‘Sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just an average girl, you know?’’ – In conversation with young Netherlands star Esmee Brugts

(Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Netherlands have the right foot of Esmee Brugts to credit for sealing their place at this FIFA Women’s World Cup. With opponents Iceland two minutes from qualifying last September, it was Brugts’ 93rd-minute delivery into the box that bounced all the way into the far corner, stamping Oranje all over the ticket instead.

Celebrating turning 20 at this tournament, she left her mark on the group stage with a pair of superb strikes from outside the box in Tuesday’s 7-0 victory over Vietnam, which sent Andries Jonker’s team through as group winners. The second of those goals came with added ‘oomph’, whipped with sublime ferocity into the far corner; an effort befitting of one of Europe’s most-sought-after prospects.

The versatile wide talent is on the move this summer from Dutch side PSV, with her next destination still to be officially announced. Ahead of 2019 runners-up Netherlands’ round-of-16 game with South Africa this Sunday (6th August, kick-off 3am UK time), here is an extended version of Brugts’ recent interview with us.


SK: Thanks for doing this in English…

EB: Yeah, it’s good practice!

SK: It was your goal that meant you qualified for the World Cup. When you saw it bounce into the far corner, was your heart bursting from the surprise?!

EB: Yeah, I was very, very relieved! Because I was watching almost 60 minutes on the bench, we had so many chances, and I was like, ‘No, we cannot lose this game, because we deserve it so much.’ When I got to play, I started putting in crosses, and thankfully, my cross went in! It didn’t matter if someone else scored it, I would be as happy as I was then. I felt very overwhelmed, it was a beautiful moment.

SK: Coming into the team, you were very young (debuting at 18 against Brazil in February 2022), and suddenly around players who won the Euros and reached the World Cup final. Were you nervous, or even a bit starstruck?

EB: When I got the news I was invited for the first team, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in between those big players.’ I only knew them by their full name, and when I got there, they are such lovely girls, they are so nice and welcoming. But yeah, before, I was like, ‘I do really look up to some players and what they did for me,’ because I’m young, and they did a lot to change things with clubs (in the Netherlands). They are some big names, so it took me some time to fit in, I think.

SK: When the team won the home Euros in 2017, you were just turning 14! Did you go to any of the games in that tournament as a fan?

EB: I went to a game, to bring the flag on the pitch, and it was actually the (Denmark v Germany quarter-final) game where it rained so hard that they had to play it again the day after! That game I was there, and it’s my birthday in July, so around my birthday, we watched the finals with my family, so…great timing and a good ending.

SK: You then played in the Euros yourself last year, your first with the senior team. Were you wondering what to pack in your suitcase for a big tournament?!

EB: Yeah, everything is new, I asked a lot of questions, what to bring and what we were doing. Also, with COVID, it was a bit different to normal they said, but I still had a great time. To see how it really lives up in England was really cool to experience, and when I got to play against Switzerland, there were like 22,000 fans (at Bramall Lane). I think it was a very beautiful experience, and I cannot wait for this summer, actually.

SK: For the team to be without Vivianne Miedema is obviously very sad. For you and others going forward, does it feel like an opportunity, or even a responsibility, to step up and make a difference?

EB: Yeah, I’m still young and I’m quite new in the team, so I don’t have the pressure to do that, but I do try always to play as well as possible, and add my part in the attacking bits. I think we lost a very big player, and it takes maybe more players to fill in her absence than just one player stepping up, and we do that by giving extra energy from different players. So, we are stronger than just losing one, because we do miss her a lot, of course.

SK: Since Andries Jonker became the coach, how does he see your role? Is there freedom to come inside from the left, or to move around and try to create?

EB: I’m an attacker but he puts me a little bit lower on the pitch, so I can play with Lieke Martens, for example, and we can find each other really well; it’s something we try to use as much as possible. I can do my attacking thing when we have possession, and most of the time it’s down the side. I’m an attacker but I do kind of play as a left-back, that’s my role! I have to work hard, of course, but he says, ‘Do your attacking things, because it can be a weapon.’ I can take more responsibility; I’m trying to coach, even though I’m not really a speaker! But I try to do that with my feet.

SK: Who is most entertaining in the squad? And is the team DJ still Sherida Spitse?

EB: I know that we have a team playlist, and the person on the speaker is Sherida. Then we have Merel van Dongen, she’s really funny and tries to make us laugh before the game, so she’s dancing around and creating a good vibe. I think the experienced players really try to enjoy and dance and sing.

SK: Has life changed at all for you since you joined the national team? Are you more recognisable to people when you go out now?

EB: I have to be a little bit aware how I act, maybe! But I’m quite normal, I have to say. I do get recognised sometimes, which is fun, but sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m just an average girl, you know?’ But for them, if I can make them happy, it makes me happy. I do get recognised, which is funny, because a year ago, I wouldn’t be.

SK: What about when media, in the Netherlands, or even like this in England, want to talk to you? Did that feel uncomfortable at first?

EB: Yeah, it does feel okay now; I had to get used to it! But I’m playing football on a professional level for two years now. My first year, I was really terrible at speaking, I think – very short answers! A little bit awkward, but I think if you keep practicing, it gets better. I feel more comfortable doing it, so it’s kind of normal for me now.

SK: What do you feel the expectation is on the team in this World Cup, from the outside but also yourselves?

EB: Well, we are in the top eight of the world, so we are quite a good team, and I think if we reach our full potential, we could win against everyone. We played against Germany, which we unfortunately lost (1-0 in April), but if we took our chances, it would be like 4-1. So, I think we could do great things this summer.

SK: Off the field, what do you tend to enjoy doing? What makes you happy?

EB: I do like to spend some time with my friends but I think that’s really a basic answer! I don’t really have much time to do something else, but if I have an off-day, I try to spend some time with my family and friends, do fun stuff. But definitely not play football, because I do that 99 per cent of my time! I like to play golf with my best friends; I’m not really good, I just like to swing it!

SK: Looking ahead to your own future, what is your current outlook on where you want to go in your career? When you think about living in other countries, is it exciting, or scary even?

EB: Yeah, it is kind of scary, I think, because I’m used to living here in the Netherlands, and being around family of course, but in the national team, almost everyone is playing abroad, so it’s normal to play somewhere else, and I’m thinking about that too in the future.

Interview: @chris_brookes

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