The Netherlands Ponders the Possible: ‘We Can Beat Them’

LYON, France — In the Netherlands team hotel, they have been watching the United States’ remorseless progress to yet another World Cup final.

They saw the reigning champions grind out a victory against Spain, Europe’s rising power, in the round of 16, thanks to a soft, fortuitous penalty converted by Megan Rapinoe. They took in that seismic meeting with France in the quarterfinals, the Americans’ fast start and their ruthless counterpunching ending the host country’s dream.

Then, 24 hours before the Dutch played Sweden in the semifinals, they watched England — the best-financed women’s soccer program in the Old World — throw everything it had at the United States, only to come up narrowly, agonizingly short: the Americans clamping their jaws and gritting their teeth and, by virtue of the slightest of offside decisions and a scuffed penalty, picking their way through.

And yet even as the Netherlands has seen women’s soccer’s impervious superpower conquer one challenge after another, it has not occurred to the Dutch to lose hope.

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Coach Sarina Wiegman’s players say they are not dazzled by the fame and talent of the team they will face in Sunday’s World Cup final. “They have a lot of quality, especially in attack,” midfielder Jill Roord said. “But then so does England, and they had a lot of chances. It is a dream for us to play them, but it is a final, and anything is possible. We can beat them.”

There is no sense, certainly, that the Dutch are ready for their adventure to end. By most standards, this team has already surpassed expectations. This is, after all, only its second World Cup; perhaps more striking still, it is only a decade since it qualified for its first major tournament, the 2009 European Championship.

Its growth since then has been astonishing: It reached the last 16 in the World Cup in 2015, and then, on home soil and against all expectations, won the European Championship in 2017. Now, as midfielder Sherida Spitse was reminded on Wednesday night, it is just 90 minutes from ending the great hoodoo of Dutch soccer.

The Netherlands men’s national team has reached, and lost, three World Cup finals (it has not gone unnoticed that Sunday marks 45 years to the day since the first, the day the greatest Total Football side, of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens and the rest, lost the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany). Victory against the United States might start to lay a few of the ghosts to rest.

Little wonder, then, that the Dutch are already in a mood to celebrate. This is far more than they expected to achieve. “Everyone dreams of playing the final,” defender Stefanie van der Gragt said. “But we did not come here expecting to be in it.”

As the players left the field after a nerve-shredding extra-time semifinal against Sweden on Wednesday, they bounced and danced and roared with delight. There were two members of the national team’s social media team waiting deep inside the Stade de Lyon.

Once the players had finished their news media commitments, they walked past the assembled journalists with looks of suitably solemn professionalism; as soon as they saw their colleagues, though, they broke into broad, beaming smiles, offering high fives and hugs, no longer able to conceal their disbelief. They were planning a party in the team hotel that night. “Just something among ourselves,” van der Gragt said. “We are so proud of this team that a party is good today. And then on Thursday, we will start to look forward.”

That desire to acknowledge, and to celebrate, what they have already achieved should not be confused with a satisfaction that their journey is at an end. The Netherlands will not return to the Stade de Lyon on Sunday content to act as extras in an American drama. Its players are not here to provide a guard of honor for the United States.

They recognize, of course, that the United States will be “favorite,” as Roord said. “They are a massive team, with massive players, the biggest team in the world,” said Jackie Groenen, scorer of the goal that carried the Netherlands past Sweden. But there is no inferiority complex here.

Groenen is a fine example of that: She wears the number 14 on her jersey, Cruyff’s number, an almost sacred artifact in Dutch soccer. She is not cowed by that legacy so much as inspired by it. Likewise, she is not cowed by the United States, either. She has, she said, pictured what it would look like, what it would feel like, to beat an opponent of that magnitude, to become a world champion.

The Dutch have every reason to aim high. Though they regard themselves — in Groenen’s words — as “down to earth” in a way that their feted opponents, perhaps, are not, they are, to quote van der Gragt, “not a small team.”

“Everyone has seen what we could do in the Euros,” she said. Within the squad, there is a sense that the triumph kick-started something, rather than rounded it off. At such a breakneck speed, too, that even the players seem to have been taken aback by it. “It’s crazy,” Roord said. “It’s going so fast, and so well.”

Now, two years later, only a half-dozen members of the Dutch team still play in their homeland; the vast majority are employed by Europe’s biggest clubs. “The level has been coming up after the Euros,” van der Gragt said. “Most players are now playing in other countries, so we keep on getting better.”

Many of them have developed a taste for winning things, too. No fewer than four representatives of the Arsenal team that won the English title last season could feature on Sunday. Lieke Martens and van der Gragt are now with Barcelona, Champions League finalists this year; Shanice van de Sanden — who was introduced, to a rousing reception, as a substitute against Sweden — will be playing on home turf, after joining Lyon’s all-conquering team in the summer of 2017. “We have a good mix of players, of characters,” said Groenen, soon to join Manchester United. “We give each other confidence.”

Enough, certainly, that they do not expect to find themselves staring, agog, at the Americans’ roster of superstars as they take to the field on Sunday. They are not planning to be in Lyon just to make up the numbers, to act as sacrificial lambs for Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and the rest. They have seen enough to feel the United States can be beaten. “They have their qualities,” Groenen said, still breathless from the semifinal, still bubbling with glee at the memory of her goal. “And we have ours.”

Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent, based in Manchester, England. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith

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