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To outsiders, Sarina Wiegman is Holland’s history-maker who won the Euros and reached a World Cup final. To those who have worked with her, she is a straight-talker who enjoys coffee, hates beer and has a competitive fire in her. While having a pint is said to be something that this “strict but caring” former teacher would not choose, she is certainly accustomed to the taste of success, after rising from giving PE lessons to being named Best Fifa Women’s Coach of the Year in the space of a decade.
Now she has a new challenge: trying to lead England to major silverware. Thankfully for the Lionesses, the 51-year-old is no stranger to overcoming giant obstacles. As a six-year-old growing up in The Hague, Wiegman cut her hair short in an attempt to disguise the fact she was a girl playing in her brother’s team, at a time when girls were forbidden from doing so in Holland.
From those secretive beginnings, she carved out a career in which she became the first female player to reach 100 caps for Holland. A key moment on her way to reaching that landmark came in 1988 when she had a chance meeting with Anson Dorrance, the United States head coach, during a tournament in China. Dorrance, who went on to win the 1991 World Cup, invited Wiegman to play for his team, the North Carolina Tar Heels, at the University of North Carolina. The college’s alumni is littered with many of women’s football’s all-time greats, from two of the game’s most prolific goalscorers in Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, to further World Cup-winning players such as Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly, to more recent icons such as Lucy Bronze, England’s right-back and Best Fifa Player of 2020.
Wiegman accepted and took the chance to play alongside Hamm and Lilly, who would together go on to score almost 300 goals combined for the US. There was one key characteristic in particular that Dorrance believes was ingrained within Wiegman during that spell.
“Bumping into her [in China] was unbelievable luck, it was absolute serendipity,” Dorrance says. “She took a huge risk because, then, the US was not known for its football, yet I think it is a risk that has paid her back in all kinds of positive ways. The most critical element of player development is competitive fire. Creating a competitive cauldron in practice, and making that a north star for our programme, that’s what separates us; we compete. Sarina took to it like a duck to water.
“Sarina is going to be extraordinary in a locker room. She’s going to be able to lead through two powerful conduits: her competitive fire and her personal character. Your players also have to understand that you care about them. It’s a juggling act. Sarina will certainly be demanding of the England players, but I know she’ll also do it properly. They will feel her respect for them.”
After her time at UNC, Wiegman went on to win 104 caps for Holland and two Dutch league titles before retiring in 2003. She made more history as the first Dutch woman to coach a professional men’s side, at Sparta Rotterdam. But she had already built a managerial legacy with Dutch club ADO Den Haag. Robert Reijenga, the club’s former director, recalls the moment he was recruiting a manager for the club’s first women’s side in 2007: “My first thought was, ‘I have to take her, she’s the best I can get.’ ”
That year, Wiegman had managed amateur side Ter Leede to the title and now Reijenga was about to offer her a big break into professional coaching.
“She was surprised but, from the beginning, she was very enthusiastic,” Reijenga says. “Even with limited financial resources, she was very successful. Her skills were her high technical insight and her high level of discipline. She never says bad things about people, she is very diplomatic. She was an extraordinary coach. She is clearly the boss, but she is also the mother of the team. She knows how to handle young players. She has a lot of experience there, from working at a school [as a PE teacher prior to 2007]. She was honest with her players but she was also strong on discipline. She was a wonderful colleague.”
Wiegman’s progress was quick, guiding this side to a league and cup double by the end of the 2011-12 season, with further cup success following the year after that. By the summer of 2014, during the men’s World Cup, the KNVB [Royal Dutch Football Association] called Reijenga to request Wiegman’s services as the national assistant coach. She was promoted to become the Holland head coach just in time for their home Euros in 2017, where they upset the odds to win their first women’s silverware.
A World Cup final in 2019 followed, before she left the Dutch job at the end of this summer’s Olympics, where her side lost on penalties to the US in the quarter-finals. On Friday night, Wiegman takes charge of England for the first time as they host North Macedonia in a World Cup qualifier at St Mary’s. So far, since starting her new job at the beginning of the month, she has come across in a calm fashion, when in front of the English media.
On Sept 9, at the suggestion of Wiegman herself, so that she could get to know the press pack, she introduced herself at Wembley, making friendly, polite small talk, while giving little away. To relax away from coaching, she is partial to some occasional yoga, jokingly explaining "otherwise I'll become old too quickly" but it seems her primary focus is winning. Sources have described her as “extremely sensible”, “measured” and “matter-of-fact”. She is a mother of two daughters, who both play football. England fans will hope she can instil some of her “competitive fire” into a side about to play in a home Euros.
Win that tournament and, who knows, maybe she might be persuaded to have a beer.