In part two of this exclusive series, Fiorentina’s Tessel Middag tells us how it all started. We take a step back in time and also a slight look to the future.
Diary of a Young Girl
Middag grew up close to the Amstel river in the canal covered city of Amsterdam. While her home country has since become one of the strongest nations in women’s football – like many players – she started off as a young girl playing in boys’ teams.
“I was born in 1992, and even though it’s not that long ago, in Amsterdam there weren’t many girls playing football. I loved football – my earliest memories are of playing football at school and for my local club.
“I joined when I was four years old and it was always with boys. I played in boys’ teams until the age of 18 and then I moved to senior women’s football. Growing up I played football on the streets almost every day and with my local team.”
Growing up in the Dutch capital, there was only ever one team a football fan was going to support. The team named after a Greek hero of the Trojan War.Embed from Getty Images
“There was no women’s football on television or in the newspapers back then. I was actually 14 when I found out that Holland had a women’s national team.
“So my idols growing up were male, and growing up in Amsterdam my team was Ajax. The big talents coming through were Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van Der Vaart.”
“They were attacking midfielders and I also used to play as a No.10, so they were the players I looked up to. From the age of 14-15, I started to be aware of some female names.
“Vera Pauw was the national coach at that time. We had Daphne Koster and Anouk Hoogendijk, who were pretty established names when women’s football became more popular. Slowly every year, the visibility of women’s football in Holland grew and it exploded after the euros in 2017.”
Middag studied history at the University of Amsterdam, and was able to combine this with her love of football. For her Bachelor’s thesis, she did a lot of research into the beginnings of the women’s game in her native country.
“I was still playing for Ajax at that time and living in Amsterdam, so when it came to sources it was easier to focus on Holland. When football came across the pond, at first it was an elite sport for men and then slowly women started playing it.”
The Age Of Innocence
“In the 1920’s and 30’s it gained some momentum and attracted more and more spectators, until 1938,” Middag explained. “That’s when the Dutch FA banned women’s football, just like what happened in England.Embed from Getty Images
“It was only in 1971 that the ban was lifted, but women’s football would still take another 30 years to take off. It’s such a recent process, women’s professional football, that we’re a part of history almost.”
Pride And Prejudice
While things have certainly improved since those early days, there is still a long way to go, especially in Italy.
“Here we’re still amateurs officially, according to the law,” Middag said. “This makes it possible for players to go abroad any time they want. The clubs can’t keep you which is a strange situation.
“Luckily it will be changing soon but we still have some steps to take. The fact we play on artificial turf is another thing that hopefully in the future will change. We can learn from England where the training grounds are in such good condition.
“For me as a player, it’s not about how much money I earn. It’s more about the facilities and how you are regarded by the federation and the clubs themselves. I think a lot of clubs and countries are still figuring out where they see the women’s teams.
“In an ideal situation, men’s and women’s football would be regarded equally, not in terms of salaries, but facilities. Access to good professional gyms, nutritionists, all the things that are part of a professional organisation and that’s not the case in many teams at the moment.”
Things Fall Apart
Thankfully, these days we now have the World Cup and European Championship tournaments for women too. Unfortunately, Middag’s two long absences due to injury meant missing out on a lot of playing time with both Man City and West Ham.
It also resulted in her having to sit out two major competitions with her national team.
“It was very disappointing, especially the Euros in Holland,” she admitted. “There’s not going to be another opportunity like that in my playing career, to play in a tournament in front of your home fans.
“I have to say it took me quite a while to recover from that mentally, not just from the injury itself. I got injured in May 2017, a month before the tournament started. The timing of it all was very dramatic.Embed from Getty Images
“It was really looking hopeful in terms of having a starting spot and then came the disappointment of tearing my ACL. It is one of the worst injuries because it takes such a long time to recover from. That was a blow in itself, but then to miss out on the Euros too…
“As weird as it may sound, the fact that we won the Euros just added to the disappointment. I not only missed out on the tournament, but a gold medal too. They then went to see the King and the Prime Minister, and they went on the canals where massive crowds of people cheered them. It was pretty harsh to miss out on.”
Living To Tell The Tale
“The second time was a little bit different, or better, from a mental point of view. I got injured in the summer of 2018 just after I made my comeback, so I knew it would take another year to recover well. Which meant that I knew straight away the World up was unrealistic, so I had more time to prepare for that.
“I tried to spin it in a way that I could still be a part of it somehow. The mode I found was to do some commentary on Dutch TV and one game for German television which was pretty challenging. To do a live commentary in another language, which I had studied for six years in school, but still it wasn’t very active.”
