For a nation with outstanding football pedigree, it seems on the surface at least, that the Netherlands have underachieved in the women’s game. Historically, the national team have struggled for consistency and they have just one major tournament appearance to show for the endeavours over recent decades, albeit that resulted in a semi-final finish at the 2009 UEFA Women's EURO in Finland. Now, the Class of 2012 are hoping to go some way towards correcting that anomaly when the Netherlands face England on Sunday, with a berth at next year’s Euro in Sweden effectively on the line.
Leading the charge for the Oranje Leeuwinnen (Orange Lionesses) will be prolific striker Manon Melis. Though only 25, Melis is a veteran of eight years in the Dutch team, accruing a national team record 42 goals during that time at a ratio of almost a goal every second outing. Melis has been even more prolific in the Swedish national league claiming the league’s top goalscorer crown in three of the last four seasons. It is no mean feat given the Damallsvenskan, which has attracted some of the world’s best players over the past decade, can lay strong claims to being the world’s most competitive league following the recent demise of USA’s WPS.
The pacy Melis has football pedigree in the bloodlines being the daughter of ex-Feyenoord and Den Haag forward Harry Melis. “People say we are similar kind of players, but I am really a centre forward, whereas he was more of a winger,” says Manon of her father. “But everyone says we are similar on the field, the way we walk and run, which is funny to hear.”
“Of course he supported me but he didn’t say I had to play,” Melis tells FIFA.com to the background hum of a busy airport terminal as the Dutch side gathered en route to England. “At that time it was not so common for girls to play, not like now.
“I played in a boy’s team until I was 18 which was really good for my development. In fact I think all the girls in the national team played with boys teams until 16, 17, 18 years old.”
By her 21st birthday the Rotterdam-born Melis was on her way to Sweden linking with Malmo, helping them to two titles amid a period of enormous growth for the club on Sweden’s southern tip. This season Melis joined Linkopings and while the club endured an erratic start to the season, the Dutchwoman has perfectly timed her goalscoring form ahead of the England contest, bagging four goals last weekend.
“It is always nice to score, especially at a new club with new team-mates so I hope I can keep on scoring now,” said Melis, who is paired in attack at Linkopings alongside the equally fleet-footed Australian Lisa De Vanna. “I think the [Swedish] league is more equal and harder than previous years. There are so many internationals and good players in the league.”
For the good of the game
The Netherlands go into Sunday’s match holding a five-point lead over England who have a match in hand. The two teams played out a scoreless draw last October in Zwolle, but with England having also dropped points earlier in the campaign, the pressure remains on the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ quarter-finalists to secure all three points. A draw would almost certainly assure the Dutch of qualification to Sweden 2013 and consign England to the vagaries of the play-offs.
Victory would provide the Dutch with a dose of revenge after England won the Euro semi-final between the pair three years ago in Finland. Since then a number of Dutch players have linked with international clubs, including goalkeeper Loes Geurts who has recently joined Swedish frontrunners Tyreso, while Petra Hogewoning and Lieke Martens are at Duisburg in Germany.
“It will be really interesting on Sunday,” says Melis. “The rest of the team have been training together almost every day for the past few weeks, so I think we are well prepared."
Melis says that winning through to Sweden is not only important for the team but also for the growth of the game in the Netherlands. Asked if Dutch women’s football has improved since her early days in the national team, Melis provides an unequivocal response. “Absolutely,” she says. “Especially after we qualified for the Euro’s for the first time in 2009, and now we have many, many girls that play. You can see the big improvement in the game.”
“If we win or have a good result on Sunday it will be great for women’s football in Holland. It will be good for the local competition, financially, sponsors and everything.”