Claudia van den Heiligenberg interview: Out of the shadows to catch an Oranje fire
After an unexpected introduction to international football, Claudia van den Heiligenberg was part of history as the Netherlands took their place for the first time at the top table of the women’s game at Euro 2009. Seven years on from that semi-final showing, the FF USV Jena left-sider is hoping a career in which she’s danced from inhibition to liberation could still hold a homecoming encore under those familiar lights of the tournament stage.
Reaching the last 16 before a narrow exit to reigning champions Japan, the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada was the third major tournament to feature the Netherlands. It has become rather more commonplace to see their name at the big competitions and next time it will be their party as the 2017 European Championship takes place with a Dutch backdrop.
The Oranje Leeuwinnen’s debut had come in Finland at Euro 2009 and will always be reflected upon as a huge checkpoint along the track of women’s football in the Netherlands. At that tournament, they exceeded expectations and then some, successfully negotiating the group and going on to the final four under Vera Pauw.
In that squad was Claudia van den Heiligenberg, a left-sided player who now sits just a couple of caps from a century in international play. The rapid winger/full-back cruelly missed out on last year’s World Cup through injury after initially being named in Roger Reijners’ 23 and she is currently working her way back from a long patellar tendinitis layoff.
A return with her German club, FF USV Jena, is the immediate focus, but it would be inaccurate to suggest the thought of recapturing the rush of 2009 in front of a home crowd next summer isn’t also stored away. The way the Dutch team upset the balance as debutants back then brought them to a new audience, and although they’d qualified through a playoff with Spain, their participation had a ‘wildcard entry’ feel according to Claudia.
“You’re like the underdog, the unknown Holland squad. Each game we won and went further, it was a big surprise and I guess we got more attention of the people back home.
“When we got through the group stage the big channels wanted to put it on TV. It got bigger and bigger and the atmosphere in the team was so good; like we were unbeatable and we just wanted it so bad and we fought for everything we got.
“You saw it in the semi-final when we lost (to England) near the end of the second half (of extra-time) – Jill Scott, I can remember, headed it in. It was crazy when we came back and so many people were writing us on Facebook and everyone knew about it.”
Coming on in the second half of the quarter-final with France as the Netherlands won 5-4 on penalties, Claudia was among the subs for the semi defeat to England but would secure the starting left-back position at Euro 2013. The 31-year-old has lifted a number of trophies at club level, including three Eredivisie titles with AZ Alkmaar, where her teammates included Wales and Seattle Reign midfield star Jess Fishlock.
A former Ajax standout, Claudia is now representing Jena in what is of course a highly competitive and reputable league, although her belief has been something of a slow-burner, as she details when contemplating what advice she would give to the up-and-coming version of herself if she could go back now.
“I would say to have more faith in myself, to be more confident. I would look in the mirror and tell myself I’m a good player, because I really didn’t know I could make the national team and I was really surprised when I got the first call.
“When I went there I was telling my mom like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not gonna be good enough, but it’s gonna be fun anyway.’ When I get there I’m looking up to everyone and I knew who everyone was, then I get the call, ‘Ok, you’re in the squad.’
“I’m like, ‘What? How is that possible?’
“I was not even playing in the highest league in Holland so it was kind of special.”
With one-time Dutch international defender Mary van de Meer her mother, Claudia also followed in her footsteps with her club side as she began with Alkmania. It naturally took its time, but she learned to free up her thinking as she went along in the game, experiencing its varying fortunes and becoming exposed to different outlooks on and off the field.
That increased sense of ease began to be somewhat replicated in her behaviour in the locker room, tying in with her strength of feeling for music.
“Well now I can be kind of loose with music and dance; I’m not that nervous now. When I was younger I was really focused, just sitting, waiting for the game to start and just my mind on the game.
“Now I can be more loose up until when the first whistle blows and then I’m just there. I really like music – it’s too bad I don’t sing that well!
“Most of the time when I’m at home I play music and kind of dance around my apartment. When I get the opportunity I always put on music in my car.
“My all-time favourite is still Beyonce; her music is inspiring but also she’s a great artist, like the total package. Besides her, I kind of like every music; from typical Dutch music to rap, everything.
“I also like 80s, the old kind of tunes.”
With Roger Reijners’ five-year reign coming to an end, the ex-FC Twente, Sparta Rotterdam and ADO Den Haag midfielder Arjan van der Laan became the Netherlands’ new head coach last September. In March, the team competed in the UEFA Olympic Qualifying Tournament on home soil, beating Switzerland but losing to Norway and drawing with Sweden as the one remaining place at Rio went to the latter.
The ‘Lionesses’ have recently been in Atlanta to take on the world champions USA in a friendly, going ahead through Liverpool forward Shanice van de Sanden before the Americans came back to win 3-1. There were 15,652 at the Georgia Dome for that one, and whether there are points or tournament progression at stake or not, Claudia tells how a lively beat goes along with the Dutch squad.
“We have our captain, Mandy (van den Berg), and Sherida (Spitse), they play the most music and it’s typical Dutch, kind of carnival songs. Whenever we play with the national team it’s crazy; it’s like a party in the locker room, but when the game starts we’re all there.”
For any team, whether club or country, to be able to mix it with the best of their competitors it is necessary to have the players who can find that sparkle to light up a game. As well as LSK playmaker Sherida Spitse and goal-getters like Seattle Reign’s Manon Melis and FC Bayern’s Vivianne Miedema, Arsenal midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk is another potential Dutch match-winner.
The 25-year-old was the player to feature on here in her own music/football interview last February and she described the ‘contagious’ effect that the singing of defensive duo Mandy van den Berg and Dyanne Bito has on the team. Featuring on here a year earlier, forward Lieke Martens had a story to share as she recalled how the team would talk to a Dutch radio station while competing at Euro 2013.
The station would ask the player they were interviewing to sing the national anthem to finish the conversation, but with full-back Bito the outstanding vocalist, the player would secretly give her the phone instead!
Claudia remembers it with a laugh as she fills in the details of how it went.
“Well there was just one time and Sherida had to do the interview and they were roomies together so when they asked to do the national anthem she just passed the phone to Dyanne. They were all stunned, like, ‘Woah, that’s really good, when you’re done with football you can always go with singing!’
“After it, we posted on Twitter like, ‘Okay, we got you guys, it was another person!’”
The women’s game is most definitely not short on players with a distinct vocal or instrumental flair and a beautiful characteristic of both football and music is how it can take you around the world, as a performer, a player, a coach or a fan. Claudia proved just that when recounting the pros she’s seen live.
“In Amsterdam I went three times to see Beyonce, one time I went to see Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, and in Mexico I saw David Guetta, and also I saw him in Ibiza. I really like Rihanna’s music but the times that I heard her live she didn’t sound that good.
“Her songs and her performance, though, I really like and I have a lot of songs from her on my phone and iPod. There’s a Dutch artist, Anouk, and two years ago I think, she was at Sound Festival, Euro Sound Festival.
“She sings in English but I think she’s an amazing singer.”
Prior to her three Eredivisie crowns with AZ, Claudia had lifted the Hoofdklasse with Ter Leede as part of a league and cup double in 2007. That was before the professional structure came in and the top-level system would be reorganised again for the 2012/13 season, with the BeNe League created.
The competition comprised both Dutch and Belgian sides and Claudia went into the inaugural campaign with the Netherlands’ Telstar. She would play the final two seasons of the league with Ajax, finishing 3rd in each, and although she no longer gets to compete amongst their club teams she always has a Belgian reminder to find if she goes far enough back through her single collection!
“I think back then you had the CD with just the one song on it, like the one hit, and my first one was probably Milk Inc. or something like that, so that’s way back!”
That kind of Eurodance bass is far from out of place in the Dutch locker room, and in her first season in Germany in 2015/16, Claudia added her musical judgement to the mix. Although she is still awaiting her return to action, a high-tempo track from across the Atlantic remains her main motivational song of choice.
