The Dutch ended 22 years of German domination to win the women’s European Championship
If, in many ways, the story of England in the last century could be told through the ascent of London and its surrounding arIn 1921, the Football Association succeeded in banning women’s football effectively as a sport. As Gail Newsham, historian of the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies FC, put it, “Women’s football offended the middle class propriety of the FA’s ruling council and perhaps more importantly it was grabbing some of the limelight from the male game.”
Similar sentiments echoed across the Channel. In France, the domestic women’s league was banned in 1932. The Dutch football federation brought into effect a similar ban in 1938 and the Germans followed suit in 1955, explaining that football was “fundamentally foreign to the nature of women”. It was only in the early 70s that these bans were eventually revoked.
Every other tournament since the Euros in 2009 has been called a ‘watershed’ for the sport, with each representing an improvement of some sort in some aspect. However, Euro 2017 felt like the moment the women’s game had truly captured attention and imagination in this continent; perhaps similar to the way it exploded in the United States in the 1990s.
It is not only the fact that there was widespread coverage in the media, which brought the likes of Pernille Harder and Jodie Taylor to millions across the world, but that the football was truly sensational at times, raising the question of why the sport is not more popular.
In the group stages, the likes of France, Germany and Spain brought clean, crisp passing with movement, with one-touch and two-touch passing that seemed second nature to them.
Barring a slip-up against Italy, who had already been eliminated from the tournament, Sweden were a story of great first touches and were serenaded with ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” after their win against Russia. (Spain were treated to Enrique Iglesias’s “Bailamos”.)
England had the perfect mix of industry and individual intelligence, with the likes of Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs and Jodie Taylor relentless in their performances, while Fran Kirby provided a creative spark that gave some unpredictability to their approach. With arguably the most talented squad, England changed essentially their whole side to face Portugal and still ran out very comfortable winners.
Beyond the favourites, the way some of the debutants embraced the occasion provided for great entertainment. It was not just France and Holland with the slick moves; Switzerland, playing their first European Championship, scored a terrific team goal against Iceland, a move consisting of one-touch passing just outside the penalty area, before a cross from wide and a header from the striker Ramona Bachmann rounded things off.
The Belgian public broadcaster had chosen to show their first game, a hard-fought 1-0 defeat to Denmark, in the prime-time slot on the opening Sunday. The move paid off, as scores of Belgian fans made the short trip across the border and thronged the Rat Verlegh Stadion in Breda, the closest venue to Belgium, which lent a home feel to their next game. When Elke van Gorp reacted the quickest to a spill by Ingrid Hjelmseth, the crowd went into a frenzy at Belgium’s first goal at an international tournament – against, of all opposition, the 2013 finalists Norway. When Janice Cayman doubled their lead, they were delirious.
Tactical innovations were also a common feature during the tournament. While coaches in the past have been a little conservative, this tournament offered invention. The Netherlands played the whole tournament with a central midfielder at centre-back to anticipate attacks, and had their central midfielders drift wide to compensate for not having their full-backs provide an overlap. Denmark neutralised Germany’s diamond in midfield by pressing Kristin Demann, which prevented them from building through the centre, and forced their biggest attacking threat in Dzsenifer Marozsán to drop deeper to be involved.
In addition, some of the set-piece routines were brilliantly conceived and executed. Against Italy who used man-marking, Germany played a short corner in which four or five of their players crowded together and jogged slowly towards the corner flag, drawing a host of defenders along with them, away from the penalty area.
As soon as they reached the edge of the box, the Germans would then immediately pivot and sprint back into very specific positions in the box, causing mayhem as their unaware opponents tried to make sense of where their designated player had moved. Among the group, one German player was left to receive the short pass and tasked with setting up the best-positioned team-mate for a shot.
There is always an argument that demands sport and politics be kept separate – which is inherently impossible – but when one arrives at an international tournament to represent one’s country and, in this case, a gender too this overlap takes on a new significance. There was no better representative of this than the Danish forward Nadia Nadim, who was born in Herat, Afghanistan.
