'Eerlijk van hart': Remembering Elisabeth Migchelsen

Elisabeth Migchelsen smiling in 2014 Source: Getty Images

Former teammates, colleagues, and players pay tribute to the life and legacy of Elisabeth Migchelsen, who captained the Netherlands women’s national team and coached Canberra United to two trophies between 2013 and 2015. Migchelsen passed away in May after a short battle with cancer.

“She said, 'I want you to close the coffin'.”

Vera Pauw pauses on the phone. A flock of nearby birds drifts into the call, greeting the early morning.

She takes a breath. 

“I said ‘well, then I’m also going to ask you what you want to wear’. She thought about it and I said ‘I’m going to grab it now, so there’s no hesitation at that moment.’ 

“So, it’s already there. Everything’s organised so we can enjoy each other over the last period - she doesn’t need to do that when she’s not capable anymore, or when it takes too much energy.” 

Pauw is standing in the garden of her house in Nieuwleusen, a small town in the east of the Netherlands. 

It’s Monday. In a few days’ time, Pauw’s best friend and former Netherlands teammate, Elisabeth Migchelsen, will die after a short battle with lung cancer. She will be just 49 years old. 

“We’ve had the talks,” Pauw said.

“In the early stage, she asked me if I could arrange everything. She didn’t want to talk with doctors, she didn’t want to talk with the ones dealing with medications, the lung specialist, the hospital nurses. I took over from her because she didn’t want to.” 

Born in 1971, Elisabeth Migchelsen (or 'Lizz' as she became affectionately known) was a formidable character.

Capped 95 times for the Netherlands between 1990 and 2008 – including several years as captain – as well as winning a premiership and championship with Canberra United as a coach, Migchelsen is often referred to by former players and colleagues as “imposing.” 

Her towering 5-foot-11 frame was matched by a controlled ferocity in her features – complemented, in her later years, by jet-black eyeliner – that almost required deference; a respect lightly brushed with fear.

Someone once said she could bench-press a small man, and would probably take great delight in intimidating the other men in the room while doing so. 

40 minutes down the freeway from Pauw, Migchelsen is seeing out her final days at her family home in Harderwijk.

Alongside Migchelsen’s father, Pauw has been helping take care of her friend since she received her diagnosis in February.

“From the moment she told me she had cancer, I said ‘I’ll be there from now until the end'," Pauw said.

“If you’re not there for your friend at this stage, then when are you there?

"This is the moment where you have to be there. She’s always been there for me and I’ve always been there for her, so it’s very natural that I’m taking care of her.”

The deterioration has been rapid. By mid-May, Migchelsen required 24-hour care.

Only when Pauw felt she could no longer cope on her own, were others allowed into Migchelsen’s inner sanctum.

Two other former Netherlands teammates – Hesterine de Reus and Diane Hulst – now work behind the scenes to support them both: cooking meals, doing laundry, and helping carry the emotion of the moment.

They stay with Migchelsen around the clock, after she becomes afraid she might stop breathing in the night, her lungs simply giving up without her permission.

She would hate the insolence of that, perhaps more than its consequences. 

Cancer, then – that slow, quiet decay of the body – is the least-befitting end for someone like Elisabeth Migchelsen.

She would have wanted to go out on her own terms, only after she had decided she was done. 

But Pauw is trying not to think about that. Instead, she sits with her friend most days, and she talks.

Sometimes, when Migchelsen isn’t out of breath, they share their ideas or their memories.

Mostly, though, they lean back into the comfortable silences they had developed over the last three decades. 

“We were the rock couple,” Pauw said, smiling through the phone.

“I remember a game against Germany, we were prepared so well with the team that we said [to each other] half-way through the afternoon, ‘we will win, 1-0. We will win’. We even had a picture of it. 

“This was against Germany, the world champions. Back then, we were nothing; the Netherlands were nothing. But we knew we would win; we just knew, Elisabeth and I. So we convinced the others. 