“‘All I Do is Win’ (DJ Khaled) – if you play a game that’s the kind of song that gets you in the mood. Last season, I actually played the songs but at the moment I’m injured so we just let everyone play their music.
“Most of the times when I play the music I try to be open and let everyone choose so it makes everyone happy.”
It’s a party for the Dutch team when they are together, and amongst the nationalities at Jena – which includes Portuguese, New Zealand, Czech and Belgian – they also have somebody running the show for the dressing-room dance moves – a Canadian defender.
“Our ‘Queen Bey’ in our locker room is Rachel Melhado, for sure! At Ajax, we had Eshly (Bakker) who always had the songs on; she had more like remixes.”
Among the silverware Claudia has got her hands on in her career is the domestic cup back home, the KNVB Beker voor Vrouwen. She was a winner with AZ in 2011 and then again three years later with Ajax.
It took a 2-1 win over PSV/FC Eindhoven to achieve the latter, although the celebratory spirit at Ajax wasn’t only saved for those big occasions.
“With Ajax we had a night out and we had karaoke. With karaoke you have to do at least one song but I think I did three.
“I don’t think people like to hear me sing, because I’m not that good at it!”
It always helps to have teammates to back you up at different moments out on the field and the same can be said for karaoke! There have been some players through the decades who have taken it a few steps further by actually releasing a song or more to the public, so what if Claudia was to do the same, but to cover a song with any teammate?
“Well at the moment I would do one with Rachel Melhado and we would do something by Rihanna.”
That sense of togetherness is perhaps the most crucial part you miss as a player when you are out of action. Even if you are around the training ground and at the games you can still feel detached when there’s no play on a personal level to look forward to.
Claudia made the switch last year to Jena, a club in the central German state of Thuringia, and although her injury road feels a decidedly long and winding one at the moment, she maintains belief in the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
“I’m on the way for four months now, I have patellar tendinitis. It’s kind of a tough injury, it’s not healing really fast so I can’t really say when I’m going to be fit; maybe it’s in one month, maybe it’s a lot longer.
“I hope to be back really soon but in the moment it’s going really slow. It changes every day: sometimes I’m really positive and training really hard, the other days it’s just like depressing, because if you train you want to see it getting better and you want to see the results.
“I’m not always seeing it but I think it is getting better, just really slow. There are days that I’m not that motivated but I try to stay positive.”
With Jena finishing 6th in the 12-team Frauen-Bundesliga last term, Christian Franz-Pohlmann is embarking upon his first full season in charge, after taking over in April following five years at FSV Gütersloh 2009. He replaced Daniel Kraus at the helm, who headed to divisional rivals SGS Essen, and would of course love to improve upon Jena’s 2015/16 performance, which saw them finish within a point of SC Freiburg in 4th.
Experienced New Zealand striker Amber Hearn’s 11-goal haul put her joint-fourth in the league’s leading scorers last year, although the team were some 15 points back from 1.FFC Frankfurt in 3rd. The Bundesliga is rightfully regarded as one of the world’s best in the women’s game, housing premier playing talent and some of the strongest UEFA Champions League sides.
Many would agree that the hope for any league is to have a relatively even landscape, with as many as possible capable of finishing in the leading positions. Last season, Jena had mixed fortunes against the top two, suffering an 8-0 home loss to runners-up VfL Wolfsburg on the opening day but later winning 2-1 at their place, while they held champions FC Bayern 1-1 before losing 5-1 away.
They have started 2016/17 with a 2-0 success at Bayer Leverkusen after a double from Czech international striker Lucie Voňková, also losing 1-0 at home to Bayern most recently, on September 10th. As one of the league’s ‘chasing pack,’ Claudia feels even just remaining in the top half would be commendable progress.
“I think kind of the same as last year; we need to face reality, we’re not like Bayern Munchen where they have loads of good players and individual players. I think we’re just going to try to be in the middle somewhere, it would be really cool if it’s going to be better than that, but I think it’s going to be a tough season and we’re trying to stay in the Bundesliga.
