Less than 50 years on from their first official FIFA match, the Netherlands women’s national team are set to walk out in front of a sold out Galgenwaald Stadium in Utrecht on July 16th at their home European Championships.
You could fit the entire population of Hazebrouck – the French town where the Dutch played their first international – into the Galgenwaald Stadium, a sign of the progress women’s football has made just across the water from England.
Their first match ended in a 4-0 loss to the French and despite progress over the years, the country was still to qualify for a major tournament until the last decade, dropping to their lowest FIFA ranking of 20th in 2008.
All that changed in 2009 when the Netherlands went to their first major tournament, the European Championships in Finland. A dramatic penalty shootout victory over France saw them come up against Hope Powell’s England in the semi-finals. In a tense encounter, the Dutch were denied a final berth by Jill Scott’s 116th-minute goal.
The Netherlands would once again reach the tournament four years later before qualifying for their first World Cup two years ago. Qualification for Euro 2017 was simple, they’re the hosts so their spot was confirmed from day one.
But the path hasn’t been easy, just as recently as December their head coach Arjan van der Laan was relieved of his duties and replaced by his assistant one month later, 104-capped former women’s international Sarina Wiegman.
Through all the off-pitch issues that have swamped the build-up to the tournament, Wiegman is taking a team more than capable of upsetting the applecart to the tournament. Rosengard’s Lieke Martens is in the form of her life and the Netherlands’ star player on her day – shortly set to join England’s Toni Duggan in Barcelona.
The Oranje also have an ever-growing contingent of England-based footballers, the tally in the current squad standing at five, with Manchester City’s Tessel Middag cruelly ruled out with an ACL injury picked up in the recent FA Women’s Super League Spring Series.
You could claim there’s a sixth with superstar striker Vivianne Miedema joining three of her teammates at Arsenal once the tournament is over in August. The Gunners already have goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal, midfielder Dominique Janssen and striker Danielle van de Donk among their ranks, whilst captain Mandy van den Berg has just swapped Liverpool for Reading.
Pacey winger Shanice van de Sanden is still playing her football on Merseyside and Sunday will be a particularly special moment for her and one of her teammates.
“I was born in Utrecht so it’s special of course,” says van de Sanden. “Our first game is there and that will be absolutely amazing for me, but we need to keep calm and keep focused because we have a tough group.
The 24-year-old isn’t wrong, despite being the hosts coming with the bonus of a spot in the top pot for last year’s draw, the Dutch have been pitted against former winners Norway. The Norwegians possess one of Europe’s most feared players in Ada Hegerberg and were the last team to talk home the trophy not called Germany – staggeringly as far back as 1993.
Netherlands will also face neighbours Belgium in a tasty derby as well as dark horses Denmark, a group that far from guarantees Wiegman’s team a safe passage into the quarter-finals.
Van de Sanden adds, “It’s hard to play against Norway, it’s a really tough opening match but everyone in our group is good.
“Someone like Belgium might not be the favourites but they will be tough, nobody is easy to play against.”
Dutch No.1 van Veenendaal is also from Utrecht, and equally looking forward to following out captain van den Berg in front of a full house on Sunday evening.
“To start in my home city is a dream, I can’t wait to walk out in Utrecht of all places,” says the 27-year-old.
“We all have to believe, that’s the most important part for us. We’re not in an easy group and we know we’re not the favourites, but we have to believe we can win every game.”
It’s a message echoed by her Arsenal team mate Janssen, the midfielder/defender clearly inspired by her relatively new surroundings in England and the success the Lionesses endured off the back of a bronze medal two years ago in Canada.
“Everyone wants to play in front of their own crowd – it’s unbelievable! Of course, we all want to medal, you’re there to win but we have to take things game by game and not get too carried away.
“We want football in the Netherlands to grow, we saw what impact England’s World Cup had on the football here and we all came to England because the football is growing, England breathes football. The fans are great, the stadiums are always alive and we want that back home.”
The impact in the Netherlands is already being felt, just this week four members of the team became the first female footballers to appear on the front cover of popular football magazine Voetbal International.
Liverpool’s van de Sanden was one of them, along with Miedema, new Bayern Munich signing Jill Roord and former Chelsea midfielder Jackie Groenen.
“A lot of people know about us now, they know about the tournament,” says the winger. “People recognise you on the street and it wasn’t like that a few years ago. Now there are a lot of videos and games on TV, players are in magazines and newspapers so it’s growing the sport on the street and not just on the pitch.
“But I’m quite relaxed about it,” she laughs. “It’s really special, of course, and I talk about it to my family all the time but you have to just keep calm. It’s in our country but on top of that we just want to play well, if we do that then I’ll be happy.”
