Netherlands

The multiple layers of a rotten Oranje

Once the trail-blazing frontrunners of the beautiful game and epitomes of swagger on the field, the Netherlands are now teetering on the edge of football irrelevancy, the Oranje’s first consecutive major tournament misses in over three decades propelling the highest structures of Dutch football into a collective frenzy.

How could a proud footballing nation that finished third at the 2014 World Cup and was a shot away from lifting the trophy in 2010 spin out of control so dramatically in a handful of years? How did a berth of progressive ideas that revolutionised and reshaped the sport manage to become this trite, decaying entity, drained of its identity, their innovative notions of the past first appropriated, then upgraded by neighbours and competitors?

The only nation in history to play three FIFA World Cup finals without claiming the ultimate prize, the Netherlands blessed the footballing world with some of its greatest sides and players since Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff co-geminated the inspiring Totalvoetball in the late 1960’s. Flooding Dutch football like the indomitable tidal streams on the low countries, this intoxicating philosophy based on ruthless pressing, neat passing and positional swaps powered the domestic outfits to immense success in the 1970’s and the national team on  unforgettable campaigns every genuine football fan can babble about.

In fact, from the Cruyff and Johan Neeskens-led Clockwork Orange sides that lost the 1974 and 1978 deciders in heart-breaking fashion, past the brilliant generation chiselled in gold by Marco Van Basten’s iconic volley at the 1988 European Championships, through the hypnotic Dennis Bergkamp and the prodigious 1995 Champions League winners with Ajax, up to the contemporary days of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who came within a whisker of swiping the World Cup from the hands of an emblematic Spain, there is so much to reminisce about.

And still, this very nation, whose footballing history was built on a combination of pulsating attacking football and such supreme talent that elevated the sport to a form of art unlike anything seen before, is now a stuttering machine, a laughing stock even, its main institutions incapable of churning out neither the style, nor the skill and results that do justice to the past.

As football minnows such as Iceland, Albania and Wales debuted at the 2016 European Championships, the Netherlands humiliatingly missed out on the expanded 24-team field, and they couldn’t do better in the 2018 World Cup qualifying, activating the blinking, screeching siren looming, somewhat quietly, over their football for a few years. Not anymore. It’s time to analyse and rethink the game in Holland and beyond, and in this article we’ll try to shed some light on the multiple reasons that compound the response to the main question facing Dutch football, particularly its (men’s) national team.

How did the pioneering Total Football derive into Total Flopball?

 

I –  National Team failures: The aftermath of the 2014 World Cup

For most, the last image elicited by the men clad in orange is one of triumph. At the third-place playoff of the 2014 World Cup, a young Netherlands squad guided by the cantankerous Louis van Gaal crushed a traumatized Brazilian team with three unanswered goals, and it seemed the future was bright for the Dutch, their squad anchored by a mixture of experienced stars and an array of up-and-coming, just-entering-their-prime support pieces.

Daley Blind of the Netherlands (5) celebrates scoring his team’s second goal with Ron Vlaar (2), Georginio Wijnaldum (20) and Bruno Martins Indi (right) during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Third Place Playoff match (Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)

However, the seasoned mentor would soon leave the post for a new challenge at Manchester United, and what followed was a truly catastrophic qualifying campaign ahead of the Euro 2016, with Guus Hiddink, at first, and his assistant Danny Blind later, overseeing an inconceivable fourth-place finish in the qualifying pool. With only 13 pts collected in 10 games, the Oranje compiled more losses (5) than wins (4), and couldn’t muster a single triumph (1D, 5L) over direct rivals Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey, who all headed to France.

This outcome resulted in a first European Championships miss since 1984, and a major tournament failure unseen since they were pipped by Portugal and the Republic of Ireland ahead of the 2002 World Cup, yet the changes hardly came by. Blind, who had lost three of four qualifying matches, was kept in charge despite his limited experience as a head coach – he had only guided Ajax for 14 months a decade earlier – and following the departures of assistants Dick Advocaat and Marco van Basten, the shortcomings of the former defender would quickly came into the fore.