“I think that’s the first goal but it would be nice if we could perform like we did last year. It’s a crazy league where everyone can win against everyone and that’s what I like about the German league.”
Three years ago, Claudia was a starter in each of the Netherlands’ games at Euro 2013 in Sweden. Drawn in an extremely tough group, they held winners Germany to a goalless draw before suffering 1-0 losses to runners-up Norway and surprise package Iceland. A part to play at next year’s Euros may seem a distant target at present but it would be some form of redemption for Claudia’s heartache at having to miss the World Cup through no fault of her own.
The team finished 3rd in their group but advanced to face Japan in front of 28,717 at Vancouver’s BC Place. It was a 2-1 loss despite Kirsten van de Ven’s late consolation and although Claudia had carried a staunch sense of pride at seeing her teammates on the biggest stage, the pain of how her absence unfolded still lingers.
“When I got injured I didn’t really realise that it was so bad. My physiotherapist was kind of looking at me with her scary eyes!
“I was like, ‘Okay, just say it,’ and she was like, ‘Okay, I don’t think you’re gonna make it.’ I went to see a doctor and he was like, ‘If you do your rehab pretty good then there is a chance you can make it.’
“After one day I was doing weights and after two weeks I think I was running on the field with my brace on trying to stay fit and trying to make it. Coach called me and was like, ‘you’re in the squad, we don’t know if you’re gonna make it, but for now you’re in it.’
“That was kind of a great feeling to be in it but I still didn’t have anything. I had three weeks to get fit and unfortunately I had to go a few days before to the physiotherapist for the national team and she tested my knee and it was still unstable.
“Then they told me I wouldn’t go to the World Cup…I was devastated. I’m still getting emotional or sick when I think about it; missing such a great tournament that’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me, because I’m not the youngest player any more.
“It still hurts. I watched them and it was sometimes hard to see but it made me really proud of the girls playing in their first World Cup.”
The women’s game has its universal objectives but within those, each nation has its unique circumstances to understand. Coming from Roelofarendsveen in South Holland, Claudia shares her hopes for Dutch women’s football in relation to a Euro 2017 legacy, as well as her view on how the perception in the nation has begun to alter in recent years.
“I hope it’s going to make it better for all sides: for the young girls playing in Holland to see how it’s possible to reach something like that – to play in the national team, to reach big tournaments – but also for sponsors to know about women’s football and to maybe get a higher level in the league in Holland. With like Twente, Ajax, the money is pretty okay, but the rest of the teams are just like hanging; they don’t have much money and you see good players who don’t play for the national team, they’re just quitting because they need to choose to get money from another career.
“I think the respect could be more but I also think people are gonna like it or they don’t. I think the better you do, the more people are gonna like it, but there’s always gonna be people who don’t like women’s football, the same as people don’t like tennis or whatever sport.
“We just try to give our best and if people are liking it then it’s great, but if they don’t, then it’s their loss.”
Being included in a video game may not appear a staggeringly ground-breaking development to some, but for 12 women’s national teams to finally be built into the FIFA series last year – some 22 years after the global gaming phenomenon’s first release – it represented a great deal. Millions play the game and when FIFA 17 is released at the end of this month there will be two more women’s teams to add to the list – Norway and the Netherlands.
Claudia is one of the Dutch players in the game and she explains how it worked with the developers when they went in to have their images obtained.
“They take pictures from under your head, from above, from the sides. I think with the men they also do movements but I think we all have the same kind in the game.
“I think it’s just something that shows the world that we also belong in that group of good national teams. It is an honour to be in it and also kind of fun when you can play as yourself in FIFA!
“I know a few of the girls from England so it will be fun to play against England on it.”
Despite not having a specific club she follows, Claudia watches men’s Champions League and Dutch national team games often. A player who has had a scoring streak in her game through the years, she was asked who she would want to stay behind on the training field with for some shooting practice, if given the choice of any footballers, past or present.
