Mandy van den Berg: “Moving to Valencia was the best thing I’ve done!”

PHOTOS: Valencia CF

Mandy van den Berg interview on Women’s Soccer United.

Mandy van den Berg: “Moving to Valencia was the best thing I’ve done!”

Captain of the Netherlands squad when it triumphed in such style on home soil at the UEFA Women’s EURO 2017, we caught up with Valencia CF defender Mandy van den Berg for a full and frank interview on the bittersweet nature of that WEURO success; adapting to life in the Liga Iberdrola; the loss through injury of Valencia talisman Paula Nicart; and the Oranjevrouwen’s chances at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Women’s Soccer United: So, it’s been just over a year since you joined Valencia CF. How have you settled into life in the city and at the club? What are your thoughts on the club’s Liga performance so far?

Mandy van den Berg: : I arrived mid-season [from Reading FC in the 2017/18 winter transfer window], with the team already settled, but from moment I arrived felt so warmly welcomed, both in terms of the club, the staff, the other players and the weather of course! I have to say that Spain is not the most difficult country to adapt to, in terms of the lifestyle, the people and the climate [laughs].

In La Liga we’ve just come out of a very difficult patch [Editor’s note: Valencia went seven Liga matches without a win in December and early January], when the results were not what we wanted them to be. It seemed like in every game something else major was going wrong, but we’ve managed to turn that pressure into a positive now [Editor’s note: at time of writing, Valencia were unbeaten in six games, winning three of them].

Mandy van den Berg: “Moving to Valencia was the best thing I’ve done!”

WSU: Your move to Valencia means that you’ve now played for clubs in five different countries, and you’re still only 28! What was it that convinced you to come to Spain and has playing in the Liga Iberdrola been a big change – footballing-wise – from your time in England and Scandinavia?

MvdB: After the WEURO I had a difficult time, due to losing my starting place during the tournament. Of course it’s always possible to lose your place in the XI, but I really struggled with the way it was handled and, when I went back to my club in England, I just couldn’t get it out of my head: this negative feeling, this disappointment.

I loved it in England and everyone at Reading was great, but I needed a change to get my mind clear again: a fresh start. I spoke to my club and my agent, the club said that they wouldn’t stand in my way to leave in the winter window, then Valencia got in touch with my agent to say they were looking for a central defender. I’d always dreamed of playing in Spain at some point, so the move came at just the right time.

Was it a big change? Yes, a very big change, but I have to say it suits me really well, as Spanish football is very technical and tactical. When you look at the English league, which is one of the world’s top leagues right now, it’s really focused on physical competition. In every moment of every game you literally have to fight, whereas here you’re on the ball more, playing through the lines, things like that – which at the end of the day are what I enjoy most about my position.

In Scandinavia it was a little bit of a halfway house between the two – less of a physical ‘battle’ than England, but not as technical as here in Spain.

WSU: Before Christmas Valencia were hit by a serious knee injury to your fellow central defender Paula Nicart. What are her main qualities and how significant has her loss been?

MvdB: Her loss has clearly been a very big and disappointing one for the team. I’d settled in really well alongside her at the start of the season, I felt very comfortable and confident alongside her. For me, she’s the complete player: she’s strong, she’s technical, if you need to fight she’s one of the best, if you need to read the game by being smart and intelligent she’s one of the best at that too. I like her as a player, she’s a great person and a great character. With all these positive points it’s no surprise we’ve missed her! I’m wishing her a successful and quick recovery.

Mandy van den Berg: “Moving to Valencia was the best thing I’ve done!”

WSU: Your fellow Dutchwoman Jennifer Vreugdenhil plays alongside you at Valencia. Does it make things easier having someone else who speaks the same language? Particularly with her being a goalkeeper and you a defender…

MvdB: It definitely makes some things easier, especially because of the special connection between a goalkeeper and centre-back. Though on the pitch we’re both ok at communicating in Spanish, of course it’s nice to have the option in certain situations to be able to speak in Dutch if we need to.

WSU: Regarding the national team, you were the captain of the Netherlands’ side at the start of WEURO 2017, but as you mentioned earlier you lost your starting place during the competition. Did that situation make victory a slightly bitter-sweet experience for you? Was that why you decided to take a break from international duty after the tournament?

MvdB: During the title celebrations I think I felt same happiness as all the other players, as that win was what we were competing for before and during the tournament. Even now I’m still extremely happy with the performance of the team. I can’t avoid the fact that during the tournament I felt very disappointed by the way losing my starting place was handled by the coach, but that didn’t affect the satisfaction and enjoyment I got out of that victory.

The main disappointment hit after the WEURO to be honest, when I had more time to think about it. During the tournament it’s a rollercoaster ride of training sessions, travelling, match after match, the whole country behind us – an amazing feeling – so while I was disappointed I was still able to keep that at bay and, as a professional athlete, I knew what was still required of me by the team. Especially as at that point I was still the captain of the team and I felt a captain’s responsibility, and I felt the girls still saw me like that, so I had a duty to behave a certain way.

Why did I step away? That was most difficult decision I’ve ever taken in my football career: before that I never could have imagined I’d take a break from the national team, as that was what I enjoyed most in football. Sometimes things happen though that you don’t expect, and at that moment I was so disappointed that I needed time to get over it and get everything in the right place again. If I’d gone straight back I wouldn’t have been capable of being myself, of giving 100%, and that wouldn’t have been fair on anybody.

WSU: Turning to the upcoming Women’s World Cup, where Netherlands have been drawn against Cameroon, Canada & New Zealand. How far can the Oranjevrouwen go at France 2019 and is a return to the squad on the cards?

MvdB: First of all, I think the team can achieve great things. When you look at the qualities of the team, not much has changed since winning the WEURO. Of course other teams have progressed, but the Netherlands have improved also: I think they can go really far and I’m fully confident of a great performance from them.

Regarding my own situation, around seven or eight months I called Sarina [Wiegman] and told her that I’d be available again, that I felt ready, that I’d rediscovered my happiness on the pitch. My feeling is that if you enjoy what you do and work hard, then the rest will come. I was enjoying life in Spain, playing week in week out, full of confidence, so I felt it was the right time to tell her I was available to come back if required.

She told me that she was happy with the squad, with how the team was developing and so would stick with the options she had. We spoke again in December and she said the same thing again so, while by no means did she say that the door was closed – and I don’t see it that way either – I think it’s going to be really difficult to get back into the squad in time for the World Cup…

So, I’m focusing on enjoying myself at Valencia and helping the team do as well as possible. Don’t get me wrong, it’d be a dream to be in the World Cup but, whatever happens, when I compare how I felt after the WEURO and how I feel now – it proves to me that that moving to Spain was the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m so thankful to Valencia, to my agent and to my family for helping me make the most of this opportunity.

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