Drawn into a group with France and Sweden in World Cup qualifying, the Dutch wrestled an important point in Stockholm at the pool opener, performing well in spite of the absence of captain Arjen Robben, but a month later a screamer from Paul Pogba proved enough to earn France a 1-0 victory in Amsterdam, placing the Dutch immediately behind the eight ball. Skip a few months forward, and the Blind experiment met his rational end after a resounding 2-0 defeat in Sofia, a game marked by the unfortunate debut of center-back Matthijs de Ligt, 17 years old at the time, merely two starts into his professional career and a prominent feature in both Bulgarian goals.

A shocking loss in Sofia marked the beginning of the end for Holland’s 2018 World Cup dreams (Reuters)

For the second consecutive campaign, the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association) was forced to replace the chief-commander in the middle of the journey, and this time, to no one’s surprise, the option fell on another patriarch of Dutch football, 70-year-old Dick Advocaat. He took over with back-to-back 5-0 routs in Rotterdam against the Ivory Coast (friendly) and Luxembourg, but dropped the ball in the first major test, the crucial visit to Paris.

Despite being thoroughly dominated by the hosts, the Netherlands were still alive at the hour mark in the Stade de France, trailing by a single goal, when Kevin Strootman was sent off and Advocaat reacted by committing to the irresponsible decision of urging all units forward in search of a tying marker, admittedly unaware that goal-difference could prove essential to the group’s decision.

Naturally, the nimble French forwards held a feast in the acres of space left available, smashing three more past Jasper Cillessen for a 4-0 defeat that sunk the Netherland’s World Cup hopes well before the final blow delivered by Luxembourg, throttled 8-0 in Stockholm hours after Advocaat famously laughed off a question forecasting such possibility.

Under the weight of an unsurmountable goal deficit, the Netherlands picked up a difficult victory in Belarus (1-3) before shooting for a near-miracle in the last game versus Sweden. They needed a preposterous 7-goal triumph in Amsterdam just to reach the playoffs, yet fell way short, bouncing out with 19 pts amassed by virtue of a 6-1-3 qualifying record. Not the sheer disaster of the previous campaign, nevertheless a second consecutive fiasco, unheard in the Oranje since the 1982-86 period, the fallout of Johan Cruyff’s generation.

At this point, savvy readers will point out the Netherlands returned to the biggest stage in 1988 and with a bang, an emergent, fresh crop of talent torching the opposition on the way to Holland’s only major title to date. Can we expect history to repeat itself in the short term?

II – Transitional crisis

Well, broaching comparisons between sides separated by almost three decades is always a tricky proposition, but it can be argued that some connecting dots are to be established between the origins of the two most recent stagnation periods in Dutch football and, in particular, their respective prominent faces.

In fact, even if their international appearances lacked the same flamboyancy and worldwide veneration reserved for the rampaging heroes of the 1970’s, the core group that led the country’s fortunes for the vast majority of the XXI century earned much of the same high esteem showered on the likes of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol or Arie Hann by virtue of their impressive collective accomplishments and individual accolades, which rank at the very top of every relevant statistical category in national team history.

Born between 1983 and 1984, we’re talking about veterans that peaked at the 2010 World Cup though their influence stretched from the mid-2000’s, past the latest Oranje appearance in a global stage (2014), and into the most recent disappointments, a longevity that ensures the moniker of a “golden generation”.

Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben back in 2006, the early days of their national team careers. Happier and easier times for the Netherlands (ANP)

The first to earn a senior cap, playmaker Rafael van der Vaart (now 35-years-old) wore the Oranje jersey 109 times, fourth all-time, until his time ended just before the 2014 World Cup due to injury, while striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (34) may have never been a full-fledged starter yet in almost a decade (2006-2015) of work plundered 42 goals, second only to Robin van Persie (34), whose 50 tallies obtained in 102 games make him the top scorer in national team history.

The former Manchester United and Arsenal standout is now a shadow of his former self, having returned to Feyenoord in January, but he continues to resist calling an end to his international career, contrary to Wesley Snejder (33), the quintessential number 10 who became the most capped (133) Dutch player before opting to retire from the National Team a few weeks ago.

