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The Netherlands Will Find Life At The World Cup Much Harder This Time Around

10:27 AM EDT on July 7, 2023

Lieke Martens of the Netherlands celebrates after scoring her teams first goal, Danielle van de Donk of the Netherlands during the International Women's Friendly match between Netherlands and Belgium at the Parkstad Limburg Stadion on July 2, 2023 in Kerkrade, Netherlands
Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency/Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

At the 2019 World Cup, hidden in the shadow of the rampaging USWNT run to the trophy, the Netherlands completed an ascension at record speed. Though a famous soccer nation on the men's side, the women's team hadn't qualified for its first World Cup until 2015. They held their own as debutantes, losing 2-1 to finalists Japan in the round of 16. Two years later, the Oranje won the Euros, which were conveniently hosted in the Netherlands. That victory has been said to have changed everything for the team, with the players becoming bonafide megastars in the country, and expectations rising sky-high ahead of the 2019 tournament.

Even those expectations weren't high enough, though, as the Dutch went into France and fought their way tooth and nail from a tricky group all the way to a respectable 2-0 loss to the aforementioned USWNT in the final. Suddenly, this became a team that wasn't just a good story, but one that had a chance to be a mega-power in the women's game, and perhaps they could be the first to bring a World Cup trophy to the starved soccer masses of the Netherlands.

Yeah, about that. Since reaching the 2019 final, the team has stalled out a bit in ways both expected and concerning. It's hard to stay a dark horse after you roar to life in such a powerful manner, and reality tends to fight back after some time. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, the Netherlands again faced the United States in a knockout-round game, though this time in the quarterfinals. Again, the USWNT won in a 2-2 draw ending with a 4-2 penalty shootout.

That loss wasn't a huge cause for concern; the USWNT is the USWNT after all, and though they are not unbeatable, there's no shame in losing to them. More demoralizing for the Dutch, though, was the 2022 European Championship, in which the team attempted to defend its 2017 title in England. It didn't even get close, finishing second to Sweden in the group via goal difference before limping out against France in the quarterfinals, 1-0 in extra time. Perhaps no one was going to beat England last summer, but the Netherlands had as good a chance as anyone at pushing towards the final, and coming up so short had to sting.

That's where the Netherlands team is at now. Two straight disappointments in tournaments, plus losses to Austria and Germany earlier this year in the run-up to the World Cup, leave the Dutch in that third tier of teams below the favorites (the United States, England, and Spain) and the teams that wouldn't shock anyone if they won (Germany, France, maybe Brazil?). The Netherlands will find itself in a familiar spot: as a dark horse, just as likely to go home in the round of 16 as in the final. That might just be the way the Dutch like it. It worked last time, after all.

But 2023 is not 2019, and there are concerns that go beyond poor form. The team has only played nine matches under current head coach Andries Jonker, who replaced Mark Parsons after the 2022 Euro debacle, and the side is missing its consensus best player through injury (more on her in just a second). This isn't as loaded a side as it was in 2019, and everyone is four years older without much of a powerful youth movement behind them. There's still enough talent, particularly in the midfield, to surprise some teams at the World Cup, but it would be no surprise at all if the Dutch don't factor into the late stages of this tournament.

Who Is Their Star?

In any other year, this section would be the easiest to fill out in a Netherlands preview. It's Vivianne Miedema, and it will be Vivianne Miedema for a very long time. It will not, however, be Vivianne Miedema at the 2023 World Cup. The Arsenal striker, and the all-time leading scorer for the Oranje, tore her ACL back in December, and from the moment it happened, she had pretty much accepted that she would not be playing in the tournament this year. That's a bummer for the Netherlands and, really, for the entire tournament.

So, without Miedema around, who will step up for the Dutch if they are to make another deep run in the World Cup? The answer is probably going to have to be the team's previous best player: Lieke Martens.

There was a time when Martens was the bee's knees for the Netherlands. At the age of 24, she led the Dutch to the 2017 Euros trophy, hosted at home, and she played for Barcelona as the Spanish mega-giants won La Liga three times in a row, as well as the 2021 Champions League. Martens was also named the 2017 UEFA women's player of the year, and was a finalist in 2021 (an award eventually won by her club teammate Alexia Putellas). Martens now plies her trade in France, having moved to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2022.

To be clear, Martens is not exactly the world-beater she was in 2017, or even in 2021. Time comes for everyone, and at the age of 30, Martens has likely seen her very best days already. This doesn't mean she isn't good; she's still a tricky winger with a sweet passing foot, and she's never been afraid to shoot the ball (she averaged nearly four shots per 90 minutes last season, putting her in the top 11 percent of wingers).

