The Netherlands have long been admired for their structured approach to football, and subsequent ability to compete with the game’s most successful and, invariably, biggest countries. Three FIFA World Cup Final™ appearances and a catalogue of global superstars down the decades is testament to the nation’s standing in the game.
Less successful in relative terms, however, have been the Dutch women. Though around during the earliest incarnation of the international women’s game several decades back, the Netherlands have invariably been left in the shadow by neighbouring European nations. They have yet to appear in a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ and have only participated in one UEFA Women's EURO, in Finland four years ago.
There is, however, a new verve about the women’s game in the Lowlands exemplified by qualification for this year’s EURO in Sweden and the establishment of the BeNe League, featuring the best teams from both Belgium and the Netherlands. The recently completed inaugural campaign has allowed local players to enjoy an increased level of competition and a longer season. With just a few exceptions, the majority of the Dutch national team ply their trade in the league.
Upon taking the Netherlands reins in 2010, coach Roger Reijners said: "Together with the players and staff I want to ensure that the Dutch women's team will become established in big tournaments.”
Next month’s UEFA Women’s EURO will provide a rare opportunity for the current crop of Oranje Leeuwinnen (Orange Lionesses) to partly fulfil Reijners' ambitions, and at the same time, reduce the imbalance with their male compatriots.
Under Vera Pauw, a one-time national team star and FIFA Technical Study Group member, the Netherlands enjoyed a breakthrough four years ago in more ways than one. Though Finland 2009 was the Netherlands' first appearance on the continental stage, it proved to be immensely successful.
The Oranje Leeuwinnen overcame Ukraine and Denmark to reach the quarter-finals, where they beat France on penalties. Although they then lost in extra time against England, their performance earned the players a new level of respect in the international arena, not to mention increased recognition at home with a new funding agreement put in place by the Dutch government.
“Following qualifying for the EURO's for the first time in 2009, we now have many, many girls that play,” star striker Manon Melis told FIFA.com last year. “You can see the big improvement in the game.”
Experience and a goal machine
Now the challenge for the Class of 2013 is to build further upon the platform that was assembled in Finland four years ago. It will be no easy task, however, with an opener against reigning champions Germany on 11 June, before further Group B outings against Norway and Iceland, each three days apart.
Aside from being drawn alongside perennial heavyweights Germany, much is in the Netherlands' favour for Sweden 2013. Many players boast experience from Finland 2009 on their CV, while five of the nation’s ten all-time most capped players are in the current squad. And in Melis - the daughter of former Feyenoord and Den Haag attacker Harry - they have a world class striker who has topped the hugely competitive Swedish league goalscoring charts on three occasions.
Results have been mixed since the team qualified for the EURO, though a draw against FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-finalists France and a win over Denmark are evidence that the Dutch can match it with anyone on their day. Now the challenge for the Oranje Leeuwinnen is to make the most of their moment in the spotlight next month in Sweden.