On Saturday, VV Foarut’s midfielder Ellen Fokkema continued her usual match day routine. He pedaled through the beautiful Frisian countryside until he reached the sports complex of Schatzenburg, in the small town of Menaam, in the north of the Netherlands (about 90 minutes north of Amsterdam). He saw the same faces in the club that has been his home since the age of five.
But on Saturday it turned out to be anything but normal, as the 20-year-old learned that she would be on the bench in the club’s “4e Klasse” (ninth division) against Sleat. Not for your regular U19 team, but for the men’s A team.
In May 2021, the KNVB (Netherlands Football Association) announced a change to its eligibility rules – thanks to Fokkema’s perseverance, passion and talent – allowing women to play in the top men’s category. Although mixed football is allowed in the lower categories and in the amateur teams of “Category B”, previously women could not move to a higher category. But everything changed when, after 60 minutes of play on Saturday, Fokkema received the go-ahead from his coach, Janco Croes, and took to the pitch in front of some 150 spectators to make soccer history.
Fokkema is used to playing with and against men; he has scars on his leg to prove it. He looks for ways to use his wits and speed to his advantage, just like his hero, Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. “I play smart, otherwise I will never win; that is biologically determined,” he told ESPN.
The week before the game was typical, with two training sessions interspersed between his studies. However, although he tried to maintain as much normality as possible, Fokkema was aware of the importance of playing Saturday’s game. Last Tuesday she was working in the emergency department of the local hospital – she had six months of study left before she got a nursing degree – but since then she has helped lead a radical change in football.
“I guess it’s a milestone for football in general,” said Fokkema. “Women will be able to choose in which team to play … that is new, that they can choose. I hope I am not the last, if not, everything will have been in vain.”
Fokkema was five years old when he started playing on VV Foarut. “Back then, when I was a girl, opponents would say, ‘Hey, there’s a girl!’ But I had short hair, so most people didn’t realize it. I did it on purpose, so no one would notice, “he said.
Ellen’s two sisters, Jenny and Marianne, play soccer – her brother Auke tried, but it wasn’t for him – having inherited their mother Klaske’s passion for the sport. It is a town where everyone knows each other, with a population of just 2665 inhabitants, and the local soccer club is a family environment where everyone grows up together. Six of the boys she used to play with are still with her, 15 years later; They were at his party when he turned 18, they celebrated the victories and discussed the defeats together. Along the way, he became resistant to the taunts of his rivals.
“He used to kick the free throws, and the opponents got really upset when they came in,” says Fokkema. “Sometimes they’d say to me, ‘Hey, this isn’t ballet,’ but the next minute I was out of it and that feels really good.” However, just before he turned 19, it seemed that he would no longer be able to continue playing alongside his friends.
The rules of the Netherlands Football Association prohibited women from moving to the senior men’s team in the fourth division, which meant that those who had played for a single club in the lower categories had to find a new team when they turned 19 years old. Fokkema was left with two options: play on the reserve team alongside people he didn’t know too well, or move on to a women’s team. She had received offers from the Heerenveen professional women’s team, but preferred to prioritize her medical studies, and also wanted to continue playing with her friends.
“I felt like one of them and wanted to be on the senior team with them,” said Fokkema.
VV Foraut took this into account: In December 2019, the club representative Auke Grijpma wrote to the KNVB asking for special permission so that Fokkema could continue to play for the men’s team. They had no response, so they tried again in February, sending a third letter in March.
“I think at first [en la Asociación Neerlandesa de Fútbol] they didn’t know what to do with the order, “Roos Brouwer, a senior employee in the KNVB football development department told ESPN.” Because we needed to study the regulations in detail and I think everyone initially thought: ‘Let’s see if it is a serious request and if they are persistent and return ‘”.
After the third letter, they ended up replying. The KNVB announced in August 2020 a pilot scheme through which Fokkema would be able to play with the senior men’s team. He made seven appearances for his club as part of the test; a representative from KNVB came to see her and then interviewed her to find out what her experience had been like.
“They had also asked the rivals how they felt,” says Fokkema. “Them [los oponentes] They didn’t tell me much – after the game, a fist bump and that was it.
When another surge in COVID-19 cases caused amateur football to be canceled in late October, it caused the pilot test to end abruptly. “I loved the higher level. It’s a little faster and a little more brutal, but I have a game where I prioritize intelligence over physical strength,” said Fokkema. “But I love the camaraderie.”
The club submitted the dossier to the KNVB, claiming that the test should result in a permanent change in the eligibility rules in Dutch football. There were few other cases in the world for KNVB to consider. In professional football professional there have been offers for women in the past. Perugia tried to sign German legend Birgit Prinz in 2003, while Canadian team Calgary Foothills (playing in the United States Premier Development League) signed Canada’s No. 1 player Stephanie Labbe in 2016, but the league ended up blocking the move. So it would not have been surprising that the KNVB chose not to change the rules to be eligible.
But then, in early May 2021, the KNVB called a meeting for Microsoft Teams with Fokkema and his club. They had reviewed all the evidence and agreed to allow him to continue playing together with his friends.
“We followed her in the practice games, in the cup games and in the league games during the pilot and we couldn’t find a single reason that we didn’t have to,” said Brouwer. “So we allow it, but We will continue to monitor, of course. The most important thing will continue to be that this is a safe place for women to play football.
They thought about how to deal with the expected extra attention this was going to generate and on May 11 they issued a press release from KNVB football director Jan Dirk van der Zee: “Based on current information and recent research, we see no reason to pursue this [la reglamentación anterior] and we have opted for equality and diversity. We want girls and women to find a place in the world of football based on their quality and their own ambitions ”.
While there were around 150 women playing in category B soccer in the Netherlands (a level predominantly filled with the reserve teams of the older men’s club teams), Fokkema had changed soccer in his country. The woman was no longer going to have to place an order to be able to play.
“When it was announced, I realized its relevance – before, I thought I was going to continue everything as usual, and I was going to continue playing football,” said Fokkema. “But then I became news, it was something very strange. My phone wouldn’t stop ringing: I wanted to throw it out the window! But the days went by, the weeks went by and things calmed down.”
On the eve of Saturday’s game, he played a couple of preseason games and three cup games, but the meeting with Sleat was a historic moment. In the end, VV Foarut lost 4-0, and Fokkema acknowledged that it will take a few more matches to call this a “success”. She felt strange in the presence of the television cameras and the attention was a bit disconcerting, but she was happy to see the impact of their presence.
Sources told ESPN that there have already been expressions of interest in the KNVB experience from Germany and there has also been interest from teams in England. The KNVB does not expect women to play in men’s professional soccer in the near future, but argues that “it is not completely impossible.”
While Fokkema hopes this moment will inspire others to just “be themselves,” she wants to continue playing soccer with the club that means so much to her. “I still can’t figure out how important this is,” he adds. “I still think I’m just playing with my friends. For me, almost nothing has changed. But around me, I can see a lot of changes ”.