People say I’m mentally strong, and I really wanted it to be more than just play a good game. I wanted to be at the Euros properly this time: ‘I’m Nicky Evrard, here I am, watch what I can do.’Nicky Evrard
“After the Euros, it was really crazy for me,” reflected Nicky Evrard, goalkeeper of the Belgium national team and one of the standout shot-stoppers of the summer’s European Championships in England.
Life is just about settling down for Evrard after a crazy period that has included a huge increase in recognition in her homeland and across Europe, as well as a new start at OH Leuven in the Belgian Women’s Super League. It’s a start to the season that has seen them win all nine games and concede just two goals.
When I jest that it’s all down to their new signing between the sticks, she quips, “we have a really good defense!”
While a modest response to a question asked more as a compliment than expectation she would agree, it’s an answer that describes Evrard as a person. Across our 40-minute conversation, Evrard admits she doesn’t like attention and has had to embrace the limelight slowly but surely since her eye-catching performances for the Red Flames.
Evrard made the decision to join the Leuven project pre-Euros, having not really settled anywhere after a stint in the Netherlands and an unsuccessful move to Spain, but her performances have ensured she may not be staying in one place for too long this time around either, such is the rise of her reputation.
“A few years ago, I was in Holland, I was a champion there, then I made a bad transfer and ended up coming back to Belgium,” recalled Evrard. “I thought I would settle down but after the Euros there was interest. I’m not ready to just stay in Belgium and settle here.”
Like most, Evrard was in such a bubble during the Euros she wasn’t truly aware of the impact her personal performances and the team’s performances were having on fans back home in Belgium.
One of the lower ranked sides, Belgium made it out of a group that included France, Italy, and Iceland, and pushed Sweden all the way to stoppage time before a cruel last-gasp winner ended their journey.
“The first back when we played Norway, it was the first time our stadium was sold out. That’s from the Euros. We had big screens around Belgium, we were doing really well, and now they come to stadiums to watch us live and that’s really great.”
Evrard herself was one of the standout performers, for her penalty-saving heroics and then her superb individual display that kept Sweden at bay for just over 90 minutes.
When I asked her if life changed after the tournament, she admits it did — and still is.
“Where I live, there is a big event I always go to,” she said. “They only do it every two years. It’s a small town, so everyone goes, and people were talking to me about the games, asking for pictures, for autographs.”
Part of her lack of awareness of how much attention she’d gained came from the decision to largely come off social media during the tournament, a decision many players in many other nations also took to avoid negative comments and focus fully on the football.
“When it’s good, it’s fun, but when it’s bad, there’s a lot of pressure. I read some comments I didn’t want to read, so I put it away for the tournament, then it was crazy to find out how many people were watching us and talking about us.
“After one game I was with my girlfriend and my mother and they were like, ‘You were in the paper, you were on the news.’ It’s funny because usually when there’s a camera, I go into the background, I don’t like to be in the spotlight. If something is happening, I’ll let the other girls go, and now I had to do the interviews and it was weird to me, but I was also curious about what they were saying.
“I opened my Instagram and it exploded, so many messages. DMs from people I don’t even know! People saying well done, saying they enjoyed the games. I decided after a game if we did well I would read it, because it was fun and it boosted my confidence.”
Evrard recalls seeing young boys in the club’s academy wanting to come and speak to them at the training ground and notes an increased interest in the Red Flames from all different demographics, not just young girls like before the tournament.
“That was one thing after the Euros that made me go ‘Woah, it’s really going to change,’ and I enjoyed that.
Putting the Work In
As we delve into the Euros themselves, it’s clear Evrard put as much work as she could into her preparations, and her performances weren’t just down to luck.
As she discusses the motivation of sitting on the bench in neighboring Netherlands five years ago, Evrard also enthuses about her realiztion post-tournament of how well not only had she performed, but how goalkeepers across the tournament had shone.
“After the Euros, one of our social media guys made a compilation of all my saves and I saw it and was like, “Okay, that was not bad,’” she laughed, being about as self-congratulating as she ever lets herself get.
“It was fun to watch that, not just for me, I don’t like to talk about myself so much, but also for the other goalkeepers. In 2017, you read the comments about women’s goalkeepers, it really sucks, and now we made a big step when you see Mary [Earps], Daphne [van Domselaar], all the goalkeepers were at such a higher level than before. After the Euros when I watched some other games and saw all the saves, it’s so good to see. The goalkeepers are growing and changing the perspective of goalkeepers in women’s footballers.”
She added: “I thought it was a little disrespectful how people talked about it, but I think there is just a change in coaching. I had questions before about ‘Are you stressing because this happened?’ and I was like, ‘Stupid question, I don’t want to answer it,’ but just the fact it was a question, people assume you are going to make mistakes.”
Evrard says she focused “200 percent” on football leading up to the tournament. Self-employed, which we’ll get onto, the 27-year-old could turn her focus to football and train almost every day, using a variety of special training methods, both physical and mental, to ensure she was not just Belgium’s number one this time around but also the best she could be for her team.
“My biggest motivation was being on the bench [in 2017],” she admitted. “It was such a big thing for me because there was a lot of Belgian fans in the Netherlands. I was like, ‘Okay, next Euros, I want to be there,’ but it wasn’t going to just happen, I needed to work really hard.
“I trained so hard, tried not to do too much around it; my club at the time, Gent, understood and they really helped me. The biggest thing was preparation, some girls in Belgium do full-time jobs and train six days a week and play, it’s crazy they can manage it. I wanted to go all in, I worked with a mental coach, just because social media you’re in the spotlight, everyone is watching, how do you cope if something bad happens? How do I keep performing if something is going the way I don’t want it to? I had extra training with goalkeeper coaches to work on details. Crosses, distribution, everything I was doing in games. Nutrition. I went all the way in, I went from 4, 5 training sessions a week to 7, 8. When you recover good, you can train more.”
