Dutch defender Emma Coolen on partying, religion and why she's happy to joke about being 'a tattooed lesbian who plays football'
When Dutch footballer Emma Coolen was let go by her club last month she took a rather unusual approach to finding her next employer.
Turning to social media, she penned: "As painful as this is for me, I want to waste no time in moving on, closing this chapter behind me to start a new one. Any clubs looking for a defender, please get in touch!’
The gamble paid off. SC Woezik, based in Wijchen, reached out to the 26-year-old and the disappointment of leaving professional Belgium side KRC Genk a few weeks earlier was history.
It is another unorthodox chapter in what, by her own admission, has been a 'rollercoaster' journey to date.
From the age of eight, Coolen played football for her local club, VV SBC in her hometown of Son & Breugela, a municipality in the southern Netherlands just outside Eindhoven. But at this stage there was no plan to take things beyond the lower end of amateur league football.
She recalled: “This was at the amateur level, the kind of football you just play with friends and football was just an excuse to drink a lot of beer on Sunday after the game.”
It wasn’t until 12 years later that her whole life changed in the “blink of an eye.” Coolen, by now 20, was speaking to a girl who suggested that she went to see a Champions League game in Sweden. She did, in an attempt to get [US football star] Christen Press’s autograph - and to impress the girl.
And in that lightbulb moment she realised she wanted to play football seriously and flipped her life 180 degrees, from the partying and smoking lifestyle to a “religious” routine based on football.
“From one day to the next I completely changed my life, not the smartest way to go about it, but for me the transition was really one day to the next."
Coolen had come out when she was 15 after being given the confidence to share her feelings from a girl she had a crush on.
“At the time I wrote this text on a t-shirt that said 'I’m gay let’s celebrate' and I just wore that shirt to football and school once and then it was done. Ever since then I never felt like I had to have a coming out in the football world, I just, you know, from the beginning and on social media I’ve been very open about it.”
Speaking about the gay community in Dutch women's football, Coolen said that being straight is like being the 'odd one out'.
“I don’t really mind the lesbian stereotype, I’m a walking stereotype myself, I don’t care. We always joke and say ‘the lesbians play football’ and we always kind of joke, but statistically it’s true. There are always going to be more lesbians on a football team than just a random group of women.
“It is something everyone is extremely open about, it's not an issue. The teams that I’ve been on, it's been just as normal as being straight. For me, that’s been great because you get more confidence in yourself and you realise that this is not something that you should be afraid of.
“I just happened to notice that with women’s football, [the stereotype was] it was butch lesbians with short hair and tattoos.
“Of course that has changed over the past decade but I always joke with people, because some people try to tread carefully around me, like we don’t want to ‘insult you’ or say anything about stereotypes in women’s football.
“I always just say ‘listen I know I don’t have short hair but I am a tattooed lesbian playing football who walks like a man, I don’t really care about stereotypes because I am one. I am proud of that and that is also something that football has taught me."
Coolen acknowledges that she wasted a few years along the way, but now uses that as a motivation to achieve her goals.
“Starting late is kind of an understatement, taking it seriously and starting properly at 20 has been a big advantage because I’ve always felt the pressure on my shoulders, from when I was 15-years-old I was out there partying three times a week.
“The girls who were my age were playing in the national teams and for me that has always been good motivation to do the best that I can to make up for that time.
“Now I compare football to me like a religion, everything I do is decided by football, from what time I eat, what time I go to bed, what I eat, how I get up in the morning. It gives me great structure in my life.”
Coolen was at FC Eindhoven before moving to Belgium to play for Genk and her ambition is still to play for the Dutch national side.
“I’ve just turned 26 so it gets harder and harder and people have recently been asking me ‘is that still a goal of yours because it’s getting more and more difficult’ and I tell them ‘yeah it’s still my goal’ because I’m here where I am now.
“If you had told me that three or four years ago, they would have told me ‘I’m insane and that’s never going to work’ and so I feel I may as well still have a reasonable ambitious goal because you never know."
Coolen’s current club is semi-professional and the players are not paid to play, which doesn’t bother her because the club feels very 'professional'. She is also studying Multimedia Design at Avans Hogeschool in Den Bosch.
“When I signed with them they said they can’t offer me any money and I said I am extremely lucky to have a dad who pays for my car and my college education. So I said I’m in a position where I don’t have to worry about that.
“I can choose a club based on the football stuff in terms of the professionalism of the club.”
Like anywhere in the women’s football world, funding is an area of development which is continually getting worked on, including in the Dutch leagues.
“Some clubs offer money, but the main problem in the Dutch league right now is that there are very big differences between the clubs. All the clubs are doing what they can and really increasing funding but if there is a club which is not tied to a men’s professional team, of course they are going to have less funding,” she said.
“I think that is what is going to be the next step for the Dutch league - to have the federation who can step in if possible and see that all the clubs have an equal basic level of funding to help make the league more interesting.”
As for Coolen's next step, that's far more difficult to predict. Maybe she'll post it on Twitter.