Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
In 2017, the Netherlands hosted the UEFA Women's Championship. It was a big moment for a nation that was a little slow to join the party. Despite the presence of a women's national team dating back to the early 1970s, the Netherlands had only just qualified for their first Women's World Cup in 2015. They had never qualified for the Olympics and had only been in two previous Women's Euro competitions.
But in 2017, the Oranje announced their presence on the international stage.
It was a quick path to success for the young Dutch stars. In the 2015 Women's World Cup, they climbed out of a group that included Canada, China and New Zealand. They made it out as a third-place team and faced off in the Round of 16 against the defending champions, Japan. The Dutch held their own but ultimately lost 2-1. Still, not bad for your first tournament.
Two years later, the Netherlands hosted the 2017 UEFA Women's Championship. There were some who thought the home-field advantage and growing talent in Dutch football could carry the Oranje to a title. But most people felt that the Dutch side was still too young and inexperienced to bring down established powerhouses like Germany, France and Sweden.
They were wrong.
The Netherlands roster was filled with little-known stars who have since become household names-- players like Lieke Martens, Vivianne Miedema, Shanice van de Sanden and Sari van Veenendaal. Under the leadership of their new head coach, Sarina Wiegman, the Dutch took down everyone who stood in their path. Van Veenendaal, the starting goalkeeper, allowed just one goal in the group stage and none in the knockout rounds leading up the final. In the quarterfinals, the Oranje knocked out Sweden with goals from Martens and Miedema. In the semifinals, they knocked out England, who were eager for their first title, with goals from Danielle van de Donk and Miedema (plus an England own-goal).
In the final, the Dutch faced another rising star: Denmark. The teams went back and forth in the first half, but the Netherlands took command in the second half and secured a 4-2 victory. The streets of the Netherlands flooded with fans dripping in orange as the Dutch team lifted their first major tournament trophy in front of a sold-out crowd.
Two years later, they tried to earn their second. And they would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for the meddling United States.
In the 2019 Women's World Cup, the Oranje picked up right where they left off in 2017. They won every match in their group stage, taking down New Zealand, Cameroon and Canada. In the Round of 16, they met Japan yet again, but this time they came out on top. In the quarterfinals, they faced off against Italy, another rising star on the international stage. Goals from Stefanie van der Gragt and Miedema carried them to victory.
In 2017, the Dutch had the element of surprise. That was mostly gone in 2019. This time, when Sweden faced off against the Oranje in the semifinals, they knew what to expect. And they dragged a scoreless match into extra time. But a 99th minute goal from Jackie Groenen gave the Dutch another win and a ticket to the Women's World Cup Final.
We all know what happened next. The Netherlands went toe-to-toe with the United States in the final and came close to taking down the best national team in the world. But a 61st minute penalty from Megan Rapinoe shifted the tide of the game, and less than ten minutes later, the United States tacked on another goal from the feet of Rose Lavelle. The Netherlands went home without the trophy. But not without showing how far their uber-talented team could go.
So, how did a team like the Netherlands rise so suddenly, and so quickly, on the international stage? Officials within the federation credit the increasing visibility of the women's game, as well as the near-doubling of the number of women and girls participating in football. But one cannot ignore a generation of talent that refused to be overlooked. The players in the Netherlands starting roster make up some of the best in the world-- from strikers like Martens and Miedema to midfielders like van de Donk and Sherida Spitse to goalkeepers like van Veenendaal. It's why they play for some of the best clubs in the world, including Olympique Lyonnais, Wolfsburg, Arsenal and Barcelona.
The Netherlands will carry that talent into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (now scheduled for this summer). But when they set their sights on defending the Women's European Championship in 2022 (also delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic), they will do so without their stellar head coach. Following the Tokyo Olympics, Wiegman will replace Phil Neville as the England head coach. The Netherlands have not yet selected her replacement.
Whoever steps in as the next Netherlands head coach will be in charge of a team overflowing with talented players. But like all teams, these players don't just want to be a golden generation-- they want to leave something behind so that the women's game in their country will outlive their own success. And that's happening, starting with the domestic league, the women's Eredivisie.