Midfield gem Jackie Groenen was the fulcrum as it all crashed together in a perfect orange storm for the Netherlands at Euro 2017, and while she excels in the here and now, there’s more than just the iconic number 14 on her back cocooned in the warm glow of yesteryear.
The UEFA Women’s Euro stage was set this summer in the Netherlands, with a plethora of promotional touches to catch the eye, from train stations and stores, to the roadside around the tournament’s seven host cities. The national media were playing their part in the simmering anticipation and when it all began in Utrecht in mid-July there was a true sea of orange to be surfed as the home nation kicked off against Norway.
In only their fourth major tournament, the Oranje Leeuwinnen were a few names down the list when it came to pundits and fans’ top tips for the trophy. The Dutch would dazzle, though, not only stepping up to the platform provided by their incredible support, but dancing on it, louder and longer than anyone else.
It took the whole of Sarina Wiegman’s team to make it happen, and there are a more-than-worthy few who could be highlighted for their strong or sparkling impact, though Jackie Groenen’s composure and conviction on the right of a midfield three with Sherida Spitse and Daniëlle van de Donk meant she was essentially that ‘dime in the jukebox’. On that vintage theme, if her playing manner is a throwback to Dutch football in its purest essence, her preferred listening style of music isn’t bad either.
In fact, such a pastime is the jet bridge that takes 1.FFC Frankfurt’s former Chelsea youngster back to a place of serenity – even in those traditionally hyped-up pre-kick-off moments.
“I’d say music’s one of the bigger parts of my life,” the 22-year-old asserted. “I really, really love music so when I’m at home I’ve got this old record player and I put some music on.
“I think it’s my way to relax, so even when I listen before a game, I don’t have these songs that give me energy, because I have plenty of that! It’s really a way for me to not think about too much.”
A ball has generally been found at Jackie’s feet for as long as she can recall, though she emphasises the need for other colours to her palette. Tilburg-born, she was a high-level judo competitor until her mid-teens and is currently a fair distance down the line with her law studies.
Already setting foundations for a life beyond football, she carries a wherewithal to what she says that seemingly belies her age. While aware of how locking into a melody helps bring her some much-needed balance and tranquillity, there is also a spontaneous element to her music devotion, summed up best in how she loves to sing.
“It’s something that I used to do for fun and I was in this little school band. From there, I went on to university, and me and the girl who did the band, we’re still best friends.
“She’s like the musician and I don’t really do anything besides singing. She’s way better than me – mostly I just tag along, to be fair!
“It’s a lot different from the things I do in normal life, so I think it’s just a way for me to do something else, basically.”
Since 2011, each interview on here has invited the player to illustrate their personal bond with music, as well as a lot more besides. From both the men’s and women’s game, there have been many to feature who display genuine talent for performing or creating it, and Jackie slots very nicely into that particular category.
Just like how she played at the Euros, her singing voice is light and assured, with an enjoyable lack of haste. On the football field, the late and lamented pioneer that was Johan Cruyff ignited inspiration within her (hence her favouring the number 14), and similarly, you can rewind the decades to find her musical untouchables, too.
“I like to listen to some new music as well, but my playlist is mostly 70s and 80s kind of music; so I listen to a lot of Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson as well. I listen to music from nowadays, like Ed Sheeran, and sometimes I even listen to some country, so it’s a really wide range.
“I went to see Rod Stewart in the Ziggo Dome (Amsterdam) with my dad for his birthday, I went to Maroon 5 with my sister, I went to Meat Loaf, Rihanna. I actually really like to go to concerts if I have the time and I try to go as much as I can, but it’s very difficult to find a free night.
“Even if it’s a club or somewhere where they have live music, I like that and I always try to go.”
Conversant in Dutch, English and German – she understands some French ‘but that’s a bare minimum’ – Jackie says her English was helped hugely from having family based in the UK when she was growing up. That makes a difference of course, but a little credit is also due to a certain long-distance language tutor she had!
“My dad gave me a Meat Loaf CD when I was a kid and I really liked the English language, so to study it I took apart the song lyrics, like the little book that you used to get in CDs, and tried to translate it. I think it was ‘Bat Out of Hell,’ with like ‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’ and ones like that.”
