Netherlands ultimately didn’t get that close to retaining their 2017 title at Euro 2022 this summer, falling to France in the quarter-finals of the competition after struggling to find their best form amid a number of frustrating setbacks and challenges.
The Dutch were somewhat off the radar when they were crowned European champions as hosts five years ago. Their rise to prominence was quite rapid, having qualified for the World Cup for the first time only two years prior and enduring a dreadful win-less and goal-less Euro 2013.
Under the guidance of Sarina Wiegman, Netherlands consolidated their elite standing by reaching the 2019 World Cup final. It was still just their second global tournament but it took a penalty to strike the killer blow against a very strong United States team in the end.
There had been changes at the top coming into Euro 2022. Wiegman was poached by England last year to be replaced, somewhat ironically, by Englishman Mark Parsons, a coach revered for his work over almost a decade at club level in the United States.
But a core of key players from 2017 and 2019 remained, complemented by an emerging generation of newer talent – the likes of goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar, right-back Lynn Wilms, midfielder Damaris Egurrola and forward Esmee Brugts.
Due to their new-found reputation and past performances, including scoring 23 goals in four games at the Olympics last summer, the Dutch have acquired a level of expectation and pressure that didn’t exist in 2017 and was arguably still not quite there in 2019 either.
At a tournament this summer where many predicted up to six genuine contenders to lift the trophy, going all the way again was always going to be extremely difficult, even with a smooth run.
But a smooth run was not what Parsons and his Dutch squad got. Just a quarter of the way through their opening game, goalkeeper and captain Sari van Veenendaal was injured and forced to withdraw from the tournament. That same game saw Aniek Nouwen also pick up a problem and miss the next one, while Jackie Groenen and Vivianne Miedema both tested positive for Covid-19 – Groenen missed one game and Miedema missed two. At the end of the group stage, Lieke Martens was then ruled out for the rest of the tournament because of injury.
“I’m proud that we had a lot of challenges, problems and adversity but you didn’t feel the opportunity for excuses from the players at any moment,” Parsons reflected after the final whistle blew on his team’s quarter-final exit.
“In the end, we were having to change the team every game because of those problems and you can tell in our football communication that it’s not as high as we want it to be in a quarter-final – that caught up [with us],” he added.
Blow after blow meant continuity was impossible and it affected performances. At no point across their four games did Netherlands put together a polished display over 90 minutes, instead showing flashes of their best here and there amid several more disappointing periods of play.
Against Sweden, they struggled in the first half but improved in the second. Against Portugal, they went 2-0 up but were pegged back to 2-2 and needed a moment of individual brilliance from Danielle van de Donk to win it. They were even at risk of early elimination in a final group game against Switzerland that was too close for comfort until the closing minutes.
But for the heroics of the aforementioned 22-year-old Van Domselaar, plus goal-line blocks from Stefanie van der Gragt, the quarter-final against France could have been embarrassing by half-time. But the Dutch hung on and at least had a chance until the very end.
Parsons and his team kept finding a way to get things done, which was impressive in the circumstances, until it proved too much of a challenge to go any further.
“We saw experienced players really step up in tough moments at this tournament and you’ve seen young players come in and show that they’re ready for this,” the boss explained. “For us, continuing to build this special group that is forming, the future is bright, of course, and I wish we could’ve showed that a bit more. But it wasn’t mean to be.
“Daphne, I think was the best goalkeeping performance I’ve seen at the Euros since Nadine Angerer in 2013 and she won a Ballon d’Or that year for she did what she did in that tournament. [Daphne] has been very, very good in the other games and [against France] was world class.”
Eyes are already on the future and the next challenge. Netherlands will qualify for the 2023 World Cup in early September as long as they avoid defeat to Iceland at home and the experience that the players, old and new, have taken on board this month will only feed into the new cycle.
“It’s not just about a very important game in September [against Iceland in a World Cup qualifier], it’s about the future. The future of this team is very bright and we’ve got some big months ahead,” Parsons reflected.