Vera Pauw – Interview

Vera Pauw has made a mark in the history of Women’s Football WorldWide. Vera set a number of unique records in Dutch football as she was the first woman who played abroad, the first woman who earned her professional football coaching diploma, one of the first women to serve on the Technical Committee of the FIFA (together with Sylvie Beliveau) and, finally, help lay the foundation of the Dutch Premier League for Women.

Vera, born in Amsterdam, played for five clubs during her career, including four in the Netherlands and one in Italy. In her own country, she joined SV Brederodes, VV Vreeswijk, Puck Deventer and Saestum. In Italy she played for the professional team of CF Modena.

Throughout her playing career, Vera was developing her skills as a coach and after retirement moved into coaching full time, her first major coaching roles was to be the Head Coach of the Scottish Women’s Team.

After a very successful international career which saw her travelling the World, Vera became the Head Coach of the South African Women’s Football Team in March 2014…and in October 2015 the team qualified for the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

Congratulations for the recent qualification for Rio 2016 – it must be a fantastic feeling for all of you! How does this achievement rank in your career highlights so far?

The top! Even higher emotions than when we qualified the first time or when we reached the semi finals with The Netherlands because this means so much more to the players.? And not only these players but also the girls coming after them who now have something to aspire to and things will change because of this. Today at the press conference it was announced that they have 1 million Rand to share with each other, which makes a huge difference in the struggle of their lives! Now they can get petrol to travel places, and to be able to put food on the table?that is something that is really already an immediate impact. But what I do hope is that these players will get recognised all over the World because when they qualified for the Olympics in 2012, they did not have the [football coaching] programme that they have had now over the last year and a half. I hope what we are going to show the world is that they can add something to the big teams. These football players are so mobile and so skilful and quick in their decision making. Although they are tiny and they are not physically big, they solve this problem in a way that many European teams and US based teams don’t. So it could be a great addition to the current top domestic teams in the World. I am sure that many of these players will earn contracts. There is no doubt for me because finally people will see the level of these players.

How do you think that impact on the women football team will impact the rest of the women in the country? Women they may not play sport – will that impact them?

Well we have our sponsor Sasol (a petroleum and chemical company) who have chosen Banyana Banyana for a reason. They chose them because we have a huge impact on girls in general as our players are role models. Sasol sponsor the projects that empower women across the Country. For example, they also support women in mine working, or educational programmes for girls and they have chosen Banyana Banyana because we can be the window for all those projects and make a difference for the life of kids. These players are heroines already and it has already given girls the encouragement that life can be different and they can develop to strong people, so now they can go for education and they make something special of their lives. That is a huge side affect of qualifying that many many girls and women in South Africa see that things can be different.

You must have been under some immense pressure as the Head Coach knowing that you needed to win the game and the impact it would have on the players and the Country if you did or did not win. 

Of course the pressure was on my shoulders and it was also emotional pressure on my shoulders. The explosion of emotion that we experienced after the final whistle is something that you cannot describe! It was the bond between staff and players – it was just a huge explosion of emotion after the road that we had to take to get here. Beating Equatorial New Guinea in Equatorial New Guinea in front of a crowd of about 40,000 was something so special. We were so ready, because of all the disappointments that we had to take in the lead up, some were just being unlucky, some because we were not being good enough, but also many times because of unfair play we had to take it all on our shoulders and we had to change things.

That emotion that we felt afterwards was just phenomenal, nothing can describe it.? It even ran above the level of qualifying for the first time ever for a final tournament with the Netherlands after 25 years of fighting. Because for us [European Coaches] it’s just a luxury isn’t it, but for these players it is a key issue in making life better and in changing their lives. It’s the consciousness of that that makes this explosion of emotions.

I have seen some great pictures of the players throwing you up in the air after the game!

Yeah and did you see the one where they jumped on my back? It was so special and not many chances you see a player get to jump on the back of a coach! But it shows the complete trust in each other; it was like ?Hey Coach, be with us! so yeah for me that described the feeling that we have for each other.

How did you deal with the upset of not qualifying for the Women?s World Cup and ensure that your players would keep their heads up in order to qualify for the Olympics?

