The well-trodden path is not one that Dutch national team talent Imke Verstraeten (18) is likely to take. Barely thirteen years old, she decided to try her hockey luck across the border, in Belgium. At the end of last year she moved early to the Dutch Juniors. ‘I have taken a different path than most of my peers.’
Central defender Verstraeten describes driving fifty minutes four times a week as a twelve-year-old to play hockey – from Hulst in Zeeland to the Pelikaan hockey club in Roosendaal – as ‘still doable’. Still to be done. It says everything about the distances Verstraeten has traveled in her hockey life to be able to hit a ball somewhere.
When you find out that you can play hockey well, you also have to be a little lucky with the place where you were born. Verstraeten’s cradle was in Hulst, deep in Zeeland. Zeeland is forever in her heart. But it is also a province where the big hockey clubs are not there for the taking. As a talent you really have nowhere to go.
At the age of 12, Verstraeten had outgrown the level of her first club Rapide. The nearest hockey club that matched her ambitions was Pelikaan in Roosendaal. But within one season it also became clear that she had risen above the level. If Verstraeten wanted to make a serious attempt at a future as a top hockey player, she actually had to play at a higher level. It would be best to choose a club like Rotterdam, Push or Den Bosch. But these are all at least a hundred kilometers away. It was a devilish dilemma. What was she supposed to do?
Cross the border four or five times a week
‘My parents are friends with the parents of a girl who also plays hockey. That girl is also from Hulst and is a little older than me. She had the same problem. She had started playing hockey in Belgium, at Dragons. That’s how the ball actually started rolling. I wanted to move up, so I thought: why not try it at Dragons?’
Verstraeten no longer remembers exactly how it happened. One moment she was still playing hockey at Pelikaan. The other moment she did a selection training for Dragons, which she passed. Barely thirteen years old, she suddenly played hockey for a club in Brasschaat, near Antwerp.
What is it like for someone of thirteen to play hockey abroad?
‘It’s funny you say that. At the time I didn’t realize it at all. On the one hand, Belgium was not a foreign country for me at all. After all, I lived near the border. But on the other hand, it was abroad. Some of my teammates spoke French. When I was fifteen I joined Ladies 1. They spoke English there. That all took some getting used to for me, but in the end it went fine. I had a wonderful time there.’
How far was the drive?
‘If there was no traffic jam, half an hour. But I had to cross the Antwerp ring road. So sometimes it took me an hour and a half. Usually it was my father who brought me. Four or five weeks a week. Sometimes my mother would bring me, or even my grandfather. Entire schemes were drawn up. I am extremely grateful to them for doing that all these years. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been at the World Cup now. Then I still played hockey at Rapide.’
What has the adventure in Belgium given you?
‘For me it was the right step. In Belgium I was given opportunities that I would never have had in the Netherlands. While my peers in the national youth selections still played in Girls B1, at the age of fifteen I was already playing matches in Ladies 1. At the highest level in Belgium. I played together with Valerie Magis [former international of the Netherlands] and Stephanie De Groof [former international of Belgium]. We reached the play-off final twice. That was all very good for my development.’
Normally the step from Girls A1 to Ladies 1 is quite big. But I think I had an advantage over my peers because I had already played in Ladies 1 at Dragons. Imke Verstraeten
Verstraeten’s hockey life was also different in another way than that of her peers. At the end of last year she was preparing with the Dutch U18 for the European Championships in the summer of 2023. Then she received a phone call. Did she want to join the Dutch Juniors? Verstraeten didn’t hesitate and said yes. She shifted early.
Now she is the only player of the Dutch Juniors at the World Cup in Chile who was born in 2005. The rest are from 2004, 2003 or 2002. She is the youngster of the group. There is little to see of this on the field. In defense she is not on the left or right of the flank, but in the axis. She divides the game.
She left Belgium a season and a half ago when she went to study kinesiology in Amsterdam. She has been playing hockey for Pinoké ever since. ‘Normally the step from Girls A1 to Ladies 1 is quite big. But I think I had an advantage over my peers because I had already played in Ladies 1 at Dragons. Senior hockey is a lot more physical than youth hockey. I was already used to that.’
On Wednesday evening, Verstraeten watched the quarter-finals at the world championship in Santiago between Belgium and Japan via livestream. It was a crazy match. Japan missed nine penalty corners and one penalty shot. Belgium scored in the last second from a corner, meaning Belgium won and qualified for the semi-finals. ‘I know some of those girls from the Belgian team. I’ve played against almost all of them. I played hockey together at Dragons with Alix Marien. Their manager was also my manager. So I was happy that Belgium won against Japan. I think it would be nice if we both reach the World Cup finals.’
The Dutch Juniors will play the semi-finals of the World Cup-21 in Chile against England on Friday evening at 10:15 PM Dutch time.