Rise of the Oranje Leeuwinnen: How Netherlands women’s football team went from minnows to contenders

In less than 24 hours, the Netherlands women’s team will step onto the pitch in Miyagi to take on Brazil in Group F of the Tokyo 2020 women’s football competition, having beaten Zambia 10-3 in a spectacular opening fixture. One of their most experienced players, Danielle van de Donk, traces the journey of this team that went from international minnows to gold medal contenders at the Olympics. 

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The date is 6 August 2017, and the De Grolsch Veste in the Dutch city of Enschede is packed with a sea of orange-shirted spectators roaring at the top of their voices. Moments later, the Dutch women’s team, led by 27-year-old midfielder Sherida Spitse, step onto the pitch to compete in their first-ever European championship final.

Their best finish before this match was third place in 2009. Now eight years later their opponents were an attacking Denmark side captained by their talismanic forward Pernille Harder.

Unsurprisingly for a team that had never competed in a European championship final before, the players in orange started nervously in the first few minutes. Five minutes into the game, their worst nightmare began to unfold – left-back Kika van Es attempted to tackle a speedy Theresa Nielsen but instead brought her down in the box. A penalty was awarded. Nadia Nadim stepped up and slotted the ball past Sari van Veenendaal: 1-0 to Denmark.

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Picture by 2017 Getty Images

A few years earlier, things could have easily gone south for the Oranje Leeuwinnen. But this Dutch team was forged in a different mould, a process that had embedded domination, attack and resilience into its values like code in software.

Over the course of the next 85 minutes, the Netherlands not only bounced back into the game, but also won it in style (4-2), as if to make a statement to the world of international football that they had arrived. On home soil, the Oranje Leeuwinnen were crowned European Champions.

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Picture by 2017 Getty Images

From oblivion to champions

One of the 2017 Euro-winning Netherlands team – Danielle van de Donk – has lived through periods when things were the exact opposite for the national team. As they prepare to mount a challenge for an Olympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020, the Dutch women’s team is buoyed, confident and most importantly, self-assured.

However, when Van de Donk was a teenager, the canvas of women’s football in her country was painted with different colours.

“I think that the difference now is that local leagues and clubs are going full professional. So we, as women or girls, can focus on football. When we were younger, we had to study, work, train and play the games while trying to be better,” said Van de Donk.

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Picture by 2019 Getty Images

In her teens and early 20s, Van de Donk grew up playing and training with male footballers, something that doesn’t happen anymore because of how football has changed for women in the Netherlands.

“When we were younger, we trained with boys to improve ourselves,” said Van de Donk. The former Arsenal midfielder believes she has added this physical aspect of hard tackling into her game, despite being a naturally creative player, because she had to be stronger due to her relatively smaller frame.

World Cup, Olympic Games and more

If anyone has seen this Netherlands women’s team play in the past five years, it is hard to understand the fact that they’ve never participated in the Olympic Games. Since their 2017 Euro win, they have been virtually unstoppable and were runners-up in the 2019 World Cup in that famous final against the United States.

“We’re quite confident, to be fair. Before this, we’ve always been the underdog but I think our opponents are now analysing us a bit more and looking at us from closer range. It’s nice, new and something that no one has experienced before so we’re looking forward to it,” explained Van de Donk, referring to the team’s thoughts about Tokyo 2020.

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Picture by 2019 Getty Images

It is going to be a bit different than normal of course due to Covid but we’re really looking forward to playing at the Olympics

Panache, power and philosophy

The Dutch women’s team is not short on quality players, by any standards, and beating them will be a tough task for any team at Tokyo 2020. With experienced campaigners like goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal (PSV), defender Stefanie van der Gragt (Ajax) and Van de Donk (Lyon) marshalling the troops in midfield along with young stars like Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal), Jackie Groenen (Manchester United) and Lineth Beerensteyn (Bayern Munich), the Oranje Leeuwinnen squad is full of quality.

A great indicator about any football team’s togetherness is their reaction when they celebrate a goal, irrespective of its importance. In this Dutch team, bonds are forged and not forced. A lot of players, part of the core that won Euro 2017, have played together for many years, allowing the team to have a nucleus that is connected not with their footballing brains but their hearts as well.

Sherida Spitse, who withdrew from the tournament due to an injury, revealed how things have changed for the Dutch women's team.

I think the football style is much better than what it was 15 years ago and I have played with a lot of teams.

We keep more possession of the ball and everyone is much better on the ball. Apart from that, as compared to 10 years ago, the mentality is quite different. It is much stronger.

The vista of the Olympics and hope of gold

Women’s football at the Olympics has been a relatively recent addition to the Summer Games (introduced in 1996) and it has been dominated by the United States of America – the same team that trumped Netherlands in the final of the 2019 World Cup.

Along with the USA, hosts Japan and historic powerhouses Brazil will be the teams to beat for Van de Donk & co if they are to strike gold in Tokyo. The grand stage of the Summer Olympics has the potential to be intimidating for the team but the lack of spectators could well turn out to be something that works in their favour.

The Dutch team will be favourites to top the group and if the United States - who suffered a shock 3-0 opening-round loss to Sweden in Group G - recover their pre-tournament form, we could see a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on 6 August for the women’s gold medal contest.

Out of the six friendlies that the Netherlands team has played in 2021, they have won four and lost two. Now they have begun the Olympic tournament in scintillating form, beating Zambia 10-3 in the opening fixture. With their 2019 World Cup final opponents USA losing out to Sweden and the Dutch slotting hom 10 in their game, the Europeans have sent out a loud message - they mean business in Tokyo.

The goal-scoring prowess of Vivianne Miedema and van de Donk's creativity in the final third will be Netherlands' weapons throughout the tournament. In the game against Zambia, the former scored four goals in sixty minutes while the latter provided three assists during her 70 minutes in the game.

The expected high-octane contest against Brazil - runaway 5-0 winners in their opening fixture - on 24 July is arguably the most challenging fixture and a win ensure they top the group, should they manage to beat or draw against People's Republic of China.

A closer look at the social media handles shows that this team is a close-knit outfit that enjoys each other’s company and Van de Donk trusts Shanice van der Sanden with a haircut!! When it comes to matters on the pitch, Van de Donk and co will not shy away from a hard tackle or a physical duel if that is what it takes to win the game.

Van de Donk’s thoughts on the Games are quite clear.

We just want to prove ourselves again because we’ve done that in the last few years. This is our first Olympic Games so we’re already making history but we want to make even more history.

Back in 2010, when Van de Donk made her international debut, stadiums in the Netherlands didn’t have a lot of spectators and they played without much support despite being at home.

Over a decade later, at the Tokyo 2020 Games, an entire nation will be watching them from home, hoping for them to bring back gold on their Olympic debut.