Finally, this influential quintet is completed with Arjen Robben (34), arguably the only Dutch mainstay who can still be labelled as “world-class”; the perpetuity at Bayern Munich seemingly extending his shelf life as an impact player. The genial winger, who vaulted the squad at the 2014 World Cup, scored 6 times (7 matches) in the latest qualifying campaign before announcing his international retirement following the game with Sweden. Tallying  twice in that night in Amsterdam, including a trademarked inside run and left-footed, curled shot that will linger as a perfect reminder of his brilliance, Robben then talked about the need to “pass the baton” to the next generation, casting a light on the tortuous reality: who will pick it up?

Looking at the group of established players that will comprise the nucleus of the Dutch national team moving forward, the pickle isn’t exactly the lack of good players entering the prime of their careers or evolving into solid performers, but the bare cupboard of transcendental talents and top-level performers plying their trade in Europe’s heavyweights in the same way minor Dutch factions once cohabitated in Barcelona, Milan or Madrid.

Truth to matter, peruse the rosters of perennial Champions League contenders these days and you’ll encounter the aforementioned Robben in the German giants, Daley Blind, a utility man at Manchester United who, ideally, wouldn’t be the first option at any position, and FC Barcelona’s backup goaltender Jasper Cillesen. OK, if you’re feeling gracious, let’s expand the net to include Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum, once a can’t miss prospect who didn’t blossom as expected, teammate Virgil van Dijk, recently moved for a defenseman’s world record fee, and AS Roma’s Kevin Strootman, who missed the large part of two consecutive seasons (2014/15 and 2015/16) due to injury. Seven names…

Several Dutch players surround England’s Dele Alli in a recently friendly match in Amsterdam. It will be, necessarily, a different Oranje moving forward (Associated Press)

Furthermore, while Blind, Cillesen and Wijnaldum played prominent parts at the 2014 World Cup, some of the other youngsters who caught the eye under Louis van Gaal failed to evolve as expected in order to reach the European elite. Snapped out of Feyenoord after the tournament in Brazil, center-backs Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij are perfect examples of it, as their respective careers stalled in the meantime, the former falling out of favour at FC Porto, the latter encountering injury problems during his stay at SS Lazio. Remember diminutive midfielder Jordy Clasie, once likened to Xavi? Incapable of carving his space during a two-year spell at Southampton, he’s on loan in Belgium this season hoping to revive a dwindling career.

And what about Van Gaal’s crown jewel, winger Memphis Depay? Dazzling for PSV in 2014-15, he botched the opportunity at Manchester United and is only now, at 24 years old, displaying glimpses of his tantalizing potential in Lyon, teasing with incredible pieces of skill but also showing that some ripening is still needed before he can be expected to pull all the strings for the Oranje.

As a result of this absence of go-to options or even a coherent group ready to bridge the gap, one might be compelled to the notion that something went terribly wrong in respect to player development in the Netherlands over the last decade-plus. Or, perhaps, they’re simply facing a momentary talent famine?

III – Dropping off the radar: lost generations and a shifting recruitment pool

Far from a flawless predictor of success at the senior level, repeated excellence at the youth levels is as good an indicator of the health of a development system as we can find in football, not least because it tends to lead into waves of talent and a well-stocked pool at the top of the pyramid.

Spain and Germany, the two most accomplished European nations of the last decade, are obvious examples of this, and while it’s been well documented that the vast majority of their best players previously tasted victory at the U-17, U-19 or U-21 level, the reality is, in hindsight, the Netherlands ought to place at a similar level.

After all, of the five UEFA (men’s) trophies that are exposed on the KNVB cabinet, four were captured in the last dozen of years, and the back-to-back triumphs at the U-21 European Championships in 2006 and 2007 emerge as a cautionary tale in this exercise.

The Netherlands won the Under-21 European Championships at home in 2007. Do you dare to name any three of the boys in the image? (Getty)

Positioned on the final part of a youngster formative years, with most participants already well established amongst the professional ranks, this showcase event is, usually, a final stepping stone towards stardom for the most promising individuals however, due to a variety of reasons, for the large majority of the Dutch players that comprised the two aforementioned squads, the continental championship, more than a peak in terms of silverware, functioned as a tangible zenith in performance.

