After a recent period of success, and with several major trophies to challenge for in the coming seasons, it is an extremely exciting period for fans of the ‘Leeuwinnen‘
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At present, the Netherlands has one of the best international football teams in the world – and I’m not talking about the side Frank de Boer is about to lead into this summer’s delayed European Championships.
The Dutch women’s side, known as the ‘Leeuwinnen’, are currently ranked by FIFA as the third best team in the world. It is their highest ever standing and is totally deserved. They are the defending European Championship winners, having knocked Germany off their perch to famously secure glory on home soil in 2017, and were runners-up at the last World Cup in 2019.
This summer could therefore be a huge one for the Dutch game. Just weeks after the end of the Euros, where the men will look to exploit an outside chance of emulating the great 1988 winning side of Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard, the women will be taking part in the Olympic Games in Japan. And despite it being their first Olympic tournament, they will be doing so as one of the favourites for the Gold medal.
This would be a wonderful achievement to round-off an astonishing period of success and improvement for the Leeuwinnen. With that in mind, here are some of the main things you should know about the women’s Oranje:
A bit of context
Despite having been part of the first international women’s game officially recognised by FIFA in 1971, it took a fair bit of time for the Netherlands to become the dominant force they are today.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the team failed to qualify for any international tournaments and only did so for the first time for the 2009 Euros. This period in the wilderness catalysed increased investment into the women’s game by the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) that should have arrived many years earlier. The most notable change was the creation in 2007 of the Eredivisie Vrouwen, which was briefly merged for four years with its counterpart in Belgium in 2012. This investment played an important part in laying the foundations for the Oranje’s current success.
What’s more, the role of the league, and the subsequent vast improvement in the international side, have given huge momentum to the grassroots of the women’s game, with football becoming the most popular female sport in the Netherlands. More than 2,000 clubs in the country now have one or more women’s and girls’ teams, with the Eredivisie Vrouwen focused on expanding further and deepening the well of Dutch talent.
Spectacular rise to the top
The Oranje surprised many by reaching the last four of the 2009 Euros but after that there were few signs of the spectacular rise to the top of the game that was to come. They followed up this impressive showing by failing to even qualify for the next World Cup, before subsequently not managing to get out of the Euros Group Stage a couple of years later. Nevertheless, optimism was starting to build ahead of their long-awaited World Cup debut in Canada in 2015, only for the side to massively underwhelm, winning only once before departing in the first knock-out round.
However, it is not an exaggeration to say that what then happened at the Euros two years later inspired a generation and is one of the defining footballing moments of recent times in the Netherlands. To win your maiden international tournament is one thing. To do so on your own patch as hosts, without losing a single game, is something else altogether. They brought in crowds of nearly 30,000 for the semi-final and final, in which they triumphed in a six goal thriller against Denmark and provided the third highest attendance in the tournament’s history. These were huge figures considering previous levels. The trajectory of the women’s game had been changed forever, with an unprecedented growth in popularity.
And it proved to be no mere flash in the pan. Although they needed the play-offs to qualify, the Leeuwinnen went all the way to the final at the World Cup in France two years ago, winning every game until they eventually succumbed to the overwhelming favourites, the United States. This quick one-two of a first major trophy then runner’s-up finish established themselves as one of the premier women’s teams – as well as one of the best followed international sides, with their fans swarming every French city they played in. Take a look here if you need evidence.
The standout stars
There are several world-class players in the Netherlands squad but none of the recent success would have been possible without their inspiring leader Sarina Wiegman. The head coach since January 2015, she has been the rock upon which this Dutch success has been built, bringing a previously fractured group together. It is a shame that the 2017 Best FIFA Women’s Coach will depart to manage England after the Olympics – one can only hope that the ramifications of her leaving do not shake the foundations of the team for too long.
Notable players in the squad include Barcelona striker Lieke Martens, the 2017 World and European player of the year and Euros player of the tournament, who has amassed over 100 caps and will soon break the 50 goal barrier. She is also importantly the face of UEFA’s “We Play Strong” campaign to encourage more girls into football. In what is one of the world’s most potent attacks, she plays alongside Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema, who incredibly at the age of just 24 is already her country’s top scorer with 71 goals. Then there is their most capped player, central midfielder Sherida Spitse, who is still going strong after close to 200 appearances. Another serious talent plying her trade in England is Daniëlle van de Donk, a winger who was instrumental in Arsenal winning the Women’s Super League title in 2018, achieved in between starring international roles in those successful Euros and World Cup campaigns.
This really is a supreme Dutch squad full of experience and quality, with the majority playing for the top European club teams. With young players coming through and an ever-growing talent pool, it shows no sign of weakening.
The short-term targets
The Dutch are currently in the midst of an excellent run of form, with seven wins from their last nine games, and will be hoping to take this momentum into the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Winning the Gold medal would be a fitting climax to the impressive journey that they’ve been on in the last six years. They will certainly be one of the favourites, particularly with Germany not involved after they failed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the last World Cup. After being drawn from Pot 1, you would expect the Dutch to qualify first from their group with Brazil, China and Zambia. In the first knock-out round Sweden could await, before potentially Great Britain or Canada in the semi-finals. A betting person would put their money behind a thrilling USA v Netherlands finale.
Beyond that, defending their European crown at the re-scheduled 2022 tournament in England, and then securing that maiden World Championship a year later in Australia and New Zealand, have to be the targets. A hat-trick of Olympic Gold, European and then World Championships in three years? For this team it is a challenging, but realistic, ambition.