When Ellen van Neerven became a published author, they felt they had to cover up their love of football, as if it was “a dirty secret in a world heavy with words.”
Van Neerven, 30, is one of Australia’s most talented writers. Their latest book, Throat, recently took out Book of the Year, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and the Multicultural NSW Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
The Mununjali Yugambeh writer, who lives on Brisbane’s northside, also provided the opening and closing address at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
But while Van Neerven’s star is rising in the literary world, football has always been a crucial part of their life, whether it be as a budding junior player, as an avid fan of Brisbane Roar – or, more recently, as a social footballer content to kick a ball with mates in a park.
“I think there’s been that sports/art divide, but I was always a football person,” said Van Neerven.
“Sometimes there would be a literary event midweek, but I didn’t want to miss training. You know, I used to go to poetry readings in my training kit, just to say, this is me.
“My life now is more internal, and I spend a lot of time inside, writing. But football is still something that really grounds me. It’s an escape: I can go and watch a game, have a kick-about, do some coaching on the side, and it’s so enjoyable.”
Van Neerven’s love of the world game started with their Dutch father, Wim, who once coached youth representative teams in Brisbane.
As a teenager, Van Neerven spent time in the Football Excellence Program at Albany Creek State High School. Their best years were at The Gap FC, playing under current Matildas assistant coach Mel Andreatta and the club’s legendary former boss, Rob Askew.
“I loved playing for The Gap; it was the best women’s team in Brisbane,” said Van Neerven. “Rob had me playing as a centre-forward and all my teammates were great.”
Current Junior Matildas coach Rae Dower remembers Van Neerven as a “fiercely determined striker/ winger” with searing pace.
“Ellen was always very focused with a good left strike,” said Dower. “I have followed their career closely over the years and it’s great to see their talents being recognised more broadly.”
A recurring ankle injury halted Van Neerven’s progress as an elite footballer, but over the past decade they have played on and off at a lower level for several clubs around Brisbane and Melbourne, as well as in a team called Jiinda Magic at the 2019 National Indigenous Championships.
“I thought I was going to be a really good player, and I did make a lot of representative teams when I was younger, but at some point it clashed with my studies,” said Van Neerven.
“There was a lot of pressure when I was young to perform, and I always compared myself to others. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that you don’t have to be the best to enjoy football.
“One thing football has given me is a real sense of place. You travel so much around Brisbane and Southeast Queensland, going to games, and that was a really big part of growing up.
“I wanted to know more about the history of those places, and as a First Nations person from Southeast Queensland, it’s been really interesting to me to think about playing football on Country.”
Indeed, football has helped Van Neerven develop confidence within the literary community, where as a non-binary person they often feel like an outsider.
“I was particularly nervous at the Sydney Writers Festival and the Brisbane Writers Festival, because it had been so long since I’d spoken in public due to COVID,” said Van Neerven.
“Some of the techniques I used before I was about to go on stage were taken from pre-game preparation for football matches. For example, I’ve got a pump-up playlist which is similar to the songs I listen to on game day.”
Over the years, Van Neerven has grown more comfortable in their skin as a writer and football tragic.
Van Neerven has written about their love of Nick Hornby’s classic football biography, Fever Pitch, and is currently developing an essay they wrote about football for the Griffith Review into a book in time for the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
“There’s been times in my life where I’ve felt pressure to choose between being a writer or a footballer,” said Van Neerven.
“But now that I’m older, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I’m a sports lover. I can’t help being passionate about football.”
Ellen’s award-winning poetry collection, Throat, can be purchased via UQP.
Football For All, For Life shines a light on the inspiring characters that make up the FQ community.