It’s not often a club entering it’s first-ever season as a professional outfit have their eyes set on European football.
But that’s where Fortuna Sittard have set their ambitions. As one of two newcomers to the Eredivisie this season, Fortuna have set some lofty goals.
The club are aiming for a top-four finish in their first campaign and they hope to qualify for the Champions League by the start of the 2025/26 season, which will be just their fourth year as a club.
It’s a very bold claim. In order to do so they’ll have to dethrone the established top three teams – Ajax, FC Twente and PSV – before navigating the difficult UWCL qualification process.
The Limburg region has been without Eredivisie representation since VVV-Venlo folded ten years ago, but conversations about forming a women’s team have bounced around the offices at Fortuna for some time.
The arrival of Amsterdam-based gaming company Azerion as a shareholder at the club, in May of last year, was the catalyst to finally kick-start the plan to form a professional team.
“We’ve always had this ambition but we needed to wait for the right moment to push for it. The last push came from the new owners,” Fortuna’s general manager Bo Breukers told FirstTimeFinish.
Breukers may only be cutting his teeth in the footballing boardrooms after his professional playing career was cut short, but the 23-year-old isn’t lacking in determination.
In just a short space of time, the club have already demonstrated their intention in the transfer market.
They’ve recruited several members of the Belgium squad that reached the quarter-finals of the European Championships this summer, including the Red Flames’ captain Tessa Wullaert.
The 29-year-old joins the Dutch club after two prolific seasons with Anderlecht and brings with her experience of playing in England and Germany. When her agent first called her to ask if she was interested in joining one of Eredivisie’s newest clubs, she was initially unsure.
“It’s a new team so I hadn’t heard of them and didn’t even know where the club was situated,” Wullaert tells FTF. “I was told that it was close to where I live so I asked about their budget and ambition.”
To get the deal done, head coach Roger Reijners made the two-hour trip to Wullaert home in Belgium to speak with her about the project.
“They told me they wanted to compete with the big teams from the start which was interesting. I really liked the project and the combination of being a professional but also being close to home.”
As a player, Wullaert, who finished top of the European World Cup qualifying goal charts, feels she performs at her best when at ease with her friends and family.
Having already spent five years of her career playing abroad she was eager to stay close to home. So much so that she turned down a move to Spain in favour of becoming the figurehead of a new project at Fortuna.
“I think it was an offer that I couldn’t refuse. I feel at my best when I can do something alongside playing football. I set up my own company called GRLPWR (pronounced girl power), which organises football camps for young girls. When I told Fortuna about that they were enthusiastic in supporting it and wanted to potentially organise something with that later down the line.”
Wullaert isn’t the only Belgian to have jumped across the border. The current landscape of women’s football in Belgium is semi-professional, meaning teams often train during the evening so that players and coaches can juggle their footballing careers alongside their regular job.
The city of Sittard sits just over 10km from the Belgian border, making it an appealing place for other Red Flames players to follow in Wullaert’s footsteps and relocate in search of professional football.
“For them [Belgian players] it’s perfect to come here,” says Wullaert. “They are now training in the morning or afternoon which is a big difference to last year when we would start training at 8 PM.
“Now the players can fully focus on training and taking care of themselves, focus on what they eat and ensure that they are getting the correct rest. The national team will only benefit from that.”
Building a squad from the bottom up
Building a team from scratch is a time-consuming process. Unlike in a regular transfer window where clubs will try to improve in one or two positions, Fortuna had to fill out an entire squad.
With virtually no prior experience in women’s football, general manager Breukers had minimal foundations to build from.
Initially, he spent hours watching football alongside two of his colleagues, trying to find players who would best suit the project. Not wanting to take any risks, the trio set a rule that no player would be signed without at least two of them having scouted them extensively.
In time they found the process to be too time-consuming. The football was endless, and with only so many hours in the day, and with other aspects of the club needing attention, Breukers changed tack and took a different approach to recruitment.
“I soon realised that this method wasn’t going to work because we were spending the whole week only watching football matches and there was a million other thing to do.
“Instead, we started building relationships with the most important agencies in the game. When they had a player that matched our profile, they would call me.”
What Fortuna essentially did was cut out the discovery stage, which streamlined their operation.
“Of course, we checked all the players ourselves, but the recruitment has gotten a lot easier this way. Instead of having a list of 100 or so players to work through we now have maybe 40/50 that we can then cut down to the 10 or so players we will make contact with.”
Conversations with potential new signings were different for Fortuna. Unlike with other clubs, players didn’t have a track record or a history to base the decision on.
“For us, it was about bringing as many facts as possible to those conversations,” says Breukers. “That could be a little bit difficult because so far, we haven’t proven anything. I found that players wanted to hear about our goals and more importantly how we planned on reaching them.”
