Sarina Wiegman loves winning and is a serial winner, having lifted back-to-back European Championship titles, firstly with her home nation, the Netherlands, and then with England in 2022, but winning is not the focus.
Speaking on the eve of the release of her book What It Takes – which is not an autobiography but more of a coaching and leadership guide – Wiegman emphasises the point.
“Focusing on winning doesn’t help,” she says. “What you need to do is focus on how you can make the chance of winning as high as possible. So you have to think: ‘How do we want to play? How do we want to behave?’”
The focus, then, is on development. “If I can have a contribution and help someone to develop in football, but mainly as a person, that gives me a lot of energy,” she says. “That’s what I like, connecting with people, and I want to develop too, I have to develop all the time, because the game is changing, the world is changing, so you have to. But I also like to have a contribution to people, that gives me joy and energy. And when we get results and wins, that gives me even more joy, because I don’t like losing but that’s also part of the game.”
Another source of joy has been seeing the Lionesses use their profile to drive social change – writing to the government after their Euros win calling for equal access to sport in schools, for example – but does she long for a time when they don’t have to?
“This generation that we have now, including myself, we know where we come from,” she says. “This team is so conscious of society and the change we can make and that’s very powerful. I think that’s also huge motivation for this team … I think that will keep on going. Because there will always be things in society that need to be addressed, whatever that is.”
After the final whistle went at Wembley at the final of Euro 2022, Wiegman was seen striding on to the pitch, kissing the bracelet on her wrist as she went. Afterwards she revealed it was her sister’s bracelet and a tribute to her following her death from cancer shortly before the tournament. In her book Wiegman reveals the extent to which her sister Diana’s illness affected her.
“It has been the saddest thing I’ve ever experienced, but it started before I started in England,” she says. “Right before the Tokyo Olympics she got the cancer diagnosis, so the whole time I’ve been in England she was getting more and more ill, and we all knew it was going to end soon. In May , that was when they said she didn’t have long to live. We made that such a valuable month.”
Wiegman and her sister were close. Her family would travel across the Netherlands when she was a teenager to take her to national team training on Tuesday evenings, they would attend many of her games as a player and manager, and Diana, despite having a full-time job at BMW, would help handle inquiries that came Wiegman’s way.
Increasingly, it got hard for Diana to travel. “With the England team she could only come once, to Luxembourg, because she was sick,” Wiegman says. “Then, she, my dad and my brother could drive there and then we drove back together. That became a really special moment. It’s just sad that she wasn’t able to come to England, that’s just disappointing. But that’s life, you have great moments and sad moments too, unfortunately it’s not always like sunshine.”
Wiegman says it was not hard to focus on football while navigating England through a home Euros just over a month after Diana’s passing, during which time she was fully supported by the FA. “She wanted me to be the best,” she says. “I think I was still in shock or something, it was so fresh, she was so close to me, I was so connected to her in that period that I just went out and I enjoyed it. Yes, I had moments when I was sad, sometimes I was just in my room and I had some little candles [and would do breathing exercises] so I could just have those moments. But I was really focused on the Euros, you want to be successful even more.”
Not having her sister at the final hit home on the eve of the showdown with Germany, though. “We were preparing and all of a sudden it hit me: ‘OK, this is not what I want.’ That’s completely normal, it’s had such an impact and is so emotional. During that whole period, I knew I could talk to anyone but especially Kate Hays, our sports psychologist. I would just sit down with her and talk about it and, when you talk about it, it’s kind of a relief. So we did that the day before the final and actually when we played the final I was really happy in the moment and I didn’t have to cry, so that was settled.”