A Saturday in 2005, about nine o’clock, a youth match on half a field somewhere in Friesland. Wim Reckers, goalkeeper coach at the sc Heerenveen youth academy, has been tipped off by scouts about an eleven-year-old goalkeeper from SC Joure, one Andries Noppert. Reckers is on time, he wants to see how the player enters the field, whether he radiates that he is looking forward to it. More than the actions, he looks at how someone works.
The little guy stands out, and not because of his blond spiky hair. He knows no fear, Reckers sees. He dares to come out, enter into duels. And he coaches his teammates. ‘Here, back up’, Reckers hears him shout. He looks imperturbable. Just ask if he wants to join the club, Reckers tells the scouts. He will play for nine years in the training of sc Heerenveen, there is never any discussion whether he should leave.
However, it would take until this year for Andries Noppert (28 years old, 2.03 meters tall) to break through. He has played only 51 matches so far in his eight years as a professional, mostly as a reserve goalkeeper at modest clubs. Out of nowhere, he presents himself on the international stage this week, at the World Cup in Qatar. After his good performance against Senegal on Monday on his debut in the Dutch national team, he will start again in the starting line-up against Ecuador this Friday.
The question is how it is possible that Noppert is only now floating to the surface. Coincidence can also determine how a football career develops. Has Noppert been undervalued all these years? Or did he not force it enough himself? What role did bad luck and unfortunate choices play? How the bumpy career of a level-headed goalkeeper from Joure took an unexpected turn.
More athletic through gymnastics
At sc Heerenveen they know that Noppert will grow tall when he enters the football school at the age of eleven, the gateway to the training. His parents, Fokke and Lucie, are both tall, they see them at the club. Mother is a fanatic basketball player, father plays football. “Don’t walk next to your shoes. Just act normal, then you’re acting crazy enough”, they tell their two sons.
Father Noppert accompanies the youth team at SC Joure in which son Andries plays in his youngest years. The boy is crazy about sports, is already on skis at the age of four, and starts gymnastics at that age, just like his two-year older brother Anne.
During gymnastics competitions, the switch is turned at Noppert, says Jeroen van Ewijck of gymnastics association CSC Joure. He came second in 2003 at a Frisian championship. The finer exercises in gymnastics make him more athletic, which helps him in football. “For someone with his height, he moved quite easily, partly because of gymnastics,” says goalkeeping coach Reckers. Around the age of fourteen he stops gymnastics when he starts training about five times a week at sc Heerenveen.
During that time he suffers from growth spurts, it takes months for him to grow two centimeters, says Reckers. In view of the expected body growth, they have already invested in exercises aimed at mobility. “At that age, it often happens that children lose their coordination, with him we tried to keep that up,” says Reckers. To prevent physical complaints, they regularly cancel a training or he is less taxed.
He has problems kicking the ball out. He wants to do it on strength, where Reckers wants to teach him to shoot more on technique. Noppert sputters, he just can’t get the ball away. But the penny drops, eventually. With a smile, Reckers sees how Noppert is important with a ball in depth on Monday with the second goal against Senegal. “You saw it there.”
That is still a long way off when Noppert leaves Heerenveen in 2014, at the age of twenty. He can stay, but he knows he won’t get a chance in the first in the short term. He wants more perspective and signs with NAC.
In front of the polonaise
“Wonderfully stubborn”, goalkeeper coach Albert van der Sleen calls him. “He had an opinion about everything.” He takes Noppert with him when he switches from the first team of sc Heerenveen to NAC Breda in 2014. With Gábor Babos and Jelle ten Rouwelaar, Noppert has two experienced keepers there from whom he can learn. Van der Sleen sees him as the first goalkeeper in the long term.
He must first invest in order to reach a stable level. Noppert has a great reach, and is strong, fast and has an excellent reflex. But he is still a bit wild, Van der Sleen sees. “He had to learn to keep calm in busy situations, keep looking closely.” And there is something else, more fundamental, that he needs to work on.
People at NAC see that he doesn’t always live like a pro, sometimes he is easygoing. Noppert lacks to “go for it every day,” says Stijn Vreven, coach at NAC from 2017. Yes when he is on the field, but not structurally outside. “You have to have everything in order in your private life: physically, mentally, rest on time. He didn’t. He was still a bit playful, a bit amateurish.” When NAC celebrates promotion to the Eredivisie that year, reserve keeper Noppert is one of the drivers of a polonaise. Typical, says Vreven.
