The Netherlands are about to enter Euro 2022 but all is not as it should be as far as the holders are concerned. The team that swept to the trophy five years ago on home soil amid fanatic support have been on a bumpy ride over the past few weeks and face Sweden, one of the tournament favourites, at Bramall Lane on Saturday tonight.
Two weeks ago the Orange Lionesses lost 5-1 to England – their biggest defeat in 11 years. The game, and especially the second half, was a reality check for the players and the head coach, Mark Parsons, the English manager who took over from Sarina Wiegman last year. The Netherlands had no response to England’s power and the match turned into a procession. “I should have intervened and I didn’t, so it’s not their fault,” Parsons said after the chastening defeat.
They recovered to win their next two games, against Belarus (3-0) and Finland (2-0), although the defense continued to look unreliable and they struggled to put high pressure on their opponents, something Parsons wants them to do.
However, despite all the pretournament problems there is a certain factor that means the reigning champions still count as one of the favorites: the quality of the players.
There is Lieke Martens, Jill Roord and Daniëlle van de Donk – who has just recovered from injury – and then there is Vivianne Miedema, a player so good she can win games single-handedly. The Arsenal striker has 94 goals in 111 games for the Netherlands, making her the country’s record scorer, men or women.
Miedema has been around for so long she is considered a veteran, but she is still a week away from turning 26, having made her debut at the age of 17 nine years ago.
Her first impression of the team wasn’t that good, she said later. “The moment I entered the camp, I was set apart in a small room to do my homework. When I had finished, I’d be sitting at the dinner table in between players that were at least 10 years older than me.”
Over the years Miedema has matured on and off the pitch. Whereas initially she would trudge and pull a grumpy face on the pitch when things didn’t go the way she wanted, now she steps up as a leader, trying to get everyone back on the same page. As one of the members of the playing committee, she demanded the women be paid as much as the men for doing promotional work. Last month there was a breakthrough, when the players and the Dutch federation (KNVB) came to an agreement over equal pay.
In England, which she calls her “first home”, Miedema’s status is even bigger than in her country of birth. “The people there must be tired of seeing my face, because it’s everywhere,” she said after a recent training session. She recently signed a new contract at Arsenal, where she has played for five years, adding at least two more. It makes her de ella – in her own words – “the highest-paid” player in the WSL.
Although it seems everything Miedema touches turns to gold, it hasn’t always been easy. In her first year at Arsenal, after the Orange Lionesses’ Euros success, the striker hit a wall, as she referred to it in an interview with the Dutch magazine Helden. “First I was a nobody, then suddenly I was famous,” she said. Miedema told of how she suffered from heavy panic attacks at the time. “After an attack, I couldn’t do anything for three days; I was lying flat on the couch, and had to skip several training sessions.”
Talking to a psychologist helped her to be more open about her feelings, and the change has been noticeable to her teammates: “They see that I’m not as surly and closed as I look.” She finished her therapy sessions a month ago, making her feel mentally and physically ready for the Euros.
The Netherlands’ opening opponents have concerns about Miedema’s clubmate Stina Blackstenius. An old thigh injury resurfaced during Sweden’s preparations and there is a fair chance the striker will start on the bench. “It’s not fun at all,” Blackstenius said. “You want to be involved and participate at all costs. I’ve been looking forward to this championship for so long and being on the sidelines is not optimal.”
Although it would be a major blow to Sweden, they have plenty of other quality with players such as Fridolina Rolfö, who played in the Champions League final for Barcelona, Magdalena Eriksson of Chelsea, Caroline Seger and Kosovare Asllani.
After taking silver at last year’s Olympics, Sweden hoped to secure their first trophy since 1984, when they won the first women’s European Championship. They have been Euros runners-up three times and look strong candidates to get to another final under their head coach, Peter Gerhardsson.
But the final seems miles away as they head to Bramall Lane, where 11 hungry Orange Lionesses, including Miedema, await.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism