he had worn when I was young. And in September, FIFA announced the nominees for the best player in the world.

When I found out I was on the list, it was already crazy. Then our team manager made it even crazier. He was discussing the plans for the flight to London, and he just casually said, “Well, I think you and Messi will go together.”

I wanted to play it cool, but I was like, “Are you kidding me?”

I’ll never forget that day. We travelled on the plane together, and Messi was really nice, even though my Spanish wasn’t the best at that point. (I’m taking classes now, and slowly improving.) After I won the award, he congratulated me… and that made it even more surreal. It was also cool that my parents and my boyfriend could travel with me and see everything. Now they can also say that they’ve shared a plane with Messi.

I know people compare me and him. It’s a big compliment, but he’s a hero also for me. It’s incredible how fast he is in one-v-one situations. Or even one-v-five, sometimes.

I try to learn from him. If Barça plays, I study what he’s doing. Even when he doesn’t have the ball, I’m curious to see how he creates space, and how he prepares himself before receiving the ball. In that way, we’re similar: if we start dribbling, we’re hard to catch. But he’s much better. Crazy good.

It was a huge honor to be named the best player in the world. But if you look at players like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, they always want to be the best. I feel I have more to show people.

Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

My life has changed since the Euros. I think the craziest thing of all is that, when I walk down the street now, people recognize me. Even in Barcelona, Dutch people stop me to ask for a picture. What really warms my heart is that they’re always positive about Dutch women’s football.

I remember having to fight against people who said women’s football is nothing. Of course, it’s never going to be as good as the men’s game. We’re never going to have the same speed or the same physique. Our game is never going to be that fast. But we can have the same technique. And if men’s football can thrill and inspire people, women’s football can, too.

The Euros has changed the situation at home completely. Two years ago, some of our games weren’t even on TV. Now people stay at home to watch our games.

Now, every little girl knows that Holland has a women’s national team.

We all feel we are heroes for them. That they look up to us. That we can inspire them. That they realize that a girl from Holland can win the Euros and play for Barcelona.

I used to say, “I want to be like Ronaldinho.”

Now they’re saying, “I want to be like Vivianne Miedema.”

“Or Daniëlle van de Donk.”

“Or Lieke Martens.”

That’s really cool.