The Wildest Soccer Match Of The Week Was Between Two Teams That Didn’t Even Play Each Other
12:49 PM EST on December 7, 2023
On Tuesday, the Netherlands and the England women's national teams faced off against one another in a contest with major stakes. The victor would walk away not only with the top spot the pair's Nations League group, which would earn them a place in the competition's title-deciding four-team knockout round, but also a chance to qualify for next summer's Paris Olympics. The two teams wound up scoring 10 total goals, with momentum and the lead wildly swinging back and forth throughout, most thrillingly in the form of three stoppage-time goals. And what made it all truly remarkable was that the two teams weren't even on the same pitch.
To fully understand what made Tuesday's results so crazy, we need to set the stage. Europe's spots for the upcoming Summer Olympics in France are to be determined by the results of UEFA's Nations League. Three teams will qualify; one of them will be France, which is automatically in as hosts, and the other two will (with a potential caveat) be the two teams that make it to the Nations League Final. To get to that final, the aspirants have to top one of the four four-team League A groups, and then win the one-leg semifinal that the four table-toppers qualify for. (The aforementioned caveat is that the French team won its group and will also compete in the knockout round. If France reaches the final, then the second UEFA team to qualify for the Olympics will be the winner of the third-place game.)
The Netherlands and England had the misfortune of being drawn in the same Nations League group. As you might expect from these two juggernauts, the fight to win the group has been fierce. Coming into Tuesday, the final matchday of the group, the situation was about as tight as possible. The Netherlands and England both had nine points, with the Dutch clinging to the lead thanks to a slight goal difference advantage, having scored 10 and conceded six to England's nine and eight. On that final matchday, England faced Scotland while the Netherlands hosted Belgium—neither opponent you'd imagine would give much trouble to the two Olympic hopefuls. The winner of the group, then, would be determined by which team could win in a big enough blowout to ensure themselves the top spot.
England, as the second-placed team, had the bigger hill to climb, though there was also a quirk that could in theory offer them a boost. The stakes were clear: the Lionesses needed to not just beat Scotland, but do so by a margin of victory at least three goals larger than the Netherlands' margin of victory over Belgium. A three-goal margin would see England and Netherlands level on goal difference, but England would go through on the second tiebreaker, which is goals scored. And though Scotland had nothing to play for in terms of its Nations League fate, at least a couple Scottish players had a vested interest in seeing England go through.
You see, technically speaking, "England" was never going to qualify for the Olympics. Were the Lionesses to satisfy the Olympic requirements, the team that would fly to Paris next summer would be Team Great Britain, of which Scotland is of course a part. A couple Scottish players would likely make the Team GB roster, which made for an odd situation where, for the benefit of at least some of its players, Scotland had an incentive to lay down and let England trample all over them.
OK, so that's the stage set then. Which brings us to 2:45 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, when both England and the Netherlands kicked off their attempts to crush their opponents and take a big step toward qualifying for the major tournament that both would have a great shot at winning.
The timeline across the two matches was remarkable. England struck first, getting off to the hot start they needed when Alex Greenwood headed in a Beth Mead corner to give the Lionesses the lead in the 12th minute. Then things were quiet for about 20 minutes, until Lineth Beerensteyn opened the scoring for the Netherlands in the 34th minute to reestablish their three-goal cushion. England, though, answered right away. First Lauren James benefitted from a huge deflection that saw her shot from outside the box sail past Scotland's wrong-footed keeper, Lee Gibson, in the 38th minute. Then, just a minute later, James was at it again, smoking another outside-the-box shot that this time needed no help in beating Gibson. It was an incredible hit, and even though it alone hadn't put the English ahead of the Dutch, James couldn't keep a cheeky smirk from creeping onto her face as she jogged back to the halfway line:
Lauren James being Lauren James, she wasn't done. For her next trick, she uncorked another thunderbolt of a kick (how does she smack the cover off the ball with such smooth strokes with so little backlift?? And with her left foot too?!?), this time a cross that found Beth Mead in the penalty box, where she sidestepped some lax Scottish defending (curious ...) to lump in England's fourth goal of the night.