“I would say from the women’s game, (Carli) Lloyd, because she really amazed me at the World Cup. Men’s, I always was a fan of Robin van Persie, so I guess I will say him.”
With so many of her compatriots leaving the Netherlands in times gone by to play for clubs in countries like England, Germany, Sweden and Norway, to name but a few, had that ever been on the table for Claudia before she finally took the plunge with Jena last year?
“Yeah, I had a lot of chances to do it and I think it comes down to the same point again of ‘am I capable of doing that?’ The last few years I had a good job so it was also like, ‘I have a good job, am I ruining my future?’
“Actually, before I went to Germany I went to England to look at a club, I had offers from Sweden, Russia. There was one moment when I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not getting any younger so if I want to do it I have to do it now.’
“I’m happy I did it. I’m just enjoying my football life at the moment; I always had to stress about, ‘Okay, training, work, get there, get there.’
“I’m just enjoying football now, but I know it’s gonna end someday – like I said, I’m not the youngest player any more – so I hope just to do something in sport after my career.”
When you choose to invest such a huge segment of your time, your mind, your body and your emotions in something, there will inevitably be the rough experiences that leave you having to remind yourself of why you started it. Whether it is misfortune, a lack of credit you know you deserve, a painful defeat, or whatever it may be, football or any labour of love can knock the wind out of your stomach sometimes.
Taking a few moments to really consider what her life in the sport has given to her in the way of personal lessons, Claudia painted both sides to the picture.
“A lot of things, I guess. The road to the Europeans, 2013, that’s when I got the left-back spot; I was always playing as a left-winger but I felt I had a good chance of playing (at left-back) so that was the moment to show what I was capable of.
“That dream of playing a big tournament came true (in 2009), but on the other side, after the tournament the coach kind of dropped me. Positive times teach you a lot but the negative times, the hard times, you get to know yourself and see how strong you are.
“There are times like being injured for the World Cup that make you stronger and make you train harder and also make you realise how much you love the game.”
A life in football is an adventure, led by yourself but truly given its bright moments by those around you. For the regular final question on here, Claudia was called upon to bring in just a select few of those people.
This closing piece works by the interviewee imagining themselves playing in a small-sided team of five, with four available places to be filled in their team. The rule is that they can select any four teammates from any time in their career, whether from their clubs or their respective national team.
It is time for Claudia to hand in her team’s starting lineup, and she went with a group containing not just ability, but characters who won’t be shy in sharing their opinion. It is entirely Dutch, apart from one Welsh dragoness dictating from the middle!
“The goalie would be Loes Geurts – I think she is an honest player, she says what she thinks and means, and I actually think she’s just a great goalkeeper. I played with her a long time at AZ and also in the national team and I just like her as a person, she’s a good friend of mine and I spent a lot of time with her in the national team and we’re like the grannies there!
“Defender: I would say Daphne Koster – as a person on the field we’ve not always got along that much! We’ve had a lot of arguments but I guess we’re also kind of similar.
“What I like about Daphne on the field is that she never gives up, even now when she’s 35 she wants to win even if it’s just a fun game or whatever, and I think that’s pretty amazing. Midfielder is gonna be Jess Fishlock.
“I remember we’d played like a month before against Wales and I remember our coach (at AZ) told me there was a player coming from Wales. I said to one of the girls, ‘I hope it’s not that little blonde who was kicking us!’
“Then I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s her!’ But actually we kind of got along pretty well and I think Jess became a really good player in the Dutch league, I think that’s where it all started, kind of.
“Now you see how far she came: she plays for Seattle, she played for Frankfurt, she developed crazy and I think she’s an amazing player. I really love her as a person; she’s funny and good company to hang out with.
“One more, the last one…that’s a hard one. I think I’m gonna say Chantal de Ridder and that’s because we played together at AZ and I think they were our golden years where we made a lot of goals together.
“I think we were pretty amazing together, I guess.”
To catch every one of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
You can also like the site on Facebook and keep updated