Indeed, a total of twenty-two players from those rosters earned full international debuts at some point, yet only three stuck around for a meaningful period of time (Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, center back Ron Vlaar and winger Ryan Babel) whereas the likes of Hedwiges Maduro, Urby Emanuelsson, Demy de Zeeuw or the 2007 Golden Player of the tournament, Royston Drenthe, flamed out as soon as they were thrusted into the spotlight for their clubs or set foot abroad.

Incidentally, since those consecutive triumphs, the Dutch failed to qualify for four of the last five U-21 tournaments, making an appearance in 2013 to reach the semi-finals with many of the players that starred one year later in Brazil (De Vrij, Blind, Martins Indi, Depay, Wijnaldum, Clasie) and a few from whom a lot was expected to no avail (Adam Maher, Marco van Ginkel, Ola John).

Consequently, it seems the transition from the youth ranks to the highest-levels of professional football (especially outside of the Eredivisie) has proved traumatic for many of the country’s best talents lately, and as we delve further into the system, this theory gets further validation.

A regular presence (5 of last 8) at the Under-19 European Championships, the Netherlands made it to the final four only once (2017) in that span, therefore failing to qualify for any U-20 World Cup since 2001 (they hosted in 2005) and also providing a stark contrast with their exceptional U-17 performances as of late. On the last ten U-17 Euros, the Netherlands reached six semi-finals, advanced four times to the decider and captured the title on two occasions, 2011 and 2012, both times defeating Germany in the Final.

Senior Dutch internationals Memphis Depay (#11), Tonny Vilhena (#10) and Karim Rekik (#4) were part of the U-17 European Championship success in 2011 (UEFA)

Some of the members of those winning generations, now aged 23-24, have already broken into the main Oranje (Nathan Aké, Karim Rekik, Terrence Kongolo, Jetro Williams, Memphis Depay, Tonny Vilhena), yet none looks primed to grow into a true game-changer as many anticipated the likes of Vilhena or 2011 Best player of the tournament Kyle Ebecílio would become. And if you’re wondering whether it is still too early to draw conclusions from those classes, look no further than 2012 runners-up Germany, who featured Julian Brandt and Leon Goretzka, two influential figures on the last Confederations Cup, or France, already reaping dividends from the likes of Anthony Martial or Thomas Lemar.

In any case, we can safely assume that gifted footballers are still sprouting on the fields of the Netherlands, and whatever is belying their full maturation has to do with nurturing, nonetheless there’s another pressing issue that needs to be addressed in regards to the talent pool available in the country.

A former maritime and merchant powerhouse, the Kingdom of the Netherlands held possessions around the world well into the second half of the XX century, when the decolonisation fever eventually hit their enclaves and outposts in the Caribbean. Still, the Dutch were able to keep a grip on some overseas territories (Curaçao, Aruba, Sint Maarten and the Caribbean Netherlands) until very recently and sports, as many other areas, got important contributions from the diaspora for a very long time.

The birth land of thousands who moved stateside in search of better opportunities, Suriname, an independent country since 1975, particularly stands out amongst the former Dutch territories as plenty of the Netherlands’ football stars of yesteryear carried Surinamese descent, yet that spring has also dried up significantly over the last few years. Where once the Dutch mined Patrick Kluivert, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids or Clarence Seedorf, legends that perfectly combined the technical proficiency of local football-education with South-American flair and exuberance, they’re now tied to Quincy Promes, Georginio Wijnaldum, Ryan Babel or Virgil van Dijk, and the gap is still to be filled with impact players hailing from the melting pot that is the Dutch society today.

Oranje legends Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids line up before a match against the Czech Republic at the Euro 2000.

On the current national team, you’ll find players with origins in Tunisia, Angola, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Ghana or Guinea-Bissao, however plenty of others rose up the ranks under the watchful eye of the KNVB only to later change alliances, agreeing to represent the country of their parents. In most cases, the loss won’t prove substantial, but since quality, more than quantity, is what usually makes the difference at the top levels, someone as talented as Morocco international and Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who could have eased the transition following Wesley Sneijder’s decline, shouldn’t have escaped.