Fortuna’s recruitment philosophy
Fortuna have built their squad around a strong core of players through the spine of the team. At goalkeeper, centre-back, central midfield and striker they have recruited players with experience and surrounded them with talented youngsters.
Many of those younger players have international experience of their own. At the age of 20, Féli Delacauw played twice for Belgium at Euro 2022. Jarne Teulings is another young Belgian signing who was most recently called up by the Red Flames senior team in June.
They also have four players who were a part of the Netherlands team that reached the semi-final of the 2022 U20 Women’s World Cup.
“We tried to find a mix of experienced players at the core of the team but built young players around them that we can invest in for the future.
“I’m always saying to the players that we started something that we won’t stop if the results aren’t good. We know that with a new project it is almost impossible to win the league in the first season. So we set out this long term project with the ambition of playing in the Champions League.”
As a totally new team, there will naturally be an adjustment period as a fresh squad of players get to know how their new teammates tick.
That process has been eased by the players all living in the same area. Some live in their own studio apartment whilst others live in an eight-person house, meaning they are in close contact both on and off the field.
The players have made a conscious effort to breed a sense of togetherness ahead of their first season, meeting up regularly for squad meals.
Belgium were one of the only national teams with a primarily semi-professional squad so Wullaert knows all too well how much being a tight-knit squad can aid on-field performance.
“We [Belgium] knew that we had to be a group that would work for each other, run for each other and have good communication. That’s how we won against Italy for example, by being a group. That’s the most important thing we at Fortuna have to work on before the start of the season.”
But the squad are competing against the clock to establish that kind of relationship before their season gets underway against Ajax on September 16. Due to the numerous international tournaments this summer, Reijners hasn’t had all of his players together at once during pre-season.
Wullaert doesn’t like to set personal targets for a season. Instead, she prefers to focus on ensuring that the team reach their goals, which she believes should be a top-four finish this season.
“I just want to win and don’t care who scores. I want to compete with the big teams here which means top three, top five. I certainly think we have the quality for that and I hope everything fits together on and off the pitch.
“I hate losing and therefore want to win every game whether that’s in the cup or the league and that’s what we will try to do.”
“When I started playing for Anderlecht two seasons ago, I was asked how many goals I was aiming for. I told the media that I just want to be league champion and win the cup, which we did. I ended up scoring a lot of goals, but I prefer to win championships.”
One aspect of the club that is yet to be developed is a full youth set-up. Whilst they do have a B team for players between 16 and 20, an academy set is not currently in place.
Fortuna have taken the reverse approach to Feyenoord, who developed from a youth team to a professional Eredivisie side over the course of five years. According to Breukers, the club do have plans to establish a talent group which will allow the most promising young players from the local amateur sides to train at the club once a week, in a bid to aid their development.
“Right now, I don’t think we are ever going to start a full youth team. I know in other countries it’s normal to have an u-12 team and up. But here in the Netherlands, we share this idea with the federation that we need to let young girls play with boys.
“When the players reach the ages of 14 or 15 then it’s time to bring them into a fully female team. Until they reach that age, we will try to give them advice on which team to join because they have to be at a good level.”
An eye for Fortuna’s future
The fact that the club already have plans for how they are going to develop their youth team within their first season speaks to their long-term planning. Fortuna seem focused on creating a club that can sustain itself in the long run.
From the outset, that idea has been central to the club’s ambition. The previous iteration of the club was forced to fold no sooner than it was founded.
“From the moment the old women’s team was cancelled there was always an ambition to start a new one,” Breukers recalls. “We always said if we do reform the team then it has to be in a way that we can guarantee that it’s for the long term.”
Breukers believes that it is important for the club to attract fans to the stands and more lucrative sponsorship deals through their success, on and off the field. With no longstanding tradition in Sittard of attending women’s football games, incentives have been made to make up for the lost time.
Anyone who owns a season ticket for the men’s side can also attend a women’s game free of charge. With over 6,000 season ticket holders for the men’s team, there is a strong fanbase of fans ready to be capitalised upon.
“The average attendance here in the Netherlands is 600 or 700 a game, so even if we can get 50% of those [6,000] fans to come to our games then it’s a lot.
“Being sustainable really is the key. Nobody wants to have a really successful season but next season you have to pull 50% of the budget because you did weird things. It’s important that we create a guaranteed long-term process which will help us get to our ambitions without throwing everything overboard.
“We do have a timeline, but it’s difficult to make It concrete. Plans are so important, but they have to be dynamic, especially in the football world where so much can change all the time.
“We can build a frame of where we want to go but the journey to get there is never a straight line. There are always things changing and you have to react.“