Dutch women announce themselves on international soccer stage
Many on this side of the Atlantic might have missed the weekend's most consequential sporting event. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands did not.
Other weekend events such as Wimbledon, the U.S Women's Open or the NWSL settled championships and continued seasons. What happened in Holland could change a culture.
With the royal couple in attendance in the Dutch city of Utrecht on Sunday, the Netherlands beat Norway 1-0 in the opening game of group play in the UEFA Women's European Championship. A capacity crowd of more than 16,000 also watched the host; players clad in the orange jerseys long ago made famous in soccer by the Dutch men's teams. The result was a mild upset in the 16-team, three-week tournament, even on home soil. The Netherlands had just one previous win in a competitive game against Norway, a perennial, if perhaps fading, power in women's soccer that has at its disposal reigning European player of the year Ada Hegerberg.
But the Dutch earned the result. They nearly scored in the opening minute with a lightning strike reminiscent of a goal scored against the U.S. women last fall. Lieke Martens, Vivianne Miedema and Shanice van de Sanden battered the Norwegians with scoring chances until van se Sanden headed home the only goal early in the second half on a cross from Martens.
The win made it more likely that the Dutch will emerge from a difficult group along with one of Belgium, Denmark and Norway to reach the quarterfinals. It increased the chances of winning the group, thereby potentially avoiding Germany in that quarterfinal.
It made a Dutch run deep into the tournament possible. And that could forever change women's soccer in a country obsessed with the sport.
This has happened before. Now arguably the tournament's co-favorite, or at least the biggest threat to Germany's continental dominance, France is trying to secure a first major title before the pressure that comes with hosting the 2019 Women's World Cup. No national program worries the U.S. women more than France, which has gone from an afterthought in women's soccer to the country with the best traits of European technical skill and the kind of athleticism that once set the Americans apart from the world.
The French team so struggled for attention as recently as the eve of the 2011 Women's World Cup that several players doffed their clothes in a photo shoot to make a point. But something happened as that summer progressed. Playing the World Cup in neighboring Germany, France reached the semifinals utilizing a daring, entertaining style of soccer.
The run also came on the heels of one of the most embarrassing times in the history of the French men's team, the 2010 World Cup in which players staged a near-mutiny against a loathed coach and the team failed to advance out of the group stage in South Africa. In the eyes of many, the players were spoiled, the management inept and the team a national disgrace. Which made it all the easier to embrace the mix of promising young talent and long-ignored veterans who comprised the women's team when they started winning games the next summer.
The players had some sense of the groundswell of support during the tournament, but midfielder Camille Abily recalled it wasn't until they got home that it hit them. After finishing fourth, they returned to an event at the Nike store on the Champs-Elysees. It was the kind of thing dozens might have attended before the World Cup. Hundreds swarmed the store that day.
"So people were like, 'Wow, it's a good thing to see women doing really good and being passionate about the game,' " veteran defender Laura Georges said. "We were at the right time and the right moment."
Did we mention the Dutch men somehow failed to qualify for last year's Euro, an event expanded to such a degree that former Lilliputians like Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland qualified? Or that trailing both France and Sweden with four games remaining in qualifying, the men have a massively uphill climb ahead to qualify for next summer's World Cup in Russia?
Or that neighboring Belgium is in the midst of golden generation of men's soccer?
These aren't good times for the Dutch men, whose traditionally sublime talent no longer seems able to overcome an equally strong tradition of substantial egos. The men aren't winning, and they aren't sympathetic losers.
Well, Sunday evening, the headline in the biggest and boldest font on the front page of the web site for De Telegraaf, a leading Dutch newspaper, blared: "Orange geniet van zege".
Rough translation: Orange enjoys victory.
A lot of Dutch soccer fans would probably like to enjoy some victories these days.
Like France, the Netherlands has quietly put in a lot of work to arrive at what, on the surface, appears such a serendipitous moment at what might be the right time. Surprise semifinalists in 2009, their first appearance in the event, the Dutch then qualified for the 2013 Euro and drew some of qualifying's biggest crowds in the process. The same was true in advance of the 2015 World Cup, when the Dutch reached that event for the first time via a playoff and drew more than 13,000 in the final home leg against Italy.
On a continent where the women's game is still populated by predominantly male coaches who never could beat Germany's Silvia Neid, the Netherlands, which sends male coaches the world over in the men's game, put this team in the capable hands of former player Sarina Wiegman.
The Dutch have grown the game, developed a young generation like Martens, Miedema and van de Sanden and won over a fan base. Now, with a young professional league still trying to secure a foothold of its own, they can win over the whole country.
It is more important in the long run that Argentina and the rest of South America beyond Brazil (and even the Brazilians, financially) continue to develop the women's game. It is more important that strides are made in Africa.
Even in Europe, the story of long-term significance to emerge from the Euro might turn out to be the growth of the women's game in Spain, with nearly four times Holland's population, or even England cementing its growth with a championship. During the slow summer months, such successes would resonate in those countries.
But no team in this tournament, no team or athlete in women's sports this summer, has as much within its grasp as the Dutch women. They don't need to win it all. They just need to let a country enjoy its soccer.
Sunday was a good start.