“We had the pre-match meeting and said ‘well, what is [the coach] going to talk about? We know everything’. So we agreed to just sit for the line-up and then walk away saying ‘thanks, coach!’ 

“And we won, 1-0. We had never won against Germany. Those games, we’d usually lose 6-0. But we were unbeatable that night. Those moments, you only feel those a few times in your career. So if I think about Elisabeth playing: that game, us playing together, being roomies … it was a magic moment. It was really magic.”

Elisabeth Migchelsen
W-League Grand Final - Perth v Canberra
Getty Images

It was Pauw who suggested Migchelsen for the Canberra United job in 2013, after a meeting with former Capital Football CEO Heather Reid in Copenhagen.

Reid and Migchelsen met soon afterwards at a friendly between the Matildas and Dutch side ADO Den Haag at the Hague. 

Migchelsen arrived in Sydney three months later. But with English as her second language, and with limited knowledge of the local football landscape, she needed a well-qualified local assistant.

Rae Dower, who had a successful career with the Queensland police force at the time, was chosen. 

“I met Lizz an hour before our first pre-season training session,” Dower said.

“She was sitting at the opposite end of the table, with her trademark steely gaze, and I went to shake her hand.

"She stood up and towered over me; she was like ‘Xena, the Warrior Princess'. 

“She shook my hand, nearly breaking it, and I handed her a bottle of Moet and said ‘here, this is for when we win the league'.

"She gave me a half-smirk and a nod, and from that moment on I knew we spoke the same language: football.”

There’s an in-joke among those who worked under Migchelsen and Dower at Canberra United between 2013 and 2015, a sort of slapstick comedy routine that the two naturally developed: good cop and bad cop.

Migchelsen could be abrasive and almost frightening in her directness, and those who saw her day-to-day still remember the heart-stopping moments after somebody made a wise crack, not knowing whether she would laugh or send them for laps.

But Migchelsen’s blunt style was always offset by the relaxed, diplomatic streak of Dower. It was the perfect partnership. 

“We had a deep mutual respect for one another and complemented each other’s strengths,” Dower said.

“Apart from becoming a very dear friend, she asserted the need to have fierce belief and confidence in your own abilities and to trust your instincts. 

“Ironically, Lizz wanted to be a police officer. One afternoon, she explained how she went to the police interview having to answer a question about handling a situation requiring her to wait for back-up and orders from superiors.

"She laughed and told them that she’d just go right in by herself and sort it out. She ended up studying finance instead.” 

Canberra United was Migchelsen’s first head coach role. The club had already experienced success in previous years, and the culture and environment that had developed there was the envy of the W-League.

It was not something Migchelsen wanted to interrupt or reshape into her own image, but rather to build upon. 

“The most important thing that Lizz did was observe, listen, collaborate and consult,” Dower said.

“She lifted the levels of professionalism all across the club: work ethic, fitness, accountability, yet all the while she did it with a sense of enjoying the grind towards a shared goal.

"She was also fair and just and she showed her players that she cared about them as people first and players second.” 

Two players who experienced that environment first-hand were former Canberra captain Nicole Begg and young prodigy Grace Maher.

Both admitted to being intimidated when they first met Migchelsen, but quickly warmed to her once they saw past her hard outer shell. 

“It’s easy to take Lizz from your first impression of being harsh or direct, but once you got to know her, she was – is – a passionate person and has a lot of love in her heart,” Begg said.

“She came to our wedding. We visited her when we went on our honeymoon. You don’t necessarily need your coach to be your friend, but at the end of the day, if you did talk to her one-on-one, you knew exactly where her heart was and what her intentions were and that she cared. 

“It [wasn’t] just a team of great players, it’s always about the organisation as well. I think a reason that Canberra has been so successful is that when the organisation has been working well with a good team of people around it – from the head coach, assistant coach, goalkeeper coach, backroom staff – that’s when we get the best out of our team, too.” 