“I could be dead,” was her sobering take on how differently things could have panned out in her life.
After her father was executed by the Taliban, her mother, fearing for the future of her five daughters and herself, decided in 2000, when Nadia was 12, to hire a “human smuggler” to facilitate their movement to the UK, via Pakistan and then Italy.
There, the Nadim family boarded a truck in the hope of being reunited with some relatives in the UK; the promise of familiar faces, relative peace and respite, after the turmoil of their lives in the preceding several months or even years.
But when they were made to alight, they found themselves in a small town in rural Denmark. The refugee centre was where Nadia was encouraged to pursue football. “We started to play with each other and have competitions — who can juggle the longest, all that stuff. We played with other refugee kids: Arabs, Armenians, Palestinians, Iraqi kids,” she said.
From there, Nadia went from strength to strength, eventually securing a prized move to Portland Thorns in the NWSL, while also studying medicine in Denmark. “I’m blessed to be in the position to be able to tell people that this is possible,” she said. “I’m happy I can show that good stories can exist too. You just have to give people a chance.”
No one would be blamed particularly if they gave up when 1-0 down in the quarter-finals against Germany, who had held the European crown for 22 years. But not Denmark, led by Nadim, wearing the armband and chasing every pass that circulated around the German backline.
When the moment arrived, it was Nadim who rose to the occasion. Launching herself well ahead of Anna Blässe at the far post, ponytail flailing in the air, she directed a thumping header into the back of the net. A late header from Theresa Nielsen saw the Danes through. They showed their versatility by playing a very different game in the semi-final; from a low-block tight set-up against Germany, trying to hit on the counter, to a very high defensive line against Austria, pinning them back in their own half.
For Germany, who had never previously failed to make the semi-finals, this exit was far earlier than anticipated. A joke circulated that hotels in and around Enschede (the venue for the final) were being flooded with calls and e-mails to cancel bookings by German fans. The transition between generations of footballers proved troublesome and Steffi Jones’s game-plan has come under scrutiny, but arguably the bigger takeaway was the fact that teams facing them did not seem intimidated or overwhelmed.
Playing in their first international tournament finals, Austria arrived with little expectation, but also plenty of interesting tactical variation. They topped their group, ahead of heavyweights France, with their high-pressing forwards Nina Burger and Lisa Makas forcing turnovers and passing errors close to the French goal. The goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi was the star of Lyon’s Champions League final shoot-out victory, but very nearly gave away the lead after her pass was cut out by Nicole Billa and, left one against one, she scrambled to parry away a shot from Laura Feiersinger.
In the semi-finals, Denmark would go on to get slightly lucky, with Austria failing to score any of their four penalties, including one in the first half of regulation time, and Manuela Zinsberger failed to replicate her heroics from the shootout against Spain.
Signalling a continent-wide increase in the level of women’s football, Germany’s elimination is not an indictment of its own resources, but rather that the other countries are finally catching up to them, reaping the rewards of the investment they made.
Naturally, the prime example is the Netherlands, whose efforts with women’s football have only really begun in the last 10-15 years and are starting to bear fruit; quick, technical, startlingly orange fruit.
There was plenty of romance in the Dutch triumph; playing at home, buoyed by the support of thousands turning up to march and dance before every match. It was as if a wave of orange had washed over the country, throwing up record viewership figures and propelling the sport to the forefront of national conversation.
The opener against Norway already felt special. After taking a while to click into gear, the Dutch scored a goal that was perfectly translated from training-ground moves and made full use of the 4-3-3 – which was made famous by Ajax in the same year the KNVB ended their ban on women’s football.
Lyon’s star forward Ada Hegerberg had lost the ball and the Leeuwinnen started their attack from goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal – at which, no doubt, the many prophets of Dutch football would have nodded in approval. The Arsenal keeper played a pass low and straight into the centre, to the midfielder Jackie Groenen, who – being a former champion judoka – fended off Tuva Hansen expertly, before moving the ball slickly out wide to play winger Lieke Martens into space down the left flank. Martens dribbled the ball before sending in a cross from the edge of the box. Racing to meet it was the local girl and the scourge of left-backs all summer, Shanice van de Sanden, whose run split the Norwegian defence before her header gave the keeper no chance.
