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Interview with Tessa Wullaert
Date:02 July 2019
Belgian footballer TESSA WULLAERT was born in Tielt in 1993. She currently plays as a striker for Manchester City and the Belgian national team. Her previous clubs include Zulte Waregem, Anderlecht, Standard Liège and VfL Wolfsburg. She moved to the UK a year ago.
Last month, we met her in London where she was invited at a debate on the future of women’s football. In the interview below, Tessa talks about her football journey and determination to stand up for what she believes in.
I first started kicking a ball around when I was five years old. I remember sitting on the table as my grandad would lace up my trainers. I first played with boys’ teams – KFC Wakken, near my home, then Ingelmunster and Harelbeke. I also used to dance, but I found myself enjoying football more. My mum thought it was a bit weird, even though she’d always been into football herself – her dad coached my dad’s football team and that is how they met.
But 20 years ago, women’s football wasn’t popular in Belgium so it was still a big deal to give up my dancing for the game. If you’d asked me then who my favourite player was, I wouldn’t have been able to name any – I didn’t even know there was a Belgian national team.
I didn’t dream of playing professionally. I was just playing for fun with the other children, and having fun was the most important thing for me. There was just one other girl with me in the boys’ teams I played with, the rest were lads. I am glad I had her – it was nice to have someone to share a changing room with and we never felt alone.
It wasn’t until I was 15 that my mum told me about the comments she was hearing from other parents on the touchline. They would say things like “why is my son on the bench for a girl, there is no future in women’s soccer”. But we were a good team. I was even selected for the level just below the national teams, alongside boys, which was kind of crazy. I just wanted to play, to be the best and give the best of myself.
When I was 15 I switched to the women’s game and went directly into the first team at Zulte Waregem. I still have friends from that team, who witnessed the start of my career and how it’s grown. Everything moved fast – I played with them until I received my first call-up to the Belgian national A team, when I was 17.
I started playing for Anderlecht when I was still at high school. My parents would always drive me to games, until I got my driver’s licence. At 20, I signed for Standard Liège. It was a great period for me. I won player of the season in the BeNe League – that means the best player in both Belgium and the Netherlands – and I was top scorer the year after that, at the age of 21.
Finding a balance between studies and football was hard. I wouldn’t get home until 10 or 11 at night after matches or training. I realised I couldn’t commit 100% so I decided to gain my diploma in tourism management first, and then pursue football. A month after graduating, I accepted an offer to play for VfL Wolfsburg.
It was tough to go straight into the top league. I had never had to sit on the bench until then and I was competing with a lot of great players. I have to admit that I cried a lot because it was my first time away from home. But I wouldn’t have done it any other way – it made me the player I am now.
I used to say Germany was the only place I wanted to go to, and that Wolfsburg was the only club I wanted to play for. But after three years there and winning many titles, I decided to pursue a new challenge in England. I knew I wanted to go to Manchester City. They’re a big club with a winning mentality. It’s been a great first season for me, winning both the FA Cup and the Continental League Cup.
City are a role model for how women should be treated alongside the men’s team. Our academies and stadiums are next to each other, and they show a big image of the women’s team at the Etihad Stadium during the men’s games.
I know of only two countries where male and female players in the national teams are paid equally – Norway and New Zealand. At Manchester City, the men’s team is world class whilst we are improving so I understand there is a difference. But the difference shouldn’t be so big. Sometimes I am frustrated but I try not to let it get to me.
It is great to share the same grounds, but when both teams are preparing for a match the bigger pay, which can be irritating as they can head back home, however they want. They don’t have to think about how much their flight tickets will cost!
Although I receive good pay and I do what I love, I feel the need to speak out about this. Some say, “just be happy with what you have, we already have a lot of opportunities and more than we used to,” but I will stand up and fight for what I believe in.
For now, Lyon remains the top side in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. They will no doubt remain the best until another team can beat the amount of money they have at their disposal. Their stadium is not as impressive as ours but they travel to games on a nice plane and enjoy other perks. And, of course, money buys players. It is a bit annoying because more teams could better compete with them if they had as much money. But I am happy at City and I have a good relationship with everyone here.
I hope to see more fans at women’s games. We have seen some amazing attendance figures in Spain recently – more than 48,000 at the Athletic Bilbao-Atlético Madrid cup quarter-final in January, then nearly 61,000 at the Atlético Madrid-Barcelona Liga Femenina game in March. It will be great to see bigger crowds at our weekend matches in England.
People who think they wouldn’t like women’s football end up surprised by our level of technique and often come up to me full of praise after a game. I think more sponsorship would bring more people to our games – we have a lot of passion and play great football. You just have to watch it for yourself!
We need to keep moving forwards with women’s football. It is growing massively and we can use our voice to demand improvements and gain more support from fans, even a Panini Sticker album for the World Cup! For now, my teammates and I just want to win lots of trophies for Manchester City.