For Maher, who came into Canberra United as a 15-year old, Migchelsen made a particularly lasting impression.

It was her, after all, who gave Maher – now a Young Matilda – her first W-League contract. She also started Maher in the 2015 W-League Grand Final, which they won. 

“I think back to it now and I was nervous – it was Lori Lindsey’s retirement game," Maher said.

"I remember being nervous because it was a grand final, but not once did I doubt myself or did I feel as though the team was scared for me or didn’t believe I could do it. 

“That way that she instilled that confidence - she never questioned why we were in the squad. Without her ever having to tell us, you could always sense it: you’re here for a reason. 

“She gave me the step-up and the opportunity to actually dream of being a professional footballer - that opportunity to grow and be respected.

"I hope she knows that I think she was instrumental in not only my beginnings but a lot of people’s joy and love for football at Canberra. 

“I think what she has achieved as a coach, not many female coaches have been able to do that and we need to learn off her.

"It’s so sad that she’s going to be taken far too young because she has so much to give. I would say that I want to continue your legacy and what you embody as a person and a coach.” 

Migchelsen’s deteriorating health was not known to many, particularly not in her home country where her relationship with the football federation had frayed.

Instead, some of the first people she contacted were her Canberra United family, starting with Reid and Dower.

Slowly, quietly, the two then shared the news.  

“I sent Lizz a voice message through Vera,” Begg said.

“Just talking about the positive experiences we had here and a few other personal memories. It was nice to have that opportunity; saying goodbye to someone is a lot better than saying it at their funeral. 

“If I could sit down with her now – when she’s not sick, which is how I prefer to think about it – I’d pick her brain about football. I’d also say thank you. I learned a lot and continue to learn a lot from her.

"Going into coaching now, it means a lot to have had someone like her, and I’d consider her legacy to be about being a mentor as much as a coach and a friend.” 

For Dower, there have been few others who have made quite as big a contribution to her own life and career than Migchelsen. 

“Those afternoons drinking long blacks and talking football with Lizz were more than I could have ever dreamed of,” Dower said.

“I don’t think she realised the wonderful impact she had on so many people. A distinguished playing career, consummate professional, great coach, tactician, mentor, and analyst.

"She was honest, compassionate, empathetic, generous, and had a wicked sense of humour. 

“Deep down, I think Lizz would want to be remembered as someone who cared about people. If you were lucky enough to earn her trust and come within her inner circle, it was the biggest compliment she could pay you. 

“Thankfully, I had the chance to say goodbye. [If I were to say] anything else, it would probably revolve around our banter.

"We’d be talking about something football-related and she’d laugh out loud and say, ‘they have no f***ing clue and a cloudy understanding of the game!’ She was our crazy ‘Dutchie’.” 

Reid, herself a cancer survivor, holds back tears when asked what she would say if she had one more moment with Migchelsen.

“I’d remind her that she’s always a champion. She delivered a championship to Canberra and all those people that she impacted in such a positive way.

"She might feel like she’s lost this battle and that she’s not a champion, but she will always be a champion, to me and to many others.” 

That includes, most of all, Pauw. 

“I now receive messages from players that are so nice and touches her soul,” Pauw said from her car, on the way to Migchelsen’s house. 

“Of course, it’s emotional, and at times the tears are rolling out of my eyes without me knowing it, but it’s what best friends do, isn’t it? 

“I want her to be remembered as somebody who’s true and stands for her case. Somebody that can be harsh but that it comes from the right place.

It’s difficult to express in English – ‘Eerlijk van hart’ – I think it means ‘true to heart.’ True to her heart. 

“For now, I am taking care of her. The doctor is coming so I need to be there.

"But other than that, just feeling the love for each other. Sharing that love and saying how much I love her.

"There’s nothing more to say. Just feel the love and be there. I’ll be there for her. With all my heart.”