Less than 15 seconds had passed between Van Veenendaal’s pass and the ball nestling in the back of the net. The host nation got off to a winning start, but also won in style – something Dutch sides in men’s football have been trying to achieve for decades now. They won every single game they played in the tournament, which was certainly unexpected given how their preparation had been looking. They sacked their coach just six months before the Euros – after a defeat to England, whom they vanquished in the semi-final.
Both teams in the final radiated a fierce and uncompromising intelligence. Denmark and the Netherlands both provided a high-octane, end-to-end open display that seemed to deliver even beyond the hype. All of the big names in Nadim, Harder, Martens and Miedema got on the scoresheet within the first 45 minutes, but the Dutch bounced back stronger in the second half, going on to win 4-2.
The splinters of a low sun illuminated De Grolsch Veste after the final, but it seemed to be amplified a thousandfold within the stadium, bouncing off of the radiant orange shirts that filled it. That Sherida Spitse, who had captained the side for most of the tournament, and plays at FC Twente, scored in the final at Enschede was hugely fitting. At a time when there was still no professional women’s league in the country, FC Twente were the first club in the Netherlands to introduce a women’s football team alongside their men’s and persisted despite scepticism and even ridicule.
“We said before the tournament that this must be an important moment for women’s football,” Wiegman observed during the group stages. “And on the field, of course, we set the mood in the country. We must ensure there is fun.”
While the latter was very obvious to see – captured in how the entire nation rallied behind their women during the championships and then celebrated them – whether the former is true will only become clear as time passes.
I remember watching Bend It Like Beckham as a child and for the first time being able to relate to what I was seeing with regard to football; feeling for the first time that being a girl and liking and playing football was not an oddity. 15 years on from Keira Knightley doing keepie-ups and Parminder Nagra curling a free-kick around a wall of salwars left to dry on a clothesline, there are now very real heroes for girls everywhere to look up to beyond the confines of fiction, courtesy of Euro 2017.
Children of this generation – boys and girls – and hopefully beyond, will yearn to dribble like Lieke Martens, just as they long to emulate Lionel Messi. They will find goal-scoring (and general) inspiration in Jodie Taylor, who is not a natural finisher and bided her time being consistently overlooked, working hard in training and earning her way into not only the England squad but the history books with her hat-trick against Scotland.
Just as Vivianne Miedema grew up idolising Robin van Persie and waited outside Varkenoord for a prized autograph and photo with Dirk Kuyt, kids now dream of scoring and leading her team to victory like she does, with many already vying for her autograph at the Zeist during the tournament. Having seen Anouk Dekker and Maud Coutereels dripping blood after a clash of heads and returning to play on with bandaged heads, even the archaic notions of women not being ‘tough’ enough have been shattered this summer.
Before the tournament, a photo surfaced of a young Jackie Groenen, who was one of the revelations of the tournament in the number 14 for the Dutch. It shows the 12-year-old Groenen, small for her age, with the number 10 on her red-and-yellow VV Riel shirt, dribbling the ball forward; her hair flying, her head raised and her gait flawless. Reminiscent of those shots in which Andrés Iniesta seems to have a dozen players trying to close him down, surrounding Groenen – or, perhaps, trying to avoid surrounding her for fear of embarrassment – are boys aged 14 and 15.
They are much taller, much bigger and much in awe of the little girl coming at them.
It is not an overstatement to suggest there might not be a better representation of women’s football at the moment than this picture. Men’s football, catalysed by many more years of, well, legal existence for one thing and then years of money being pumped into it, is undoubtedly bigger as a sport.
But the way Euro 2017 has captivated audiences near and far suggest that the future is bright for women’s football. It is smaller, but has everyone gaping at how entertaining and brilliant it is and, hopefully, will only go further from here.