Along with the odd, country-specific favourite like Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’ (’99 Red Balloons’) before Germany v Sweden in Breda, a Eurodance beat was never far away from the stadium speakers throughout this year’s Euros. The Netherlands’ co-captain at the tournament and one of Jackie’s midfield co-stars takes the lead with the team’s changing-room playlist, but it usually comes back to that ‘novelty’ theme in some way, encapsulated best by one track that Jackie says perfectly captured the atmosphere on their choreographed charge to glory.
“We always have Sherida (Spitse) as our team DJ, basically. We made up a list before the Euros and everyone said a couple of songs, but usually it’s Sherida deciding which songs are going to come on.
“I didn’t give any songs to the list because they’re not normal songs that girls would listen to in the changing room! If I had to name a song that reminds me of the Euros, it would definitely be the Dutch song where everybody jumps to the left and to the right (Snollebollekes ‘Links Rechts’), because it kind of just got into like a team song for us.
“It showed how much of a party it was as well and how many people got involved.”
Pointing out that she preferred to leave the changing-room dancing to Spitse and defender Mandy van den Berg, Jackie has treated her Frankfurt teammates to some of her vocal delights before. What if she had to professionally record a cover song, though, and with one (or more) current or former teammates to do it with her?
“I sung for the team the last time we went on a training camp, but I didn’t have to do the ‘welcome to the team’ sort of singing, so that’s good. I don’t really like to sing in public; I like to sing in the shower and for myself, but as soon as I have to do it for people I get really nervous!
“Football, I know I can do it, and I know I have the skills and the training. I’m not a trained singer, I just sing because I like to, so that makes it more nerve-racking than playing a game.
“Bella Linden, who’s at Birmingham now, she’s a good singer. I think it would be Bella (to record a cover version with); she’s really talented and I think our voices would mix well.
“I know Bella’s a big Justin Bieber fan so I think we’d go that way, but I’d rather do something different!”
A January feature on here, former Frankfurt midfielder Linden is in England now, in the FA Women’s Super League, as mentioned. That is where Jackie was too once upon a time, though it already feels like an age has passed since Chelsea unveiled their 19-year-old signing in February 2014.
While her technical proficiency was clear back then, particularly impressing Blues Ladies boss Emma Hayes, it may have been a bold prediction to say that she’d star in a major international tournament success at 22. When we look at the Jackie of back then, how is the version we see now different?
“Well, I’ve grown up a little bit, in the way that when I was at Chelsea, I was very young and it needed to go my way all the time. I don’t think I’ve changed that much, to be fair.
“I’m still the same person, I’m still me and I’m still putting a lot of energy into my career. I missed home a lot when I went to Chelsea.
“It was the first time I left home and it was a big step for me. It was a bit of a struggle in the beginning because it wasn’t something I was used to.
“I had to cook my own dinners, I had to do my own laundry and I’m very dependent on my family. I missed them a lot, and even now I’m getting older I still miss them a lot.
“I think in that way, Chelsea was the perfect club for me, because a lot of the girls were very supportive and helped me out. I had some family close by, so I used to visit them a lot.
“Besides that, I loved to go into London; I think London’s such a great city and I still miss it. When Frankfurt called, it was one of the things that I was actually sad about; that I was going to miss London.
“Even if I missed home I still wasn’t that far, so I could go home for a couple of days, find my peace and come back.”
During her time at Chelsea, which drew to a close with that Frankfurt move in June 2015, Jackie was studying law, which she continues to do through Tilburg University. She details how she sees it as laying down further roots for the day she stops weaving her way through a midfield.
“I’m still studying. Basically, I’m almost done for my Bachelor’s and then I start studying for my Master’s, so still got a lot of work, but it’s going well.
“It’s going slow, but it’s going well! Football now for me is number one – it’s my job, it’s what I get paid for – but I just like to have my studies on the side.
“I just like the idea of me finishing football and then I still have something to fall back on. I think it’s good to not get to that stage where you can’t play football and then don’t have anything else to do.
“Looking at the future, it’s good for me, and even though it’s busy, I just like to do it because it’s something else other than football. I started off doing human rights, so I’m still doing that, but now I’m doing study of contract law as well.
“I’m getting a bit older and more realistic and I think it might be a good thing to get into with a football club and do contracts.”
Euro 2017 was indeed her biggest stage to date, however there was a time when the 2016 Rio Olympics had been earmarked for Jackie’s huge international breakthrough, and not via football. She had competed in judo since childhood and her talent was easy to see, with a win at the European Cadet Championships in 2010 one of her standout feats.
While playing her football at FCR 2001 Duisburg, though, she was sidelined for quite some time and so something had to give, but the skills honed over her younger years have become permanent through practice.
“I was 16 when I had my last (judo) game. I think it helped me out in football a lot.
“My coaches in Germany knew I was still doing judo and they agreed to it, but I remember in the Dutch Championship, I think, I reached the semi-finals and then I broke my hip. That was the moment I had to decide, because I felt very bad about that; I was already under a professional contract and I was out for about six months.
“The club said ‘we can’t do that because it takes a lot of time,’ so I decided to go with football. I always tried to do both of them but as soon as I had to choose I already knew I was going to play football.
“It’s a physical thing because I feel very strong and I know how to use my body in the right way, but I think it’s a mental thing as well. Judo’s very stressful, because football is a team sport and if you make one mistake someone else can fix it, but in judo if you make one mistake you’re done.
“I think it’s something that I learned from very young so I try to not make too many mistakes. It’s the kind of concentration you need playing football; if you’re in the 60th minute sometimes it’s hard to concentrate and judo helped me out with that a lot.”
Jackie debuted for the Netherlands in early-2016 and as football fate would have it, her Euros appearance against Belgium in Tilburg this July came at a packed-out Koning Willem II Stadion, where her father (Jack Groenen, naturally…) and grandfather both spent time in their own careers. The beautiful game had been duly passed down to Jackie and her older sister, Merel, and Jackie played for a handful of boys’ clubs as a youngster, moving a step higher each time she changed teams.
Signing her first professional contract at SGS Essen, where Merel also played, she learned the game in what the football purists would deem the ‘right’ way, taking as many touches on the ball as possible and harnessing that water-tight relationship with it. Having now had English and German club football as an alternative, she notes that the Dutch way still feels quite different, commenting that the national team barely go to the gym when they are together.
The ‘Orange Lionesses’ certainly had to battle at the Euros, beating Denmark through a solitary Sherida Spitse penalty as one example, though the skill that glistened from Lieke Martens et al. would win approval from any true devotee of the game. Awarded Player of the Match in the quarter-final win over Sweden, Jackie takes it back to her feelings at the opener with Norway, as Dutch fans of all ages packed in to FC Utrecht’s Stadion Galgenwaard for a sell-out crowd of 21,732.
“I have to say that the first game was the biggest shock for me. We knew it was going to big, we knew the stadiums were sold-out, so that wasn’t a shock, but the first time we got to the stadium with the bus and we saw all the people walking to the stadium and everyone already waiting for us to arrive, that was the first time for me it showed how big it was going to be.
“I remember one of the girls when we got into the changing room saying like, ‘Girls, we’ve just got to enjoy this.’ It sounds very easy but that was the whole thing we did; we just enjoyed it, we just wanted to have fun.
“It wasn’t even about winning the matches; we just wanted to show Holland that we could play a decent kind of football, short passing, over the wings. I think it just all fit very well after the first game.
“It was kind of like a thing that you hope happens, and then all of a sudden, everything that you want happens. We got lucky with that maybe, but I think at the end we deserved to win it.”
Although they had yet to come close to breaking into the international game’s elite, the Netherlands married shrewd know-how with irrepressible positive energy on their way to the final with Denmark. With increasing wider interest, it perhaps could’ve weighed heavily on the shoulders, but Jackie says it never became that way.
“To be fair, by the time we reached the final, I was just very calm. By the time we got there, I just wanted to win; I just felt like ‘we might as well win it now!’
“When we got to the stadium in Enschede and they have the stairs to the stadium, these stairs were filled up with people like waving at us, and obviously you get a little bit of a chill. By the time we’d got that far I just wanted to win and I felt very confident in that as well.
“Even when we got behind 1-0, it was just like, ‘Okay, we’ll score two more,’ and that was the thing everyone had in the team, I think. I don’t even want to call it a self-confidence; it was just gonna happen, you know?