I think it was about knowing that their lives would stay the same if they did not go on with this project. That made me stay and the players had spoken with the President of the football association and asked for me to stay. My contract actually ended at that moment, but the whole management wanted me to do this job and go to Rio. I think that made us strong and made us lose any negative thoughts we had. We were not strong enough yet to have got to the World Cup, as well as everything else that was happening around us. And now, whatever had happened we knew that we would qualify for the Olympics. We really did deep down in side, there was confidence all over, there was nobody with any doubt that we were going to do it. I think that helped us through those difficult moments in the game.

Do you think that that self belief in the team came from you?

It came from the whole process together, I have some fantastic staff around me. I’ve got players who are so special in their whole approach of life and the place that football has in their hearts. Every training session and every game they still get better. I think it was the whole support that we now have from the management and that everybody did everything to create the atmosphere of self belief. And of course you [the coach] have a huge role in it, I never stopped believing in these players because what they bring, I have never experienced before. It is a mutual respect towards players, a respect towards people and the determination that we constantly had. We were treating our opponents as best we could, we were treating ourselves the best we could. The South African Football Association for example made it happen that we could fly a charter to Equatorial New Guinea, which was amazing! And that’s because the flights we would have to take otherwise would have stopped us from qualifying. There was no way that you could have travelled the way you have to travel and qualify with that in our legs. Stopping for a nights sleep, having to transfer in Ethiopia, staying over in Malabu and finally getting to Bata the following day.

What will be your main priorities as a team leading up to Rio?

I do hope we have the opportunity to play major countries because we are at the Olympics and the major countries will hopefully want to play us. We need the experience at the top level to grow and be significant and not just be a team that takes part. We are determined and we are going to give everything to grow towards being able to give everybody a game. So we need the help from those countries who want to play us because if they don’t want to play us we cannot grow. It is up to them to help our players because we have so much to offer. We have great facilities and training camps for them, we have great opportunities to travel ourselves, we have an attacking, creative game to offer and we have players that offer something that European players do not. So that is something that I want to ask the top countries – please play us and give us the opportunity to develop.

Can you tell us how your journey of coaching began?.how did the transition from playing to becoming a coach happen?

Actually it was very smooth for me. I did my coaching license when I was 21 / 22 and I did my UEFA A license when I was 24.  I have been involved in youth development coaching since 1986 / 1987. During my career as a player I had to work to earn money, so I worked in sport and did something that would help me in the future. I worked for the Dutch FA whilst I was playing and that helped me to develop an insight into coaching and teaching. The moment I started to coach after my playing career ended – I was ready for it and I used that experience that I had gained over 12 years. So the transition from playing to coaching was very smooth, it was not a shock like some players have.

My first job as Head Coach was in Scotland. My husband Bert van Lingen, became assistant coach of Dick Advocaat at Glasgow Rangers FC and because I was already involved with coaching at FIFA and UEFA, the Director of Scotland, Craig Brown, came to our hotel whilst we were still house hunting and asked me not to take up any other roles because the opportunity of Technical Director and National Coach for the women’s team in Scotland was coming up. He said that of course I had to go through the process of applying with everyone else, but he believed that I will be the one that they wanted. So that’s how my coaching career started, 21st May 1998 was my last game of playing and I started in August 1998 in Scotland coaching the national team.

You have had a huge cultural change going from Scotland to South Africa!? Are the cultures different with regards to the respect female football players and coaches receive?

On one side it is different and one side it is not. I was a Coach and Technical Director in Scotland and Holland and then two years in Russia and now I am in South Africa. There are a lot of differences but there is also a lot of common factors. You have to keep fighting for women’s football in all countries, the differences are more coaching differences.

I receive so much respect here in South Africa. Even though we did not qualify for the World Cup, there were people stopping me in the street to thank me and begging me to stay. There were homeless people knocking on the window saying please coach don’t leave us!, that is something so special and I have not experienced that anywhere else in the World. Today the sponsors have promised R500,000 to share between the players and SAFA has matched that amount. And that shows the respect for us all. Although we cost money and we do not bring in money, people respect what we do and that is fantastic.

That is a huge amount of pressure on your shoulders?

I don’t perceive it as pressure, I perceive it as a chance to be part of a journey which changes lives and that is something that I am so grateful for. Because it is so special to be part of this.