A defining moment follows in August 2017. Noppert finally gets a chance in the base, after three years in a supporting role. Not that he makes blunders, but he concedes ten goals in three matches. He disappears from the base again – a new goalkeeper is brought in to replace him. Noppert no longer exuded “confidence” that he was “one hundred percent in his own skin,” says coach Vreven now. “In hindsight, we might as well have left him alone. If he had had a little more time, he might have become the goalkeeper he is today.”
Noppert leaves five months later. “At NAC I was mentally buried underground,” he says years later in the Leeuwarder Courant.
Flights to a hotel
A Dutch keeper, Giovanni Stroppa is charmed by that. The coach of Calcio Foggia 1920 from the Italian Serie B, played with Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard at AC Milan in the nineties. “He wanted to play football like AC Milan did with the Dutch influences, so with a Dutch keeper who can build up,” says Johan Hansma, involved as an agent.
In January 2018, he travels to Southeast Italy with Noppert and his girlfriend Serena. The keeper immediately decides to stay. The club has viewed images of him and is positive, which gives him confidence. The adventure draws. He also has little choice: clubs do not line up.
It will be an adventure. His new Audi A6 was already stolen after two weeks, later he can buy it back completely stripped. With poor results, the emotional supporters sometimes take actions towards players. “They once threw a fire bomb in his garden and once through the letterbox,” says his brother. “Once Andries and his girlfriend had to sleep in a hotel for a week because it was not safe at home after a defeat.” Noppert is worried about his girlfriend, who is often alone at home.
There is constant turmoil at Foggia, with changes in the top management and points deductions due to tax evasion and money laundering by the old owner. In the eight matches that Noppert, also here reserve goalkeeper, plays in a year and a half, he is doing fine. But when Foggia is relegated to Serie C in 2019, suffers financial problems, is banned from professional football and Noppert has not received a salary for months, he wants to leave. He cannot get hold of anyone from the club management to discuss a switch. “It is bizarre that a club that actually no longer exists can have so much influence on my career,” he says in July 2019 in the Frisian press.
FC Dordrecht wants him, September that year. For the first time he is brought in as first keeper, albeit at a modest club in the Eerste Divisie. Noppert plays two duels before he sustains a serious meniscus injury. It seems like the beginning of the end – but indirectly it puts his career on the right track. A blessing in disguise.
It is spring 2020 and Noppert is having a hard time. Rehabilitation is difficult, time after time he has relapses – he undergoes several knee operations. In the parental home in Joure he has a conversation about his future with his wife and his father. The latter asks him if it isn’t time for him to think about another profession. ‘No,’ says Noppert. ‘This is my dream, I support it.’ His brother: “After that he started to structure his life more. He also made that appointment with his wife.”
This is reflected in his diet, among other things, says his brother. “In Italy he ate pasta every day, now he only eats it once a month. He is a good cook and now mainly cooks healthy dishes.”
That other institution also sees sports physiotherapist Paul Jongmans, who helps Noppert with his rehabilitation. “He knew very well that he could not keep freewheeling, but had to go for every percentage.” Noppert knows what the alternative is if he fails in football without a diploma: work in the factory or in the parks department. Due to the lockdowns, Noppert cannot visit the physio. In order to still be able to train, he hangs a city bicycle between two piles of stones in the backyard of his rented house in Dordrecht.
After a year of rehabilitation, Dordrecht does not extend his expiring contract – Noppert will be without a club in the second half of 2020. Until Go Ahead Eagles reports in January 2021, they are looking for a second keeper. There, coach Kees van Wonderen notices that Noppert seems to accept a role as reserve. He makes it clear to him in a conversation that he needs to pursue more. “Andries had to show himself and the group that he was coming, then something has changed.”
It’s a tipping point. January this year, Noppert gets a chance as the first goalkeeper – and grabs it. He excels for the rest of the season, Go Ahead fans jokingly sing ‘Noppert in Oranje’. Then it goes fast. He deserves a transfer to sc Heerenveen last summer. He is doing so well there that national coach Louis van Gaal selects him for the World Cup.
In retrospect, director Hans de Zeeuw of FC Dordrecht is happy that they did not extend Noppert’s contract. “Otherwise this story of Sjakie and his wonder slippers would never have happened.”