“That was like a challenge, a game almost. I tried to use that in a positive way, I could be more like a fan almost during that tournament rather than thinking that it should be me.”
Those two long spells out of the game probably meant that the fans in England didn’t get to see Middag at her best.
“That’s something that I’m not happy about but which I have to accept,” she admitted. “Also when I moved to England, I had just played a full season with Ajax, but England still had a winter competition, so I didn’t really have a summer break.
“Then in January we started a spring season. A short season leading up to the Euros. I feel like I played some good games for Man City, but I think with a good break and then starting a new season I could have brought out more. Also of course, every time you move to a new country you need some time to adjust.
“Especially going to Man City with the training intensity and the amount of time and work in the gym, which was also more than I was used to at Ajax. So I guess I’m afraid that the people of England didn’t get to see the best of me.”
We Should All Be Feminists
Another aspect of the women’s game which affects so many players, is the fact that they are usually on short-term contracts with their clubs.
“It’s starting to happen more, its part of professionalizing the game, part of that is longer term contracts,” Middag divulged. “Especially in England, but also in Holland too, you see that happening a bit more now and I’m sure it will also happen in Italy.
“It’s difficult at the moment because we still have an amateur status but as soon as that changes we will see longer term contracts. On the other hand, for me as a player it gives me a bit more freedom to make a decision every summer.
“Even though it does bring a lot of stress and insecurity with it, it also means you’re a free agent if you don’t extend your contract, which can be a positive in some ways.”
Although Middag still has a good few years ahead of her as a player, it doesn’t stop her thinking about what life will be like once she does hang up her boots.
“That’s a question that’s been going through my mind a lot in the last few years, something I haven’t found a conclusive answer to yet,” she said. “One thing that I know for sure is that I would like to get a Master’s degree and I’m working on that now.
“If you asked me that a couple of years ago I would have said I’m not sure that I want to stay in football, because I’ve spent a big part of my life already in this sector. I want to see what else is out there. I’m also interested in politics, and being a journalist actually would be an honourable job for me.Embed from Getty Images
“But on the other hand I do have a lot of experience and contacts now in football. It would give me some purpose if I could improve facilities for the new generation of women footballers. This could be in the capacity of a board member somewhere.
“I could also get my coaching badges although I’m not sure if I see myself as a future head coach. But to be able to coach young girls would give me some satisfaction.”
Away from football, Middag spends a lot of her time reading and not just for study purposes. Having both parents involved in the book trade, (her father is an essayist, columnist and translator) has given her a love of literature from a young age.
“The last two books I read were Dutch books about the Second World War. I’ve also recently read HHhH, by French writer Laurent Binet. One of my favourite authors is Chimamanda Ngozi, I read a lot of her books which I really enjoy.
“A friend in England gave me a lot of George Orwell books, I really admire the way he writes and his clarity on complex topics. I read a lot, lots of different writers.”
While Middag may be well known to our readers from her time in England, how would she convince people to give the Italian league a chance?
“What I would say to people as an argument to start reading your articles, and to follow the Italian league, is simply that we play some good football,” she stated. “There’s a lot of good competition between the clubs.
“I also feel that we play on the ground a bit more than some games in England. I watched Chelsea vs Arsenal recently, but not all of the games are of such high quality.
“Italy is also attracting foreign players like me to the game, at Fiorentina we have Cláudia Neto, who I really admire, and Louise Quinn, and we also have two Danish players, so I think its an interesting league to follow.
“I think it will only grow further in the next few years, especially when we get professional status. With more investment the facilities will get better which will attract other players who might want to give this league a try, so it’s interesting to follow and to see how far it can go. Plus we have a lot of big clubs from the men’s side that now have women’s teams, like Juventus and Roma.”
The Time Machine
To finish up, as Middag is a student and lover of history, she tried to think of an era in the past where she would like to have lived.
“As a woman, not a lot of eras were pretty great unless you were a royal or had some elite status. As an historian it would be amazing for maybe one day or a small period of time to be in a Roman village to see how the Romans organized their society.
“Maybe to be a knight for one day in the Middle Ages. There are a lot of different eras that are of interest to me. Also there was that short period of growth in women’s football in Holland in the 1920s. It would have been very interesting to have been one of the trailblazers in those first teams.
“But if you ask which era I would like to live in then there’s no other option than to say the present.”
The Colour Purple
“To be able to be a professional footballer, to be able to live from playing football, and to do that in a city like Florence, I’m very happy right where I am at the moment.”