- Vera Pauw has been in charge of Republic of Ireland since September 2019
- The aim is to qualify for a European Championship for the first time
- The Netherlands’ secret to success: mixed-gender football
When it comes to women’s football, Vera Pauw knows what she is taking about. During her playing career, she was the first Dutch professional to play abroad, and after hanging up her boots, she was also the first Dutch woman to complete her coaching certificates.
Since then she has taken charge of the women’s national teams in Scotland, the Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, and – as of September 2019 - the Amsterdam native has added Republic of Ireland to that impressive list. If it was a tough decision for the 57-year-old to leave her home once again, the fact that Ruud Dokter was already there as High-Performance Director made her choice that bit easier.
“It was one of the key things for me to work in an environment where I don’t have to explain myself all the time, because Ruud has the same philosophy,” Pauw told FIFA.com. “I was surprised on my first day that everything was already in place, organised and everybody was ready to go.
"Of course, we discuss a lot, but the basic philosophy and ideas were there. It’s also a credit to Colin Bell, who was the coach before I came. He set his standards and Ruud has put the structure on top of that. It’s just so nice to work with them.”
Pauw is equally taken with the mentality of her team, who currently occupy 32nd place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Her players are ambitious and willing to take on any challenge they face. “The maturity in the team is very high – much higher than you would expect,” she said.
“This brings a very positive vibe and a lot of power into the squad. It is a togetherness of staff and players all going for the same thing. It’s an environment where egos have no place. There's just one aim, and that is reaching the finals of the EURO in England.”
That sense of closeness is reflected in the team’s recent results, with Ireland recording four wins and a draw in European Championship qualification. Their next opponent is none other than eight-time continental champions Germany.
“We know where we stand and we’re not counting on those games,” Pauw said. “We’ll do everything we can to play well and give all the resistance we can to get something out of it. But those are not the games we have to win or to get points from. We have to get the points from Greece, Ukraine, Montenegro.
"Sadly, we lost two points in Greece in the 93rd minute, but we can set that right in Ireland. The away match against Ukraine will be the most crucial one – it will determine who finishes second in the group.”
Those notable results underline just how much the team are benefitting from Pauw’s experience as a coach who always strives to bring out the best in her players. “I always see myself as a tool to create the environment and opportunities for the players to grow,” she said, explaining her approach. “To achieve that, we identify what are the best qualities and what do we need to eliminate.”
Nevertheless, the role of head coach at national level has changed over the years. Pauw is confronted with new challenges, as she only sees her players for a few days at a time during FIFA international breaks. “I had to do a lot from video because I had players from all over the world,” she said. “There was no way that I could visit them within a few days before the Ukraine game [a 3-2 win in European Championship qualifying].
"I wanted to see their videos and asked only for their best games. Then you can see what the player is capable of. That’s my starting point and not what they are not capable of. Do what you can do best and create a framework in which players get as few moments as possible in situations in which they are not so good, while taking the country’s football culture as a starting point.
"I can say that I’m trained now to get every single player at her best possible within those five days before the game. It’s complicated because we need to set a game plan so that the players know what to expect from each other, but they also need to know what they can expect from me. But so far, we’ve managed to do that.”
So too have the Netherlands, for whom she earned 89 caps but never succeeded in qualifying for a major tournament. That all changed in 2017, when the Oranjeleeuwinnen won the 2017 European Championship and even reached the FIFA Women's World Cup France 2019™ Final two years later. The secret?
“We were the first women’s football nation to deal with mixed-gender football,” Pauw explained. “This is what sets us apart from other countries. It was a huge project. In the 1990s we implemented it from U-12 level, and in the late 90s across every youth category. Before taking the next step we did research together with the University of Utrecht. All aspects were part of this research, from technical development to the experiences within the teams, the parents, the administrators, the opponents, the coaches, the opponents’ coaches, etc.
"The outcome was so extremely positive that it opened the door to competitive mixed-gender football throughout the whole pathway of youth players. The final step to the U-19 leagues was made at the end of the 90s. It’s just the same for girls or boys. That brought a whole base of knowledge into the squad that they are still profiting from now, because every current national team player comes out of these leagues. Every single one of them has played with and against boys.”