Attacker van de Donk is one of the most prolific members of the squad and will make up a fearsome attack including future club mate Miedema, Martens, Roord and van de Sanden.
The 25-year-old is also excited by the reaction back home but spares a thought for the one England-based player who won’t be there, Man City midfielder Middag.
“It’s horrible for Tessel, we’ve had a few injuries and it’s a real shame to lose her, especially when we’re at home.
“But it’s amazing that we’re on posters around Holland, in newspapers and magazines, everyone wants to come and see us and the all the three group games have sold out – that’s amazing.”
She adds, “We can’t wait to get going, we’re buzzing, I think all the girls are just excited to start.”
Whilst van Veenendaal and van de Sanden have the anticipation of walking out with their teammates in their home city, the occasion will be special most of all for captain Mandy van den Berg.
The 26-year-old will not only have the privilege of leading her teammates and friends out in Utrecht on Sunday, it will be her first European Championships match after injury cruelly robbed her of a spot four years ago.
Just 24 hours after the squad was announced for the 2013 championships in Sweden, van den Berg suffered a knee injury that would keep her out of the tournament.
“For me these Euro’s will be extra special, not just because they are being held in the Netherlands,” says the defender. “I missed my first Euro’s because of an injury so to lead my team out in front of our fans will be amazing.
“It is one of those things you grow up dreaming about but you never imagine it will actually happen.”
The defender is also convinced the Dutch can surprise a few people, with a strong squad and little expectation of winning the tournament itself, the pressure is somewhat off despite their status as tournament hosts.
“I really believe we can upset a few people,” she states. “It’s hard to say where we will finish because we don’t want to rush things but I really do believe we have a very talented squad.
“If we can continue along the road we have started and continue to put in the hard work and energy then hopefully that will show for us in this summer.”
But like England two years ago, there’s the underlying motivation of what a good tournament could do for women’s football in the Netherlands.
The ‘Eredivisie Vrouwen’ was only established in 10 years ago and then combined with the Belgian league after just three seasons on its own.
In 2015, the Eredivisie Vrowen was re-established as its own league but currently has just eight teams, and the players accept a big performance this summer could have a big effect on the future of football back home.
“Women’s football is getting better but the league isn’t as good as here in England,” says van de Sanden. “I hope if we play well and have a good tournament we can help women’s football in our country and help the young girls coming through.”
Goalkeeper van Veenendaal adds, “We want the Dutch league to grow, we have a good foundation there but if we can grow the game it will help the league, and in turn, the league will help the national team in years to come.”
Van den Berg, in particular, knows what benefits success could have, having left behind a semi-professional league for Sweden, Norway and eventually England.
“Everyone is working together to grow and develop the game, in the end for us it’s important we keep performing,” says the captain.
“We have the fastest growth in girl’s football over the last few years, we have teams like FC Twente regularly in the Champions League and others like ADO Den Haag [whom van den Berg spent five years with] and Heerenveen who have been there since the beginning.”
She adds, “Hopefully we can continue to build towards a full professional league where everybody gets paid well like we do in England, our fans are getting behind the country and embracing the sport so it’s a very exciting time all round.
With all the talking and build up almost all said and done, the Dutch now have the chance to walk out this weekend and change the game in the Netherlands forever, just as the Lionesses did two years ago across the pond.
Whilst seven key players of the regular squad will all be in the FA WSL come August, the influx has continued with newly promoted Everton announcing the signings last week of Marthe Munsterman and Siri Worm – the latter in particular unfortunate to miss out on a spot in the squad.
And van de Sanden says the impact the World Cup had on English football combined with the growth of the league is what is behind tempting so many Dutch players to come to the FA WSL over the past two years.
“The FA WSL is really good, I love it,” she says. “How they play here is really good for me, all the players in Holland talk about this league and I think that’s why players like coming here. You’re coming up against top players whatever position you play and every player that comes here improves our national team.”
But the winger is non-committal on what goal the squad have set themselves once the action starts in her home city on Sunday.
“We have a goal but we won’t be saying that to everyone! We have a really good team and I think we can do well. Germany, France, England, they are the favourites, but we played well against England last year and dominated a lot of the game and only lost 1-0.”
The captain? She’s just looking forward to welcoming fans from around Europe to her country for three weeks of great football.
“We can’t wait for fans of all countries to come to the Netherlands for one big party, it should be a great occasion…”
By IBWM Senior Writer Rich Laverty. The UEFA Women's Euro 2017 kicks-off this Sunday (16th July 2017) with Netherlands Women v Norway Women. Those in the UK can watch it on British Eurosport at 5pm.
Header image credit goes fully to mookiy.