Hartman faces dream debut with Gibraltar at De Kuip: ‘Sing both national anthems with them’
It could well be one of the best nights of Niels Hartman’s life Monday night at the European Cup qualifier between the Netherlands and Gibraltar at De Kuip. After all, a debut for Hartman in the national team is shining.
Niels Hartman? Not Feyenoord player Quilindschy Hartman? No, Niels Hartman, born in Schoonhoven, Zuid-Holland, is for the first time in the selection of Gibraltar this international period. He was on the bench against Greece on Friday. On Monday he hopes to make his official debut against the Netherlands.
“Being in the selection is already a very special experience. But I think it can be even more special in De Kuip, of course I’ve never played in front of so many fans,” the 22-year-old midfielder told me in flawless Dutch.
The big question
But first the big question: how does a boy from Schoonhoven end up on the Gibraltar national team?
“My parents are both Dutch and when I was one year old, my father got a job in Gibraltar. Then we moved to Spain and then when I was twelve to Gibraltar itself, because of the English education for my sister and me. I lived there until I was eighteen and in the meantime always played soccer in Spain.”
Hartman played on the youth teams of AD Taraguilla and Algeciras CF, among others. “That was in pretty high youth leagues against clubs like Málaga, Sevilla and Betis.”
At 18, Hartman left for England to study mechanical engineering at Loughborough University, where he also played for the university team. “Also an excellent level, we have for example a few players in our team from the professional academies of Everton, Chelsea and Liverpool. Guys who just didn’t make it there,” Hartman said.
In the picture at Gibraltar
In the midst of the corona pandemic, Hartman entered the picture with the Gibraltar national team. The university in England went into lockdown in 2020 and he returned to Gibraltar, where he played three games for professional club Lynx FC in the national league.
Since all clubs in the 34,000-strong dwarf country play in the same Victoria Stadium, it was no coincidence that the national coach also caught a Hartman match.
“He wondered: who is this guy? And does he already have a Gibraltarian passport? I didn’t have one at the time. To which he said to my trainer: when he gets a passport, let me know. Maybe we’ll call him up then.”
Three months ago Hartman finally received his Gibraltar passport. And three weeks ago followed a phone call from national coach Julio Ribas: he was in the selection for the European Championship qualifiers with Greece and the Netherlands.
Debut at De Kuip?
The home game in Portugal – the only stadium in Gibraltar is being rebuilt – resulted in a 3-0 defeat, Hartman saw from the reserve bench. But Monday night, a debut in a full Kuip against the Netherlands, that would surely be a dream.
“Definitely, but I have no idea if I may debut. That depends on how the match develops and what the coach thinks about it. But of course I hope for it.”
Hartman does think the national coach will grant it to him, a starting place or substitute against his native country. “But of course it is international soccer. We are not coming just to participate or let someone play because he happens to be Dutch. The coach will only let me play if he thinks I can mean something to the team.”
For now, Gibraltar is in a better position than the Netherlands in Pool B of EC qualification, on goal difference. “A few guys in the team already joked about that: The Netherlands is ranked lower so that will be an easy game in Rotterdam.”
But the midfielder also realizes: Netherlands away, that’s always tricky. “We trained very hard for this for two weeks, also tactically, how to stand in different situations. But of course we know it’s a very difficult match.”
“We are told: everything is possible. So we’re just going to give 100 percent everything to play as well as we can and then hope for a positive result, no matter how difficult it gets.”
The fact that Dutch national coach Ronald Koeman “expects a reaction” from his players after the upset against France does not make much difference, according to Hartman.
“If the Netherlands wins 4-0 against France, they have a lot of confidence. It doesn’t make much difference whether you play against a team with a lot of confidence or an angry or piqued team. But Orange will be extra keen, so we’ll see.”
For Hartman, it will be a special evening either way, if only because he can sing along to both national anthems. “I’ve also learned the national anthem of Gibraltar by now, so I’m definitely going to sing them both along,” Hartman laughs.
And with his parents, brought over from Gibraltar, and family and friends in the stands, a boyhood dream may come true. Provided Hartman does indeed get playing time. “That would be absolutely perfect. The icing on the cake, they say in Holland, don’t they?”