‘Rule changers’ – the women who play in men’s teams

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May 19, 2021
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    Ellen Fokkema's season with Foarut has led to a change in rules in the NetherlandsEllen Fokkema's season with Foarut has led to a change in rules in the Netherlands

    Farmer's daughter Ellen Fokkema and former Chelsea striker Yuki Nagasato both pulled on their boots to make historic debuts in senior men's teams in 2020.

    Yet carving their names into football folklore was never their intention.

    For Fokkema, from the Netherlands, it was the logical next step with team-mates she had known since childhood; for Japan international Nagasato, it was simply the realisation of a long-held ambition.

    "Some people had a negative reaction, but I don't care, I feel so many people reacted in a positive way," says Nagasato.

    "I wish it would have been more normal, what I did. I hope more women's players can apply to their men's team."

    This is the story of two women who broke the mould and changed perceptions.

    'They asked how is it possible I can play in a men's team?'

    Nagasato spent her early years playing in a boys' side before switching to girls' football at 12 and had wanted to play in a men's team for years.

    "I knew I was good enough," explains the 33-year-old in a Zoom chat from Kentucky, where she plays for National Women's Soccer League side Racing Louisville FC.

    "Then after 10 years I had some confidence and thought, 'I can play with a men's team'."

    Nagasato, number 17, featured for Hayabusa Eleven in her hometown of Atsugi CityNagasato, number 17, featured for Hayabusa Eleven in her hometown of Atsugi City

    That belief was borne out of success, from a Champions League title to World Cup gold and silver, Olympic silver, 58 goals in 132 appearances for her country and life as a professional in the USA.

    So when the pandemic interrupted the NWSL season in 2020, a spell with Hayabusa Eleven in her hometown of Atsugi City was too good a chance to miss.

    Nagasato was already familiar with some in the team, her brother, former J-League striker Genki, is captain, and her old school friend Hayato Sato is also on the roster.

    "I asked them if I could join and they said I was welcome," she says.

    The move would make Nagasato the first female professional to compete for Hayabusa, a Division Two side in the Kanagawa Prefecture League, seven tiers below the top flight.

    "Everyone was surprised," she says. "So many media came to the first press conference and they asked me how it was possible I could play with a men's team.

    "I said I just wanted to show them my ability. I don't want people to see just gender, I want people to see a human. That was my message to society.

    "I didn't expect that many people to react. I was surprised because that decision was very casual and natural for me – it was just a men's team rather than a women's."

    'It wasn't my intention to change the rules'

    For student nurse Fokkema, her own ambitions have literally changed the rule book in Dutch football.

    For the past 25 years, women in the Netherlands have only been able to play in mixed teams up to and including the under-19s.

    From next season, they can compete in amateur men's teams up to the Tweede Divisie, a mere two tiers below the top flight Eredivisie.

    And that groundbreaking switch is largely because Fokkema and her club, VV Foarut, proved it could be done.

    "It wasn't my intention to change the rules," says the 20-year-old. "I just wanted to play soccer like I used to."

    Fokkema had played alongside the same group of boys at Foarut since the age of five, but under the rules as they stood, that had to stop when they turned 19.

    Foarut has a men's reserve team, which she could have played in, and joining her sisters Jenny and Marianne in the women's set-up at nearby VV Beetgum was possible too.

    But Fokkema wanted to play in Foarut's A team – eight tiers below the Eredivisie – so the club asked the Dutch FA (KNVB) for an unprecedented dispensation.

    "They didn't know for sure it would happen, but they would try," she explains. "For me, it was very normal, there wasn't any pressure. I thought 'why not?'"

    The KNVB initially turned down the request, but Foarut did not give up.

    "With the board and especially her coach, Johan Polstra, we monitored her development and saw she could handle the level," says the amateur club's technical director Auke Grijpma.

    "That's why we continued our quest to let her join the men's league."

    Their persistence paid off. At the second time of asking, the KNVB gave Fokkema approval, setting in motion a one-season pilot to assess whether women really could compete in top-flight amateur men's football.

    'Everything is faster and quicker…'

    Nagasato featured as Hayabusa finished top of their groupNagasato featured as Hayabusa finished top of their group

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    Nagasato's own bid to prove women could play in men's teams started in less dramatic circumstances than she might be used to.

    Covid-19 precautions meant Nagasato's first outing in the yellow and green of Hayabusa, in October 2020, was played behind closed doors, witnessed in the flesh by her fellow footballers, coaching staff and a lucky masked few peering over a hedge.

    Also in attendance, though, were television crews, photographers and reporters. Pandemic or not, the world was watching.

    "It was low key, but a lot of TV came to have interviews with me – it was crazy," she says. "They made me feel strange. I was, 'oh, this is not a big thing for me, don't give me pressure like that.' But I played as I can and I played for the team, not myself."

    The 5ft 6in tall forward played her part in a 3-1 win against Sanno FC and would make five appearances as Hayabusa eased to top spot in their seven-team 'block'.

    "The boys were very welcoming," she says. "We got to know each other. I felt there was no barrier there and it was easy.

    "I was never nervous. Of course, everything is faster and quicker than playing in a women's team, but it's not a big, big, difference."

    Still recovering from a knee injury picked up in the NWSL Challenge Cup in July, Nagasato only made the starting XI in her final match.

    But she completed 70 minutes against Verdrero Kohoku and the eventual 2-1 win set up a promotion semi-final decider, although she was was not registered to play so had to look on as Kanagawa University edged it 1-0.

    'My parents were excited, but also a bit afraid!'

    The news of Fokkema's place in a men's team also brought a very bright spotlight.

    Neither the player nor her club were prepared for the media reaction.

    "Ellen was at work and I was at work and we called each other – our phones had exploded," says Grijpma. "We didn't expect it.

    "For us it's really normal. Ellen always played with the men and the local teams already knew her, all the men the same age had already played against her."

    Fokkema adds: "It was a lot to take in because you couldn't prepare for it.

    "I just wanted to play with my friends. Now [people] look a little strange at you and say, 'you are that girl,' and I say, 'yeah, I am that girl'."

    Television crews and reporters were out in force on the sunny day in late August when she became the first woman to play for a men's A side in the Netherlands.

    "The atmosphere was the best," she says as she recalls her half-hour runout in a KNVB regional cup match with Beetgum, the men's side from her sisters' club.

    "My parents were there and they were excited, but also a bit afraid because these weren't little men," she adds. "I had good nervous feelings, but was not stressed. I was excited to play."

    Fokkema came on as a substitute in six further matches by the time Covid-19 halted the season in November.

    And in May, the KNVB announced that their research, surveys and interviews pointed to one thing: women can play in men's A teams.

    'Kids can dream to play in a men's team'

    Nagasato (left) helped Japan win the 2011 Women's World CupNagasato (left) helped Japan win the 2011 Women's World Cup

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    While the media attention has been intense, did Nagasato benefit from the experience?

    "Now I'm very comfortable with the women's team because it's not faster or quicker than the men," she says. "That experience made me push to another level, for sure."

    Nagasato hopes she has given women who want to follow in her footsteps in the men's game an opportunity too.

    "Kids can have a dream to play in a men's team, not just a women's team," she adds. "I made this more of an option."

    Fokkema, who has helped make that dream a reality in the Netherlands, is open to competing in the women's top flight, but right now she is looking forward to playing with her friends once more and hopes others can too.

    "I hope other female players will play soccer like they want and keep the pleasure and fun in the game," she says.

    "And don't care too much about what other people say."

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