Evrard’s coaches went as far to get her training wearing tinted dark glasses to skew her vision and work on her reactions, all techniques that helped her become one of the most notable and best performing goalkeepers in the tournament.
As she continues to open up about her strenuous preparation for the tournament from her home in Leuven, Evrard admits she was determined to show people what she could do, and reflects on the disappointment after exiting the tournament to Sweden in the quarterfinals.
“People say I’m mentally strong, and I really wanted it to be more than just play a good game. I wanted to be at the Euros properly this time: ‘I’m Nicky Evrard, here I am, watch what I can do.’
“It was important to have small tricks to what if this happens, what if that happens? Visualization, watching other goalkeepers, their decision-making, the day before a game I could see myself making that save and this save and your confidence is growing. That really worked for me; how can I prepare myself the best to be at the highest level both physically and mentally? Being strong in your head is really important. It takes one bad save, a bad catch, it can affect you, so it doesn’t matter how physically strong you are, I had to learn to evaluate after the game and not during the game.
“After a game you always look at what you did, but at the Euros the games are so quick, so we would just prepare for the next game. I was so disappointed, Sweden had more chances and they deserved to win the game, but you always want more. It was the last minute, we were so close to doing something maybe really crazy.
“In the first week after, I was evaluating my Euros, speaking with the coaches, after a game it was fun to see the comments, but necessary to make the switch to the next game. I came home, that was the realization I played really good. It was crazy, but good for my confidence. Having girls coming up to me saying they wanted to be a goalkeeper, that was really nice.”
It’s fair to say life hasn’t slowed down since. First came interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, then a 100 percent start in the league with her new team, but the low of what she describes as “heartbreaking,” Belgium’s failure to capitalize on Euro success by missing out on a World Cup spot next summer.
“I was mad, I was disappointed, I had so many feelings after the game and still now it’s just heartbreaking after such a good Euros we won’t be at the World Cup.
“For Belgium, it was the best next step to let it grow so much more. Imagine how many people watching the Euros and how many there would be next year? It is so sad we are not there, but also it is our own fault.”
The reality, though, is Belgium has somewhat punched above its weight. While it’s men’s team is a who’s who of stars from across the top European leagues, most women’s players are still semiprofessional.
Evrard is one of the lucky few who can train almost every day. With her club, she trains once on Monday, twice on Tuesday, and once again Thursday and Friday. On her “day off” in the middle of the week, she has two individual sessions, one focused around cardio and the other specifically on goalkeeping.
She admits not enough players are full-time, and calls on more to be done to help the Red Flames become regulars at major tournaments.
“We are making steps to go forward, but I think the steps are too small now,” she admitted. “When I see how many girls are working full-time and playing in the highest division, yeah. I said in an interview after the Sweden game, ‘Imagine if we were all professional, imagine what we could do here.’
“All of Sweden were professional, Italy and France it was the same. Imagine if we could just focus on football? We would make such big steps. Leuven is a big club, investing, but there’s clubs who financially are dependent on the men’s team and if there’s no money to invest and the girls aren’t going to be professional, it will be hard to make big steps and to go up in the ranking. If you need to play football and work full-time, you cannot develop like you could.”
Leuven has become one of the leading lights, after previously being a team rooted to the bottom of the league. But they have invested in some of Belgium’s most exciting young players, including Amber Tysiak, Sari Kees, and Hannah Eurlings, with Evrard the latest high-profile signing from within the Red Flames squad.
They’ve invested in an academy for young girls to develop, but not many are following in their footsteps, though Anderlecht has in recent years asserted its dominance on Belgian football, now equalled and rivalled by Leuven.
While she has only been at the club a matter of months, her performances ensured she had interest from some of Europe’s best in the summer, but with a new contract and a club with no need to sell, she remains in Belgium, for now.
“At first, I didn’t believe it, I was like, ‘really?’ I played for one of the best in Holland but to play for a top club in England or Germany or wherever is a little girl’s dream. You ask a little girl, you would say, ‘Play for Chelsea.’ It was an honor to know these teams were interested and talking about me. It was a big recognition for me and for what I did in the Euros, so I hope something big is going to happen for me, if I can be honest.”
Whatever happens, she still has her bouncy castles. Her unique business was brought to the attention of the masses during the summer when Evrard discussed her bouncy castle renting business in an interview with UEFA, only increasing her popularity among supporters given it’s fair to say renting bouncy castles is not your everyday 9-t0-5 job, which is part of its allure for someone so dedicated to football.
“I still have my bouncy castles! We have a free summer every other year and I like to do things, I don’t like to lie down all day, and one day I just thought about what was fun and I had the idea to rent bouncy castles.
“It’s my work, my own small business and it’s fun to have something that is mine. The good thing is I’m my own boss, when I have time I can go and rent them, and when I don’t I can put football first and manage everything around it.”
When did she get the idea though?
“It was during COVID-19. The first lock-down I was really bored. I had so many ideas, I wrote down everything and one thing was I wanted to give football clinics to little girls to develop their skills, but COVID went on so long I had to do something else, but I would still like to do that when I retire.
“One aspect was about renting, then I looked at how much it would cost et cetera, and in the end I just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s go,’ and I bought one. We had fun with my brother and his girlfriend, then people wanted to rent it and it gave me the idea. I made an Instagram account and a website and now we rent bouncy castles! It’s a stupid, small idea that has become something.”
Not to say she can’t do her own marketing, but I suggest perhaps a Red Flames-inspired bouncy castle given the team’s increasing popularity.
“We do have two football bouncy castles, we had one with a slide this summer, which was cool.”
As ever, Evrard is already well ahead of the game.