With that, both matches entered halftime. At the break England led Scotland 4-0, while the Netherlands was only up on Belgium 1-0. Should the score stay like that for the rest of the match, England and the Netherlands would be level on points and goal difference, but with England atop the group thanks to a 13-11 advantage in goals scored. But the fireworks had only just started.
The action hotted up again right after the teams came back onto the field. Fran Kirby gave England a fifth goal in the 49th minute. That goal had to have felt like something close to an overall winner, since it meant the Netherlands would have to put two more goals past Belgium in order to wrest back control of the group, and that's if England failed to score again. But any feelings of assuredness evaporated quickly after Beerensteyn scored a second goal for the Oranje in 54th minute. Clearly, the match was going to go down to the wire.
For the final half-hour of regular time, both teams pushed mightily for the all-important next goal. But after scoring seven goals between them in the first hour of play, both the English and the Dutch struggled to get the ball over the goal line.
And so, it was still 5-0 England, 2-0 the Netherlands, when both matches entered stoppage time. Only a single goal separated the two for the group's top spot. Maybe sensing the opportunity of the moment, the soccer gods decided to act. Seconds into the first of what was to be five minutes of stoppage time, Dutch star forward Lieke Martens charged down the right flank. Sizing up her defender, she knocked the ball forward, ran clear around the poor Belgian women she'd just humiliated, reconnected with the ball, and sent in a cross. The cross was deflected, however, and a Belgian defender headed the ball out of the penalty area and back where it had come from. Martens then ran up to the cleared ball and sent her own looping header back toward goal, where the ball looked like it might drop into the net. Belgian keeper Nicky Evrard managed to slap the shot away right as it approached the goal frame, but (America-born!) Dutch midfielder Damaris Egurrola was Johanna-on-the-spot and nodded it home from point-blank range.
The goal had provisionally sent the Oranje through, and the Dutch players and fans in the stadium celebrated like it. Damaris ran around the touchline with a huge smile on her face, and she was eventually mobbed by her teammates, dragged to the ground, and piled on. It took almost a full minute for the Dutch players to return to their places on the pitch. Just a couple seconds after Belgium restarted play from the resulting post-goal kickoff, the Dutch TV commentator announced that England had scored again.
Indeed, back in Scotland, Lucy Bronze had scored a header of her own to give England a sixth goal of the match. The moment the ball hit the back of the net, Bronze sank to the grass in joy. Surely that goal, scored in the third of what was to be three minutes of stoppage time, would put the Lionesses over the top.
But not so fast! The England-Scotland match came to a 6-0 end not long after Bronze's goal. The English players huddled together on the pitch watching the final stages of the Netherlands-Belgium match on somebody's phone. Their stomachs had to have done a cartwheel when, in the final minute of stoppage time, Damaris once again came up big, capping a quick Dutch counter with a headed goal to return the Netherlands to the top of the group. Once again Damaris sprinted around the touchline, where she was again mobbed by her ecstatic teammates, only this time there were no more shoes to drop. The 4-0 final result gave the Netherlands a plus-8 goal difference for the group stage, one better than England's plus-7. And with that, the Netherlands will have its chance to qualify for the Olympics.
(Why, Jorge Vilda, did your fuckery scare off Damaris from representing Spain but redounded to the Netherlands' benefit instead of the USWNT's??)
The Nations League semifinals will be held in late February. The matchups have not been drawn yet, but the four teams that have qualified for it are Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Normally I'd say that there isn't a chance in hell that the final legs of this journey to Paris could be as exciting as the one we just witnessed on Tuesday, but after seeing all of THAT, I will instead cross my fingers, hope for more of the same, and make it a point to tune in.