Sitting in the offices of Olympia '18 back at the start of the century, Vera Pauw was doing her best to present a convincing case. Across from Pauw were two parents and their 12-year-old daughter, and the former Dutch international was determined to snap the youngster up for her modest fourth-division side.
"Her parents were concerned because she would have had to train 25km from home three times a week, and that wasn't easy from a logistical point of view," recalls Pauw, now coach of South Africa after spells in charge of Scotland, the Netherlands and Russia. "Their daughter just sat there and then she said: 'You can discuss this as much as you want. I'm going to go to training because I want to become a professional.'"
The forthright young player in Pauw's office that day was Lieke Martens, who has not only succeeded in turning professional but is now a stalwart for the Dutch national side – and one of the revelations of the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup™. In fact, she wrote her name in Oranje history by scoring her nation's first ever goal in the event, finding the net to down New Zealand 1-0 and earn the Netherlands their maiden win at this level.
"I'm 22 and I'm still young," says the ambitious forward, speaking to FIFA.com. "But this is a time when I need to grow and see what I can do. So it's a good thing that people know my name."
Playing with the boys
It would be difficult to forget it, particularly as Martens will forever be associated with that ground-breaking first strike. "To begin with, you tell yourself that it's a dream come true to score in a World Cup, but on the pitch you don't realise the impact that goal will have," she explains. "Then the next day, when you see that all the newspapers have written 'Lieke Martens scored the first Dutch World Cup goal', you realise that it was a historic moment."
It could also prove to be a goal with wide-ranging consequences back home, where the women's game continues to struggle for recognition. "The problem is that people still compare us with men's football too much," adds Martens, who plays for Swedish outfit Kopparbergs/Göteborg following stints with clubs including Heerenveen, Venlo, Standard Liege and Duisburg.
"It's ridiculous because obviously we're not as quick or as physical. The difference isn't so big in terms of endurance and conditioning, but in terms of power there's no comparison. If we stop making the comparison, perhaps women's football will get the same recognition it does here in Canada."
Martens has had to endure comparisons with her male counterparts ever since she started out in the game. Her first experiences with a ball at her feet were shared with brothers Sjoerd and Jelle, and the trio played together in the garden before joining RKVV Montagnards when Lieke was five.
"It's a good thing to start off playing with boys because they're more advanced physically; they're stronger and more powerful," she says. "There weren't many girls capable of playing football well at the time, and I was one of the best despite being surrounded by boys."
Her talent did not go unnoticed for long and Pauw, serving as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group in Canada, soon become a fan. "I never coached her but I always made sure I had a day off to go and watch her matches and see what she would come up with," explains the former defender. "She was playing with boys older than her but she always came up with something new."
Aiming for further milestones
Despite being confident of her own ability, Martens was eventually forced to face up to a harsh reality. "At a certain age, when the boys began to really grow up and develop, the difference was too great. I thought, 'OK, now they're stronger than me' and I began to play with the girls."
For the devoted Ajax supporter, and long-term admirer of Rafael van der Vaart, that sudden switch came as something of a culture shock. "It was different," she says, wearing a smile that suggests 'different' could be a polite way of saying 'easy'.
Martens would never put it that way herself, but her gifts surely stood out among her peers. Indeed, those who watch her regularly are in awe of what she can do on a pitch. "I've seen her do things I've never seen other players do," says Pauw, who won 89 caps for the Netherlands and has observed an endless parade of talents since turning to coaching in 1998.
"She reads the game very well and she always manages to get herself in an ideal shooting position," adds goalkeeper Loes Geurts, Martens' team-mate for both club and country. Fellow *Oranje *forward Manon Melis is another player under the spell: "She's quick, has good technique and she's very clinical in front of goal."
Martens has undoubtedly justified that praise since the tournament began, and she will need to continue in much the same vein if the Netherlands hope to extend their stay in Canada. Next up for the European debutants are holders Japan, with a quarter-final berth at stake for the victors.
"Our first World Cup is already a success and we shouldn't be ashamed if we lose to Japan," says the youngster, although she is far from resigned to defeat. "We still have goals we want to achieve and we want to go even further."
As the little girl in Vera Pauw's office announced over a decade ago, when Martens knows what she wants, no obstacle is too great.