Lieke Martens: Dutch daz­zler

Dutch for­ward Lieke Martens may have had doubters, but win­ning Euro 2017 and join­ing the big­gest club in the world has put them firmly in their place

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Win­ning the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship on home soil must be a spe­cial feel­ing (al­though FFT wouldn’t know), but throw a glut of in­di­vid­ual awards and a dream switch to Barcelona into the mix and you are talk­ing about a near-per­fect year. Mov­ing to Spain will cer­tainly not have daunted 24-year-old Nether­lands star Lieke Martens, not least as she had al­ready played in four dif­fer­ent coun­tries in a se­nior ca­reer that started only eight years ago.

The for­ward was a part of the KNVB’S ‘sport schools’ pro­gramme and had played along­side boys un­til she broke through into the first team of SC Heeren­veen Vrouwen aged just 16.

A spell at Vvv-venlo was fol­lowed by stints in Bel­gium (at Stan­dard Liege) and Ger­many (Duis­burg) be­fore she won a move to one of the supreme com­pe­ti­tions of the women’s game – the Da­mallsven­skan in Swe­den. Her trans­fer to Kop­par­bergs/gote­borg gave her the chance to play with, and learn from, the Dutch na­tional team’s all-time top scorer, Manon Melis. Not that she needed much guid­ance.

“Lieke’s a great player for us and has ev­ery­thing that a good foot­ball player should have,” said then-man­ager Ste­fan Rehn. “Her game play, speed and tech­nique are good and she’s good with both feet.”

Strong show­ings over two sea­sons meant that, at 22, the speedy left winger was signed by reign­ing cham­pi­ons and record Da­mallsven­skan win­ners FC Rosen­gard, where she teamed up with one of the great­est play­ers in the women’s game – five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. But Martens was grow­ing into a star in her own right, catch­ing the eye with her Cham­pi­ons League per­for­mances.

“When Marta left Rosen­gard [in early 2017], she left very big boots to fill,” says jour­nal­ist So­phie Law­son. “But Martens stepped up in a way that few oth­ers could and pro­duced some of the best at­tack­ing foot­ball seen any­where in Europe.”

“She hit the form of her life, silky smooth in all that she did. Yet when you watched her on the ball for Rosen­gard, there was a sense that she was fin­ish­ing off an ap­pe­tiser and hun­gry to dig into an in­ter­na­tional main course over the sum­mer.”

On the back of an im­pres­sive sea­son with Rosen­gard, Martens came into the Eu­ros well aware of the ex­pec­ta­tions that ac­com­pany be­ing one of the star turns for the host na­tion. But un­like the men’s side, the women have been more than ca­pa­ble of match­ing ex­pec­ta­tions.

“I have al­ways been a follower,” Martens told Voet­bal In­ter­na­tional ahead of the tour­na­ment. “[When I was younger] the boys were sit­ting to­gether in a dress­ing room; I was in a ref­eree’s room. They cel­e­brated vic­tory; I was al­ready wait­ing in the can­teen. I have al­ways been the out­sider, a shy girl who just said noth­ing. I’m still not yet a player who wants to lead from the front or stand in the cen­tre.”

Martens may be a quiet, calm pres­ence on the pitch, but her tal­ent is such that she drags her team-mates along re­gard­less. She is adept at twist­ing and turn­ing to ex­plode out of tight spaces, thanks largely to many years of play­ing foot­ball on her vil­lage streets with boys who were big­ger and more phys­i­cal. The en­dur­ing im­age of Martens dur­ing Euro 2017 was her bound­ing away from two Bel­gian de­fend­ers, af­ter a Cruyff turn that sent them crash­ing into one an­other.

There was no ques­tion that she was the player of the tour­na­ment: not only did she daz­zle with her skills and ef­fort­lessly slalom past the op­po­si­tion, she also de­liv­ered when it mat­tered most – scor­ing in the quar­ter-fi­nal win over Swe­den as well as in the fi­nal against Den­mark.

As a child, Martens had looked up to play­ers like Rafael van der Vaart and Ronald­inho and wanted to play for Van der Vaart’s old club, Ajax, who formed a women’s side only in 2012. How­ever, this sum­mer she was of­fered the chance to join the club where her Brazil­ian idol spent his most suc­cess­ful years.

Martens had been one of the best play­ers on the pitch when Barça beat Rosen­gard in last sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nals and, along­side Manch­ester City striker Toni Dug­gan and Paris Saint-ger­main for­ward Natasa An­donova, formed a hat-trick of mar­quee sign­ings by the Cata­lans this sum­mer.

Now Martens is set­tling into life in Barcelona. She’s started to learn Span­ish and is also pre­par­ing for a course in mar­ket­ing and foot­ball busi­ness at the city’s Jo­han Cruyff In­sti­tute.

It has been an in­cred­i­ble year, al­though there’s been one sour note. In its in­fi­nite wis­dom, FIFA sched­uled its re­branded ‘The Best’ awards cer­e­mony to clash with a round of 2019 Women’s World Cup qual­i­fiers, mean­ing Martens and many of her peers were un­able to go to Lon­don.

“This is a very spe­cial mo­ment in my life – one which I would’ve liked to have ex­pe­ri­enced,” Martens ad­mit­ted on be­ing crowned The Best FIFA Women’s Player. “It is a pity they’ve timed it as such.”

The fact FIFA de­nied Martens the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence such a proud oc­ca­sion hints at the per­cep­tion of the women’s game from the very body ex­pected to run it, though Martens isn’t dwelling on the neg­a­tive.

“I am now a ‘kind of well-known Ned­er­lan­der,’” said Martens. “That means you’re an ex­am­ple for the younger girls, too. It is pre­cisely that which gives me sat­is­fac­tion. When I first wanted to play foot­ball, I was laughed at. I had no fe­male role mod­els. That I my­self am an ex­am­ple now is crazy, and above all very spe­cial.”

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