BARCELONA (Reuters) - “I had a dream that didn’t exist,” says Barcelona and Netherlands forward Lieke Martens as she recalls her adolescent aspirations to be a professional player when women’s football was a far cry from the booming sport it is today.
Martens, 25, is one of the most famous female players in the world after inspiring the Netherlands to win the European Championships on home turf last year. She was also named player of the year by UEFA and FIFA next to Portuguese great Cristiano Ronaldo at lavish awards ceremonies in Monaco and London.
“A lot of people were laughing at me when I was young and I said I wanted to be a professional footballer, they said it was only for boys,” Martens tells Reuters in an interview at Barcelona’s Joan Gamper training ground.
“But women’s football was really growing. When I got an invitation to play for the national team under-15 side I felt this is really what I love. People used to laugh at me, but now I can laugh at them.”
Martens’ love for football came from “being the annoying little sister” who wanted to join in with her older brothers in a field behind their garden in her hometown of Bergen.
The paucity of women’s teams in her area forced her to play with boys, and she says that spell was crucial to her developing into one of the best players in her sport.
“I think until 12 or 13 years a girl and a boy is the same but when I got older I felt they got more physical, they were stronger and faster so I had to be more clever, I had to take one or two touches instead of dribbling all the time,” she says.
“My team mates knew what I could do so they were really happy I was on their team. But the opponents would say ‘Oh no there’s a girl, she can’t play football’. Even their parents would shout at me.
“I got kicked more because the boys didn’t like when I dribbled past them. It made me stronger, I wanted to show them girls could play football.”
Martens was drawn to Barcelona as a child due to the heavy influence of Dutch players and coaches such as Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard. But her inspiration was dazzling Brazilian forward Ronaldinho.
“He was the only one who had a ponytail so he looked a little bit like a girl. He was an amazing player, he was a great finisher and he enjoyed football so much, he was laughing all the time,” she says.
Martens’ pursuit of a career led her to leave home aged 15 and has taken her to clubs in Belgium, Germany and Sweden before joining Barcelona last June from FC Rosengaard.
Her determination to make it as a professional meant isolating herself from her friends and being “the boring girl who stayed at home while they went partying” as well as spending a long time away from her family.
“That was tough at such a young age but I wanted to do it,” Martens says. “I left home when my little sister was eight years old and now she is 18, so I missed seeing her grow up. I had to put a lot of effort in but it was more than worth it.”
Those sacrifices paid off when the unfancied Netherlands captured the imagination of the nation with their thrilling run to the final of the European Championships last year.
More than 28,000 people crammed into FC Twente’s stadium while four million more watched from home as Martens scored in a 4-2 win over Denmark which gave the Netherlands their first major title.
Martens, who also scored her country’s first goal in a Women’s World Cup with a thumping distance strike against New Zealand in 2015, has had to get used to an increased spotlight.
“My life has totally changed,” she says.
“When I go back home people ask for autographs and pictures, that’s fine because I always wanted that recognition, I worked hard for it. But I needed a bit of time to get used to it because it went from nothing to everything.”
She relishes her new found position as a role model and hopes more top clubs such as Real Madrid launch women’s teams to allow more players to give up their day jobs and focus exclusively on the sport.
“I’m really happy I can inspire those little girls and let them see what you can do if you work for it” Martens says.
“They have a dream now, they can see these big clubs with women’s teams, like Manchester City, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. When I was young I wanted to play for Barca or Ajax but they didn’t exist.
“But in other clubs women have to work. We don’t have to earn millions, I’m not asking for that, but if you really want to improve the level of women’s football there should be more opportunities to focus only on football.”
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge