In an exclusive interview for Sky Sports’ Total Football program, Sarina Wiegman talks about the inspiration Johan Cruyff has been in her successful football career as a player and coach in women’s football
Johan Cruyff Institute and the Cruyff Foundation organized the first ever Cruyff Legacy Summit on September 21, a massive event to pay tribute to Johan and his social legacy, in the year he would have turned 75 years old. Sarina Wiegman was one of the protagonists. The double UEFA Women’s Euro champion and a Cruyff Foundation ambassador spoke about leadership and Johan’s enormous influence on her football career in an exclusive interview for Sky Sports’ ‘Total Football’ program, as an official partner of the Cruyff Legacy Summit.
Sarina, first as a player and later as one of the most successful coaches in women’s football, recognizes in her style of play those principles she learned from Johan and other Dutch coaches, the hallmark of Dutch football that relies on dynamism and possession play. And she hopes that the new generations will benefit from the current momentum in women’s football and have more and better opportunities for development.
Do you recall your first meeting with Johan?
Yes, I first met him when I was 13 years old and he made a program, called Cruyff & Co. and he let people come in or teams come in, and then he would give a training session and that would be shared on television. That was in the period that for the first time there was a selected girls’ team, which we didn’t have before, but then it started and he invited that team and so I got a training session from him. I will never forget it.
How much would you say his philosophies and his principles have shaped how you view football?
I think when we talk about ‘total football’, of course, you talk about him. I think that’s a part of the Netherlands style or how you grew up in the Dutch philosophy. And I grew up in the Dutch football philosophy, so I take that with me, not only, of course, from Johan Cruyff, but also from other big coaches here in the Netherlands. It’s just the way we grew up. And when you played in teams, with national teams, you got the coaches who were taught about this philosophy too. So, it’s totally in my philosophy as well. What I see in total football with the Dutch, it’s very dynamic, it’s very creative, it’s about changing positions of players, so even when you are a defender, you can still go in attack or have a contribution in attack, things like that. So, most of all, a lot of creativeness in play.
“When we talk about ‘total football’, we talk about Johan but also about other great Dutch coaches who grew up on a very dynamic and creative football philosophy”
If Johan was watching your England team performances at Euro 2022, what elements would have made him smile? Which ones would he have identified with, do you think?
I think with the team, the team and togetherness. I think the joy and the energy that we played with. And I hope that he could see that what we tried to do is really play a possession game and be very dynamic. That’s actually what I hope.
When you have those tough challenges, how much do you have to balance implementing your style of play with coping with an opponent’s style of play, particularly against tough teams like Germany?
I think in our style of play we always look at ourselves first, so how do we want to play? What are our principles? And that’s what we started last year, September, and that’s what we continue doing. So, the fundamentals were already there. We just built and continue building on the fundament of the team and bringing the principles and all the parts of the game, possession, position, and the transition moments. But then we also look at our opponents, so who do we have against us? What do we expect from them? And we have some little details that we take out of that and try to figure out what are their strengths, what are the potential weaknesses, and we try to explore their weaknesses, of course. We do that a little bit, but as always, balance. You always at the end look at ourselves, how we can play our best game and do some little tactical things to explore the weaknesses of the opponent and take out their strengths.
“We’ve learned so many things; I think what we do need is great opponents”
People say that we learn more from our defeats than we do from our victories. That’s a problem for you, Sarina, because you haven’t lost as England’s coach. But what have you learned in these 22 games that you’ve been in charge?
We’ve learned so many things. I think what we do need is great opponents. So, we had the Arnold Clark Cup, we had the Euros and the USA, and we learned so much from those games. And don’t just look at the score, also look at the development of the game. So, for example, in Arnold Clark we had some very tough games where we learned a lot. In our preparations, we had the Netherlands, where the first half against them was a very hard time. That was a big, big learning moment for us, which we took. And although we won that game with a very good score, we really got exposed in a couple of moments where we did a lot of learning. We took a lot of learning.
Do you think it was a turning point?
I think that was an important moment, yes. And then, of course, in the Euros we had hard and tough moments, which we came through because of also the belief and the way we played, I think, but we had enough moments to learn from. But it’s really nice that at the end, you win the games.
Let’s turn our attention to another matter. After winning the games, after winning the Euros, you were in a place to stand up for the younger generation and ask the next prime minister to ensure more opportunities for girls to play football. What does that say about the character and the personality of your players?
That says a lot about what kind of human beings they are and they’re such great personalities and their togetherness as a team. They really want to make a difference in society. And they took the momentum, they did it really quickly after the tournament and addressed this. And this group of players, this generation knows where we come from, so we know there’s no access and we know where we want to go. And now there has been a change already, you’ve noticed that too, in England. But this is the momentum to address that again, because actually, when we think about it, girls do not have the same access to sport or football as boys, then actually, that’s really strange, isn’t it? So, we have to change that.
“These players are an inspiration for new generations and when you are an example, you have to seize the moment to try to change things and make a difference”
You’re in the results business with the 90 minutes on the pitch. But how much satisfaction would it give you, how much fulfillment, if you could meaningfully deliver that real life legacy? And how would it compare to other successes you’ve had in football?
Of course, you start playing football because you love the game and you really enjoy the game. So, when you start, you don’t think, ‘oh, at the end, I want to change this and this and this’. But now, you’re in a situation, and we all know that we are an inspiration to the nation, and I think beyond that. And, when you’re an inspiration, when you’re an example, when little girls want to wear the shirt, for example, Leah Williamson, then you can make a difference. So, now when you end in the situation, you take the momentum and try to address things and make a difference. I think for me also having an experience in the Netherlands, that might be even the most beautiful thing that we got out of winning the tournament.
“Watching Johan on TV playing football was just a joy, but you could tell that he loved the game and he always enjoyed. That’s how that kept with me”
And just finally summing up, what did Johan Cruyff mean to you, to Sarina, to that 13-year-old girl, to the now coach of the England women’s national team, to a double European champion and all of that? What has he meant to you throughout your life and career, and continues to mean?
First of all, I’m just really proud that he is Dutch, an absolute Dutch legacy, and so powerful. So, watching him on TV playing football was just a joy to watch, but you could tell that he loved the game and he always enjoyed the game. That’s how that kept with me.