Ahead of the Netherlands’ quarter-final clash, a journalist asked Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman whether their opponents in that round, Italy, were the Netherlands of two years ago.
The questioner was drawing parallels between Italy’s surprise run at the Women’s World Cup and the Netherlands’ 2017 European Championships triumph, when the Oranje came from nowhere to win the tournament.
After the Italians exited in Valenciennes, perhaps the better question is whether the Dutch are still the Dutch. Are Wiegman’s side about to lift their second major trophy in just 24 months?
It has been a remarkable rise for a nation that, until 2015, had never played in the Women’s World Cup. They had never previously qualified for the Olympics, and only made their Euros debut in 2009.
All that is changing, though, thanks to increased investment and the emergence of a golden generation of Dutch stars. Two-footed left winger Lieke Martens, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema and Shanice van de Sanden form an attacking trident capable of dismantling even the most organised defence. Case in point: their patient 2-0 victory over Italy, who until Saturday had not conceded from open play at the World Cup.
The Dutch also have a dangerous mixture of steel and flair in the midfield. Jackie Groenen wears number 14 in homage to Johan Cruyff, while Sherida Spitse runs the show and contributes from set-pieces – she collected two assists against Italy.
They may have copious talent on the pitch, but much of the Netherlands’ recent rise should be credited to two managers. Vera Pauw was in charge of the national team for most of the 2000s, and laid the groundwork for the development that followed – including by being instrumental in establishing the women’s Eredivisie. Then, after earning more than 100 caps for the Netherlands over an illustrious playing career, Wiegman swapped her boots for a clipboard. She was an assistant to the national team when they played in their first World Cup in Canada, and then led them to the recent Euros triumph.
But as Wiegman is finding, success breeds expectation. Even as Holland swept through the group stage undefeated, if not quite in scintillating form, a critical Dutch press cast doubt from the sidelines.
“Since we won the European Championships we have become very visible – so there’s a lot of media,” Wiegman admitted, unperturbed, on Monday. “And some of that is critical – but that is our life right now, and we need to deal with it. We need to focus on our game and try to get better every game.”
In Lyon on Wednesday the Oranje will face fellow Europeans Sweden. A former powerhouse of women’s football, with a World Cup runners-up placing and an Olympic silver medal to their name, the Swedes have been on the wane for some time now.
Matched with Germany in the quarter-finals, few expected Sweden to progress. When I wished a Swedish friend good luck ahead of the game, he snapped back: “Only lost the last 11 competitive games against Germany. Can’t see anything going wrong.”
But progress they did. The Dutch may be the favoured team on Wednesday, but they certainly cannot take progression to the final for granted; having unexpectedly overcome Germany, there is no reason Sweden cannot do the same to Holland.
“Sweden are a very good team,” Wiegman conceded. “I see them as an equal.”
If the Dutch can navigate a difficult Swedish test and then triumph in the final on Sunday, don’t expect Wiegman to bat an eyelid. After the Netherlands downed Italy to reach their first-ever World Cup final four, some of her players admitted surprise at the achievement. “I did not expect to be in the semi-finals,” said Miedema.
But the calm and collected Wiegman was countenancing no such thing. “The word proud is more suitable than surprised,” she told me.
If the Dutch in France become the Dutch of 2017 by winning the tournament, they’ll surprise everyone – even the expectant Netherlands press. Except, that is, the steely coach that has masterminded the meteoric rise of women’s football in the Netherlands.