Exactly one year ago this weekend, a historic even took place at the Toekomst: the Ajax Women were established. Since then, Marleen Molenaar, the women’s football manager, has seen acceptance grow for the new branch. Now, she and the players are reaping the rewards. “They’re working very hard at what they’re passionate about.”
It was on May 18th that Marleen Molenaar was given a difficult mission by Ajax. The club has decided to have a women’s team and, within a time period of two weeks, needs to form a complete women’s team, including technical staff. Could Molenaar make it happen? Although she had agreed wholeheartedly, in the back of her mind, she knew what it meant: “Setting up a team in such a short period of time is a pretty big challenge”, says the manager, who has made her way up as one of the pillars of women’s football in the Netherlands in the past years. But the euphoria won over. That same evening, she called potential players. Directly after, a plan was in place, with the motto: “Don’t leave for tomorrow what can be done today.”
Looking back on those two weeks now, a year later, Molenaar can’t hide how proud she is. Within fourteen days, in close cooperation with coach Ed Engelkes, she formed a team which was in the running for European football until just a few days before the end of the season. But even more importantly: they won over all of the skeptics and became a full-fledged team in its own right at Ajax. “We made progress, both organizationally and athletically. The people who had been skeptical at first about our arrival came to me later and said that they had expected things to go differently.”
She doesn’t hold it against them. “All of a sudden, a group of women arrive in a man’s world. What were they supposed to expect? Would it be a nice group of girls who could kick a decent ball, or would it be a high-quality, strong group who had one goal, which is to reach the absolute top?” Molenaar doesn’t hesitate before she answers. “The latter. These girls are very driven. Some guys train hard to make football their job, but that’s not yet a possibility for women. They’re doing it for themselves. Their intrinsic motivation is very high.”
It is thanks in part to this work ethic that the women have been completely accepted. Molenaar: “When you’re just starting out, you need to know your place in the club. Our approach was to prove ourselves on the field first. But we had earned respect quickly and we started to be treated equally. Things within the club are very well arranged for us as well.”
For Leonne Stentler, that was reason enough to comment at the start of this season that she was treated like a princess at Ajax. The 27 year old central defender has never felt like a second-class citizen. “And if there were skeptics, we silenced them with our first game.” The opening game was won 2-0, after which Ajax brought home six points in the following 3 games. As a consequence of that strong start, expectations increased, as Marleen Molenaar noticed. “But that’s not completely fair if you’re still in a building phase with a young, new team. But at the end of the day, it’s Ajax, and that comes with a certain amount of pressure.”
In the end, Ajax was the last Dutch team to qualify for the BeNe League’s championship pool. Close, but, according to Stentler, they could have done better than that fourth place. She refers to the current rankings, in which Ajax is third, behind Standard Luik and FC Twente. “That’s where we belong.” Should Twente be the only Dutch club above them, it would be a great achievement according to her. “They started in 2007 and are further along in their development. We’re not there yet. That will take a bit longer.” According to Stentler, Ajax is gaining ground on the ‘Tukkers’. “Women’s football at Ajax is on the rise. In the beginning we had to find our way, but now we’re completely cohesive.”
On the Ajax Women’s first anniversary, they’ll play at home against PSV/FC Eindhoven. It’s an important game in the battle for third place. Molenaar hopes that the fans will come in large numbers to cheer on the team. The match at the Toekomst starts at 3p.m. Due to the first anniversary, festive events have been planned. For example, spectators can participate in the ‘Does van Aegon’ and take a photo with Lucky, the mascot, before the match. Moreover, they’ll have the chance to win one of Ajax’s new away jerseys, and afterwards, extra balls will be shot into the crowd.