Review: Soccer Girls (2016)

Soccer Girls (2016)

Directed by: Sia Hermanides, Alieke van Saarloos | 275 minutes | drama, comedy | Actors: Indigo Burnett, Cherise Schelts, Nanayaa Bafour, Angelique Bank, Bibi Bosman, Nora Ait Boubker, Rebecca Cizmeli, Seren Demirbilek, Shira Thousand, Ferooza Mangre, Gina Spadaro, Mohammed Chaara, Tatum Dagelet, Imanuelle Grives, Ghieslaineke Peter Guardiola

With 29 million female players worldwide, soccer is by far the most popular sport for women and girls. Women’s football has also been on the rise in the Netherlands for years. In 2016, 151,987 women and girls were registered with the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB), a number that will probably be even higher in 2017, and more than two thousand Dutch associations have one or more women’s or girls’ teams that play competitions. Impressive figures that inspired directors Alieke van Saarloos and Sia Hermanides for their youth series ‘Voetbalmeisjes’ (2016). The idea for the project arose in 2010, when Alieke and Sia were working on their graduation film from the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU). They focused on two girls who play football at the multicultural sports club FC Athena and who fall in love with each other. Over time, it turned out that it was much more fun to highlight a whole team of girls, with different characters and storylines. ‘Football Girls’ was born.

The series consists of eleven episodes of 25 minutes, in which a different player is central. The themes that are discussed are diverse and completely up-to-date. The series opens strong and daring, with tomboy Pia (Gina Spadaro) at the center. While her team mates are regularly labeled ‘nice bitches’ by the boys at the club, she invariably gets the unflattering ‘shemale’ thrown at her head. Although she looks laconic to the outside world, she is okay with it. When the team sees that there are many more spectators at a girls’ hockey game, the girls have the bright idea to play in skirts too. Pia never wears skirts, doesn’t feel comfortable in them. But because all the other girls show up in a skirt, she also gives in. However, the frustrations about having to conform keep piling up during the match, especially when the opposing team has a ‘lady’ who is doing a fantastic job of goalkeeping. With loud encouragement from the boys on the side, Pia goes beyond her book… It shows the courage of Van Saarloos and Hermanides to open with this episode, but it turns out to be the only right choice, because we are right into it. Moreover, an episode like this immediately outlines that these are elaborate characters, with their beautiful but also less beautiful sides. That makes them real.

The themes in ‘Football Girls’ are recognizable and universal: sportsmanship, peer pressure, friendship, insecurity, sexuality, ambition, the search for your identity. A different approach is chosen for each episode. For example, Roxy (Cherise Schelts), the most talented girl in the team, is selected by the KNVB. She is allowed to train at a higher level, but that doesn’t make her very happy. The road to the top turns out to be tough and unforgiving. She misses her old team mates, with whom she really enjoys the game and doesn’t have to walk on her toes to fit into the trainer’s straitjacket. Selma (Nora Ait Boubker) would have loved to have been in her shoes. She’s the pushy type, who prefers to train for a few extra hours in the evening, instead of partying with the other girls. In addition, she suffers from fear of failure, because in the run-up to the selection competition she does not sleep a wink, which obviously does not benefit her game. In other episodes, problems occur at home; for example, the divorce of the parents (Djamila), illness of the mother (Priscilla) or financial turmoil (Jessica).

In many Dutch series the multicultural character comes across as forced; that is absolutely not the case with ‘Football Girls’. All the girls play an equally prominent role and each character is equally well developed. Culture certainly plays a role in the background, and Van Saarloos and Hermanides are not color blind, but the characters are all more than the sum of their parts. Moreover – without exception – the young protagonists act excellently. When they are allowed to come to the fore, but also when the spotlight is on one of the others, they stand their ground. Their friendships are believable and their actions and reactions come across as very natural. In ‘Football Girls’, valuable life lessons are hidden in vibrant, lively and powerful storylines, full of humor and warmth. Van Saarloos and Hermanides show a fine example of Dutch youth drama!

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