The Netherlands will need her to do just that with Miedema out, though if she chooses to be more of a playmaker, there are goalscorers in this Dutch side (Lineth Beerensteyn and Katja Snoeijs in the front line, and both Jill Roord and Danielle van de Donk can score from midfield). Regardless of which Martens shows up, though, her country will need her to be the center of the offense if a deep run is to be on the cards. Martens has shown time and time again in her illustrious career that she can be just that, but will she able to do it for a whole tournament? The answer to that might go the furthest in determining how long the Netherlands will stay in this World Cup.

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Can a goalkeeper be cool? In the context of this Dutch side, it will have to do. 23-year-old Aston Villa goalie Daphne van Domselaar is perhaps more "important" than "cool" for the Dutch, given the enormity of her task at this tournament. After having made her senior team debut in February of 2022, van Domselaar was selected as a backup to 2019 hero Sari van Veenendaal for the 2022 Euros. Being a backup goalkeeper at a major international tournament is a little like being a third quarterback in football: You probably won't play, and if you do, something went horribly wrong.

Well, something did go horribly wrong for the Dutch, as van Veenendaal got injured in the very first match of the tournament against Sweden, forcing van Domselaar into relief action. The then 22-year-old was a star from the first moments she came on the field, probably leaving the tournament as the Netherlands' best player.

Her performance at the Euros has made her the Netherlands' undisputed No. 1 following van Veenendaal's retirement, and she enters this World Cup with a chance to replicate her predecessor's stunning streak of saves that helped the Dutch make the final last time out in the World Cup. With a move to England in the books for after the tournament, van Domselaar could become a household name over the next month and a half before moving to an even bigger club stage. With what she's shown to date, both for club and country, it would be a surprise if she didn't do just that.

Who Is Their Enemy?

No one likes a hangover. You drink and party and pretend you will live forever, only for the bright and harsh reality of the morning to smack you in the face and render you useless for most of the next day. This is what the Netherlands have been facing since that magical run to the 2019 World Cup final, and the sluggishness that has been born out of that hangover will be the hardest foe in the field. Well, that and the United States, who the Netherlands drew in their group, but I digress.

Back in 2019, the Netherlands were the highest-ranked Pot 2 team, and drew a manageable opponent in Pot 1's Canada. The Dutch beat the Canadians 2-1 in the final match of Group E, then powered through the less intense side of the bracket to reach the final, beating Japan, Italy, and Sweden on the way there. It was a perfect confluence of luck of the draw and a sturdy side that led the Netherlands to near-glory.

This time around, things are much harder on paper, even while ignoring that the Netherlands are coming into this tournament in much worse shape than four years ago. Instead of Canada in the group, it's the United States, the no. 1 team in the world and the reigning champions, this time around. Instead of riding the 2017 Euro win at home for momentum, the Dutch are coming off of last summer's disappointing quarterfinals exit at the hands of France, a fate they could have avoided if not for losing a goal difference tiebreaker to Sweden in the group. And Miedema is not playing, as mentioned above. This has all the makings of a real bummer down under for the Dutch, and making sure to not slip up in winnable games will be the hardest part of its quest to become the third team to lose a final and then win the next tournament (Norway did it in 1995, and the U.S. avenged its 2011 loss to Japan in 2015).

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

The Netherlands has a rich history of folklore and fairy tales, but for my money, no one is cooler than Dorus Rijkers. Besides having a very Dutch name (meaning, fun to say, even if incorrectly), Rijkers was also a real life savior. As a lifeboat captain, he was prolific in saving people's lives out on the water. He saved 487 shipwrecked victims across 38 rescue operations in the late 19th century and early 20th, though some sources put those numbers even higher, at 511 rescues over 42 operations. He was so well-known for his skill in saving people that King William III honored him in a most European fashion: He gave Rijkers a medal of honor and then smoked a pipe with him. By the time he died in 1928, Rijkers was honored with a large funeral befitting of his status as one of the most popular Dutch citizens of the era.

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

Stamppot is a Dutch dish consisting of mashed potatoes mixed with other vegetables, such as kale, or onions, or carrots. It is then topped with a sausage of some sort.

Reader, this is the most scran bit of scran that has ever scranned. Verdict: Scran.

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

After finishing second in 2019, the Dutch should be in the hunt for their first World Cup trophy. That's how these things are supposed to go, after all. You surprise everyone with success, then you build on it until you reach the mountiantop. It's not, however, how things have worked for the Netherlands since 2019. With their visible decline, and the knockout round exit at the 2022 Euros, the Oranje can't reasonably expect to replicate, or top, their last excursion to a World Cup, particularly with Miedema sidelined.

The expectations then should be much lower and humble, and winning one knockout round game, likely against Sweden, should be the bar to clear for the Dutch. Playing the United States tough in the group would also help make what will most likely be an early exit a lot easier to take back home. Of course, no one expected the Netherlands to make it to the final in 2019, so I wouldn't rule them out entirely just yet.

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