“I think (women’s football) got recognised as a true sport in Holland. Obviously when you start winning, everyone gets behind you, but even before the tournament there were a lot of people putting a lot of time into it, so it was a sign for us that people were taking it seriously and that gives you a good feeling.
“Before the tournament, the Dutch federation gave us our own logo, and it’s a small thing, but it’s a really big thing as well. It gives you the feeling that they know it’s a sport for us as well and they know we’re professional athletes and this is what we’re going to do.
“That gave us an extra motivation, I think.”
Nothing can beat the rush that comes with lifting the trophy, and to do that in a home tournament is dreamland stuff, but the media mixed zone in Enschede played host to some more unashamedly ecstatic celebrations after the 4-2 final win over Denmark. The whole Dutch team had beers in hand, there was a champion conga or two, and defender Anouk Dekker not realising she was spilling cider on the floor as she gleefully expressed herself in her interview responses perfectly summed up the human spirit of the moment.
The official word on the after-party was that it was to be at ‘a secret location’ – almost three months on, though, it’s probably safe for Jackie to share where they went!
“We went to Enschede; we just went into town. We kept the location secret so we could get our parents in without crowding the bar, but as soon as people found out we were there, you had the upstairs and downstairs and there were a lot of fans and it filled up.
“It was just nice to start off the celebrations with just our parents and family and people that you’ve missed a lot, because I think we’d been together as a team for eight-and-a-half weeks, so it was a long time. It was just nice to let the pressure go a little bit after working up to it for over a year.
“It got kind of crazy (with media and event bookings), especially the first two weeks after the tournament; I was fully booked every day. I only had seven days at home before I had to go back to Germany and I actually think I didn’t spend one day completely at home because I was always on the road and going somewhere.
“Then again, I think that’s a good thing; that was what we wanted to happen.”
Although she doesn’t recall seeing the trophy at the bar on the night of the final, Jackie does remember that it was almost left behind ahead of the team’s celebratory trip to Amsterdam! The achievement over those weeks was magnificent and deserved to the fullest, so understandably, eyes will be on them over the months to come to see if they really can now hang with the heavyweights.
Making it to only their second FIFA World Cup is paramount to that, and at the start of the qualifiers, Jackie is in that same midfield, with the forward trio of Martens, Shanice van de Sanden and Vivianne Miedema also intact. Sarina Wiegman’s charges beat Norway in Groningen last week with a 90th-minute Miedema cross going all the way in – Jackie thought she’d been held and was still appealing for a penalty until she realised!
While she is set on doing all she can to return Frankfurt to the UEFA Women’s Champions League they won in 2015, the absence of European competition for Niko Arnautis’ team this season has actually afforded her more time to study. Other than that (and the music thing…), you might find her taking in the odd drive-in movie, in amongst some segments of Frankfurt’s arts and culture.
As you’ll have seen by now, Jackie is not short on imagination, on the field or off it, and there is wanderlust burning within her, too.
“I love travelling, so I haven’t seen everything I want to see. I want to go to Thailand, and I haven’t seen a lot of America, so that’s one of the things I want to do, and maybe Spain or wherever.
“I like travelling and I love to see new things so it depends on what happens with my career. At the moment, my career comes first so it has to be a place with a good club.”
If she could have fit an additional cherry on the towering cake that was her tournament this summer, it would have been a goal of her own. Jackie did, however, get herself off the mark for this season straight away when she netted a right-footed daisy-cutter from outside the box in Frankfurt’s opening 2-0 win over 1. FC Köln, and you can bet she’d rack up a few efforts in this fantasy game that concludes our conversation.
The destination here is the 5-a-side arena, so we just need four current or former teammates Jackie would be confident having by her side in such a scene. She opted not to take any from the national team, so here instead is a little sample of the many club teammates who’ve brightened up her young career to date.
“Margie would be in goal, Marie Hourihan, who I used to play with at Chelsea. She’s one of my best friends.
“Then I’d put in (Dzsenifer) Marozsán (midfield), because I’d want to win! I’d put in, let me think…Laura Bassett (defence), just because she’s amazing.
“She and Rachel Williams really looked after me when I was at Chelsea. I’d go for Vanessa Wahlen (defence/midfield) – she’s a German player at Gladbach and she’s basically one of my best friends since I started off in Germany, so she’s been there throughout my career.”
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