Review: 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 Duizend, Ferooza Mangre, Gina Spadaro, Mohammed Chaara, Tatum Dagelet, Imanuelle Grives, Ghieslaine Guardiola, Loek Peters

With 29 million female practitioners worldwide, football 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 over 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 “Soccer girls” (2016). The idea for the project already arose in 2010, when Alieke and Sia were working on their graduation film for 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. After a while it turned out that it was even more fun to highlight a whole eleven girls, with different characters and storylines. “Soccer Girls” was born.

The series consists of eleven episodes of 25 minutes, each of which focuses on a different player. The themes that are addressed are diverse and completely contemporary. The series opens strong and daring, with tomboy Pia (Gina Spadaro) at the center. While her teammates are regularly labeled “hot chicks” by the boys at the club, she invariably gets the unflattering “ladylike” thrown at her head. Although she looks laconic to the outside world, she is concerned. When the team sees that there are many more spectators at a girls hockey match, the girls come up with the bright idea to play in skirts as well. Pia never wears skirts, doesn’t feel comfortable in them. But because all the other girls show up in a skirt, she too tackles. The frustrations about having to conform, however, accumulate during the match, especially when a ‘man woman’ is doing fantastic at the opposing team. With loud encouragement from the boys on the side, Pia of all things goes beyond her book… It shows the courage of Van Saarloos and Hermanides to open with this episode, but it appears to be the only right choice, because we are in it right away. Moreover, an episode like this directly sketches that these are elaborate characters, with their beautiful but also less beautiful sides. That makes them real.

The themes in “Soccer 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 from the team, is selected by the KNVB. She can train at a higher level, but it does not make her particularly happy. The road to the top turns out to be tough and unforgiving. She misses her old teammates, who she really enjoys playing with and doesn’t have to tiptoe around the trainer’s straitjacket. Selma (Nora Ait Boubker) would have liked to be in her shoes. She’s the energetic type, who prefers to work out a few more hours in the evening, instead of partying with the other girls. Moreover, she suffers from fear of failure, because in the run-up to the selection match she does not sleep a wink, which of course 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 “Soccer Girls”. All girls play an equally prominent role and each character is equally developed. Culture certainly plays a role in the background, and Van Saarloos and Hermanides are not colorblind, but the characters are all more than the sum of their parts. Moreover, there is – without exception – excellent acting by the young protagonists. When they are allowed to come to the fore, but also when the spotlight is for one of the others, they stand their ground. Their friendships are credible and their actions and reactions come across as very natural. In “Soccer Girls” valuable life lessons are hidden in vibrant, lively and powerful storylines, which are full of humor and warmth. Van Saarloos and Hermanides show a nice example of Dutch youth drama!

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