Time to Shine: the lionesses are set to step into the light of the Dutch summer sun

Edition 20 June 2017, by John Mahnen.

On Sunday July 16, the EUFA Women’s European Championship will kick off in Utrecht. Years in the making, it will the Netherland’s moment to shine and perhaps more importantly, the moment to shine for women’s football in this county. The women’s game in this footballing country has always played a very distant second fiddle to the men’s game. Even among women’s sports, football takes a back seat to hockey both in terms of success and exposure. However, the growth of the women’s game in Holland has clipped along at a steady pace and developments in recent years have suggested the ladies are on the verge of a breakthrough.

The history of the women’s game in the Netherlands is not as long or storied as the men’s, but is rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary. The Leeuwinnen or Lionesses, first took the pitch in an international game recognised by FIFA in 1971. The match was played in Hazenbrouk against France and resulted in a 4-0 defeat for the visitors.

In 1980s and 1990s, the team failed to qualify for the final tournaments of UEFA’s European Championship and the FIFA’s World Championship. The team qualified for the UEFA Women’s Euro 2009 and managed to pull off a surprise third place together with world power Norway. It was a watershed moment for the Lionesses but they failed to build upon it in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2013, where they did not advance after the group stage. The team had high hopes for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada but coach Roger Reijers and his selection stranded in thirteenth place, after losing their first match in the knockout stage to Japan. As host country, the Dutch team has automatically qualified for the UEFA Women’s Euro 2017. While the men’s success at 2014 FIFA World Cup cast a long shadow over the women, the disastrous campaign of the UEFA Euro 2016 and the lack of success in qualifying for the next World Cup has left this football-frenzied nation looking to the women to bring Ons Oranje back into the sunshine.

For the 2017 campaign on home soil, the responsibility for coaching the Lionesses will be with Sarina Wiegman. Born in The Hague, the 47-year-old had an extensive playing career as a central midfielder and defender. In 2001, she became the first Dutch footballer to feature in 100 international matches. She replaced Arjan van der Laan, who was seen by Dutch FA technical boss Hans van Breukelen as not having the best chances of success in the upcoming Euro. After retiring from play in 2003, Wiegman started a managerial career, coaching the women’s teams of Ter Leede and ADO Den Haag. In 2014, she became assistant manager of the national team. In 2016, Wiegman received her coaching license and became the first woman to work as coach at a Dutch professional football organisation.

The anticipation of the 2017 Women’s European Championships is considerable. Already, some 16,000 tickets have been sold for the opening game between Netherlands and Norway in Utrecht which is a Dutch women’s football record. The Dutch will hope to improve on their 1-0 defeat against Norway four years ago in Sweden. Aside from the Galgenwaard in Utrecht, the Rat Velegh Stadium in Breda, De Grolsch Veste in Enschede, De Adelaarshort in Deventer, De Vijverberg in Doetinchem, Sparta Stadion in Rottterdam, and the Koning Willem II Stadion in Tiburg will all play host to the tournament fixtures. The Lionesses are tipped to be an outside shot for a medal with strong showing expected from Germany, France, England and Sweden. The Dutch will have to do without alltime scoring leader Manon Melis who at 30, decided to retire last year after an injury sustained playing in the U.S. professional league. Some of the work will fall upon the shoulders of forward Vivianne Miedema, who is 10 years younger than Melis. Speedster Shanice van de Sanden will be called upon to leave defenders in her wake as she did in the Algarve Cup earlier this year against the Japanese. During the tournament, UEFA – in collaboration with social responsibility partners the World Heart Federation and Hartstichting in the Netherlands – will also be promoting ‘healthy hearts’, with the goal of increasing awareness of the importance of sport and encouraging children, women and fans in general to be more active in their everyday lives. Cardiovascular disease remains the first cause of premature deaths among women.

UEFA is aiming to make football the number one women’s particpation sport across Europe within five years. The focus is on growing participation to achieve this and will be built around a campaign called ‘Together #WePlayStrong’. It focuses on three key pillars that showcase the best of the game: skill, togetherness and positive attitude. The campaign will launch ahead of the UEFA Women’s Champions League final and will be at the heart of UEFA’s editorial coverage of Women’s EURO this summer. All this plays nicely into the strong growth figures the women’s game has experienced in the Netherlands. The Dutch Football association, the KNVB, currently has some 150,000 women and girls among its registered ranks. While the tournament alone should help the drive to 200,000 very nicely, imagine the impact a podium place for the Lionesses could have. One thing is for certain, the Dutch summer sun is set to shine on the Lady Lions as they get ready to unleash their own mighty roar!