 

So, as we’ve established that some of Dutch football’s decline stems from flawed player development as well as an inability to syphon the best of the evolving Dutch society, now it’s time to examine another important aspect: the application of their footballing philosophy.

IV – Identity: the strenuous compromise between style and results

Bold, enthralling, beautiful and fun. Dutch football used to be the benchmark of an aesthetically pleasing experience in pure footballing terms: slick passing, and positional and spacing fluidity the guiding principles for a country that grew to favour style over substance. So much that almost unanimous acclamation disguised the fact that the Dutch national team didn’t win as much as it should have in its glorious eras; trophies left on the hands of others and painful losses shrugged off in the name of adoration by neutrals and prudish adherence to defining principles and ideals.

Such approach flew through the decades, generations of artists collapsing in the moment of truth time and time again, but still earning appraise from plaudits. It’s no coincidence then that Johan Cruyff once posited that ”There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style” neither that the 2008 European Championships marked, perhaps, the last time such saying resonated, the Netherlands commanded by Marco van Basten displaying the same finesse of the former striker as they swept through the group phase with rousing triumphs over France (3-0) and Italy (4-1) only to be dumped out by a Russian team led by fellow Dutch Guus Hiddink.

After that competition, though, van Basten stepped down and new manager Bert van Marwijk turned things around 180°, leading the team to the 2010 World Cup Final with pragmatism, cohesion, discipline and, might we say… a lot of hard graft, embodied to perfection by the midfield vigour of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, an unmovable stab of concrete in front of the defensive sector. Ultimately defeated by Spain in one of the most rugged finals in history, the National team members were pelted back home with accusations of “betrayal” for renouncing to the traditions of Dutch football, their “anti-football” methods – as dubbed by Cruyff itself – an “ugly, vulgar” compromise forged in the name of victory at all costs.

Spain’s Iker Casillas stops Arjen Robben’s point-blank chance in a crucial moment of the 2010 World Cup Final (Getty)

We’ll never experience how history would have unfolded had Arjen Robben’s shot evaded the outstretched leg of Iker Casillas in the night of Johannesburg, but we know that the KNVB doubled down on the matter-of-fact approach in 2012, substituting van Marwijk, following a disappointing European Championships, with Louis van Gaal. Setting up a defensive 5-3-2/3-5-2 hybrid that relied more than ever on defensive compactness, blistering counter attacks and the individual brilliance of a couple of names (Robben, Van Persie), the Netherlands’ option was vindicated when they extracted revenge from the ball-hugging wizards of Spain in a 5-1 drubbing in the opener in Brazil, before proceeding to get within a penalty-shootout victory of returning to the World Final.

And then, in spite of getting closer to glory with this ruthless, pragmatic mind-set than at any time throughout the previous two decades, the national purists brandished their forks again to demand a return to the possession-based blueprint, and their pleas were acquiesced. Hiddink, Blind and Advocaat imposed the return to the 4x3x3 formation that’s imprinted into the fabric of Dutch football, however the results were nothing short of calamitous. Why?

The straightforward answer lies in the enormous progresses experienced in the game of football, particularly in the tactical side, but, mostly, on the realization that Totalvoetball has always been about so much more than a mere formation or striving to hold the ball just for the sake of it. Built around the whole idea of space and time and how it can be maximized (on offense) and shrunk (on defence), incisive possession football necessitates quick-thinking, reactivity, creativity and awareness, traits that aren’t in abundance on the current Dutch squad, as well as fine-tuned collective movements, complementarity and superior understanding between players.

Consequently, more than the lack of skill and physical attributes to replicate the frenzied demands of an intense, high pressing game or to formulate intricate passing sequences, the Dutch national team simply can’t sustain such a complex, challenging model because it’s not able to foster familiarity without a solid foundation over which to instil the main attacking principles. Cue the “sterile possession” paradigm that grace the Netherlands today, expertly parodied by the late Johan Cruyff, one of the fathers of the ideology, as the “world champions [of] passing sideways and back”.

For instance, try to catch a national team game – under the previous regime – against half-decent opposition and it’s distressing to note the Netherlands’ inability to devise a clean breakout from the back, with the ball slowly passed around the defenders and deep-lying midfielder, the buildup process unable to draw adversaries out of their defensive shape in order to create space for a penetrating pass that kick-starts the offense.

Moreover, as the ball circulates around the perimeter and sometimes up the flanks, underlapping or overlapping runs are few and far between, interior movements to explore pockets of space in between, devise passing triangles or create overloads scarce, and positional fluidity, a staple of Total Football, a foreign concept. In result, danger is only generated from the outer channels, and in the few instances a winger manages to receive the ball up the field, he usually has to resort to hopeful crosses towards the box as the central midfielders are mostly overlooked in the construction phase and reserved a secondary role in the final thirds.

With Robben, Sneijder and van Persie in their prime, the Dutch may had been able to live with this primitive, predictable style of football, but the palpable shortage of difference-makers can’t masquerade and explain everything, much less deficient organization and the bevy of defensive inconsistencies that haunt many Dutch teams. An obvious coaching issue exacerbated at the national team level by subpar management (more on this after the jump), nevertheless also a clarion call for a country that needs to realize that nostalgia and reviving used formulas isn’t playing to one’s strengths.

Johan Cruyff runs at Franz Beckenbauer during the 1974 World Cup Final won by West Germany

Emulating Spain and Germany, who have thrived on the possession-based dogma, is easier said than done without a lot of groundwork on a daily basis and, necessarily, at the club level. In fact, the eminent Dutch teams of the 1970’s and 1980’s were concocted by merging strong blocks from Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, tapping on mechanisms and mutual partnerships that could be easily transposed to the international realm, and, evidently, the same happened over the last few years with Spain (2008-2012) and Germany (2014), whose subtract of success was grinded away at FC Barcelona (supplemented with superb Real Madrid individuals) and Bayern Munich.

Naturally, the biggest clubs in the Netherlands aren’t afforded the opportunity to keep their players long enough to build crucial chemistry, and with Dutch players scattering across Europe, it’s impractical to aim for the same lofty notes of decades ago. If Holland aspires to get back to the top of the game, mindlessly mirroring the past it’s definitely not the way to go, and the same extends to the methods implemented by the men tasked with orchestrating from the dugout.

V – Coaching: the merry-go round and a class stopped in time

Since the fourth and last tour of duty (1990-1992) undertaken by the emblematic Rinus Michels, the leading job in Dutch football has been occupied by one of two types of coaches: the members of the old guard, elder statesman who earned respect all around the World over the last three decades, and raw faces, usually former players with limited international experience at the time of appointment.

In regards to the first group, most football fans can name the trio of men that, every time the Dutch job opens up, are automatically placed on the short list of candidates, their reputations almost granting permission to take turns between club posts. Since 1992, Dick Advocaat (70 years old), Louis Van Gaal (66) and Guus Hiddink (70) have trained the national team in 7 different occasions (3+2+2) and for a combined 12 years (4+3.5+4.5), but with Advocaat stepping down, van Gaal in a sabbatical period following his departure from Man United in 2016, and Hiddink similarly in reclusion after an interim stint at Chelsea in 2015-16, none of those options was on the table ahead of the new two-year qualifying cycle.

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie celebrates with head coach Louis van Gaal after scoring a goal during a 2014 World Cup match against Spain (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Likewise, it was highly implausible the KNVB would tap one of the other recent incumbents, their curriculum and post-Netherlands endeavours a forewarning that a healthy mix of experience and future vision was vital in these turbulent times. Take Frank Rijkaard, for example, who led the nation to the semi-finals of the Euro 2000 in his first managerial experience, played a huge part in the rebirth of FC Barcelona between 2003 and 2008, but then hiked through Turkey (Galatasaray) and Saudi Arabia (National team) before falling off the radar in 2013.

The announcement of Rijkaard’s retirement came last December, at age 55, and followed shortly after one of his former teammates, Marco Van Basten, also put his coaching prospects on hold. Streamlined into the Dutch job in 2004, The Swan of Utrecht’s subsequent coaching ventures at Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ Alkmaar failed to bear fruits, and after serving time as a KNVB employee, filling managerial and assistant roles, he joined FIFA as the “Chief Officer for Technical Development”.

A UEFA Cup winner (2002) with Feyenoord, Bert van Maarwijk’s was a more accomplished manager at the beginning of his four-year tenure (2008-2012), but after the disastrous Euro 2012 campaign which determined his exit, he also hasn’t racked up the achievements, following up the Dutch job with an embarrassing 143-day spell at Hamburg, a stint in Saudi Arabia cut short by contract disagreements, and the recent appointment to lead Australia next summer in Russia. And then, obviously, there’s Danny Blind, for some reason groomed by Hiddink to succeed him even if his résumé features all of one year (2005-2006) as Ajax’s head coach and plenty of labour as an anonymous assistant.

Still, the fiasco of Blind’s 20-month experiment finally gave the KNVB enough pause to launch a thorough process in order to select the right man for the job, and while many wanted them to cut right through the established practices and go outside the box (or outside their borders..), they eventually settled for another uninspired choice, another kick at the 1988 class of European Champions.

Boasting a solid career at home and abroad, Ronaldo Koeman’s name was always bound to rally a large consensus, as he remains the only person to have not only played but also managed the Dutch “Big Three” of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, and the man who was spurned in favour of Hiddink back in 2014 finally got his turn. Pointing to a solid track record mentoring young players and thriving when the overall quality at his disposal was underwhelming, the 55-year-old was judged to embody the perfect profile considering the current circumstances facing the Dutch National team, and the early signs are certainly promising.

Ronald Koeman, manager of the Netherlands (L), looks on from the team bench prior to the international friendly against England last month (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Taking the reins surrounded by a renovated support staff, including new sporting and general directors, Koeman led the Netherlands to a splendid 3-0 victory over European Champions Portugal in the latest round of friendlies, his novel 5-2-3 providing more options to build through the thirds and occupy the half spaces in possession, yet one can’t shake the feeling Koeman’s appointment still sounds as a lost opportunity to revamp the entire status quo in the country.

As mentioned before, times have changed and, as the Netherlands display some difficulties to accompany the evolution brimming around the continent, their coaching landscape functions as a paramount example worth exploring, an area where the Dutch are still programmed to do what they’ve always done. For instance, the default option for top clubs in Holland is still the appointment of former club players to run the main show in spite of limited previous experience. Phillip Cocu (PSV) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord) are the most recent examples of this learning-on-the-fly approach, and while they had no problem padding their CV with national honours, deficiencies end up being exposed in European competitions or as soon as they venture abroad and onto more competitive environments, like happened with Frank de Boer, a four-time Dutch Champion with Ajax who lasted less than 3 months in his most recent positions (Inter Milan and Crystal Palace).

Conflictingly, the type of academy-trained, scientific-inclined minds that are flourishing all over Europe face uphill battles to land top jobs, with Peter Bosz (53-years-old), who guided Ajax to the Europa League final last season, and new Ajax manager Erik ten Hag (48), the Rinus Michels Award winner in 2015-16, shining as beacons of hope for a minority that, for better or worse, will eventually elbow their way to the forefront in short order just like it did, to cite a clear-cut success case, in neighbouring Germany.

Alternatively, it’s also not difficult to make the case that the foreign path should be explored both at the club and national team level since, on a deeper level, it finds inspiration on the history of the Netherlands as a country and football nation. In fact, well before their influence spread throughout the world, also in footballing terms, the Dutch were renowned for being unusually receptive to exterior ideas and expertise, their cosmopolitan capital a fervent hub of innovation, opened to learning, crafting and improving methodologies that would be shared with the world. Ultimately, that was the genesis of Totatvoetball, how it spawned and blossomed under Michels and Cruyff and, it can be argued, the principal lesson the Dutch should absorb looking back at their history.

The legendary Rinus Michels holds aloft the 1988 European Championships trophy won by the Netherlands, their only major (men’s) international honour to date (Getty)

Therefore, at a time Holland has grown (too) protective of its footballing principles, rooted to outdated theories and afraid of testing new tactics and concepts, the traditional notions simply have to be challenged and deconstructed. And to ensure a full reboot, not unlike what Germany (yup, them again) went through in the beginning of the century, they should (re) open their borders like they’ve done in all other walks of life. There’s no way around it.

The Austrian Ernst Happel, who sat on the bench at the 1978 World Cup, was the last foreigner to lead the Dutch National Team, and soon they may have to reconsider it again because sometimes it takes swallowing the pride to overhaul an entire system or, in this case, to shake the excessively inward-looking, conservative mentality that has gradually seeped into Dutch football. And, in addition, a successful stint by a foreign national manager might open the floodgates and convince domestic clubs to dip into uncharted waters, scour the global market and think progressively when they need to fill managerial voids, which can only enhance the future prospects of a national league in its own state of crisis.

VI – The National League: sequels of an abrupt fall from grace

So far we’ve focused primarily on the national team and the broader problems of Dutch football, however another aspect has greatly contributed to the demise of the game in the low lands: the downfall of the Eredivisie, the National League, and consequently of the major football institutions in the Netherlands, once among the most renowned in the world.

In the 1970’s, the apogee of orange football, the local clubs were the watermark of Europe, a reality inked in silver with the 9 European trophies conquered during the decade, starting with Feyenoord’s European Cup success in 1970 which would be followed by three consecutive titles for Ajax Amsterdam. Meanwhile, PSV Eindhoven collected the UEFA Cup in 1978 and a decade later would herald another run of Dutch success, with their 1988 European Cup success preceding five other international trophies until 1995, when Van Gaal’s kids brought the Champions League, European Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup to Ajax’s museum.

Members of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League winning team celebrate. They are the last to bring the iconic European Cup to the Netherlands (AP)

However, the seismic Bosman ruling came into effect in late 1995, and the profound implications that would unfold in the transfer market demarcated the moment Dutch clubs started to lag behind their European counterparts. It’s no coincidence that since the turn of the century a single continental honour is on record, the 2002 UEFA Cup won by Feyenoord at their own De Kuip stadium, and the descent into obscurity gives no signs of halting despite Ajax’s sentimental run to the 2017 Europa League Final.

Actually, more than the harbinger of a renaissance, De Godenzonen’s latest accomplishment is seen as a blip in the radar for a country that hasn’t produced a Champions League quarter-finalist since 2007 (PSV) and barely groaned, in wistful resignation, as all five representatives in the 2017-18 UEFA club competitions got emphatically bounced out by the end of November. Defending National Champions Feyenoord (Champions League) and Cup-holders Vitesse Arnheim (Europa League) qualified directly to the group stage of their respective competitions before mustering just two wins combined, while Utrecht, PSV and Ajax were eliminated in the Europa League playoffs, with the Amsterdam giants taking just three months to go from surprise finalists to a first-year without European competition in more than five decades…

Accordingly, the nation’s top-flight is currently ranked 14th in the UEFA League rankings, miles away from the top-five, Russia and Portugal, but also chasing the likes of Belgium, Ukraine, Turkey, Switzerland and the lowly Austrian and Czech league. Definitely embarrassing for a country of such tradition, although a situation not borne out of a lack of fan engagement, as corroborated by the attendance figures of 2016-17. No matter how dispirited by the progress of their football, the locals continued to flock to the stadiums in good numbers, with the Eredivisie’s average turnout – set at more than 19k per game – ranking eighth in Europe, or the highest outside the five largest markets (England (EPL + Championship), Germany (Bundesliga 1 and 2), Spain, Italy and France).

Nevertheless, this encouraging gate numbers fail to amount to much when the sizable economic gulf to other nations imposes a sad reality manifested in a sharp loss of competitiveness at the senior levels and the establishment of a vicious cycle that proves hard to break. Undeniably, athletic Dutch kids are still attracted to play football and the clubs continue to educate and graduate youngsters into their squads with incredible frequency – and, perhaps, more prematurely than ever -, yet clubs from abroad come knocking on the door so early that many promising players leave their homeland before being ready for the step up and fizzle out, lost in the shuffle at foreign academies or languishing on the benches until they’re forced to take a step back and return home with confidence shattered and the lustre all but gone.

The list of once highly-rated prospects plagued by this issue encompasses the likes of Luuk de Jong and Marco van Ginkel, both currently at PSV, Ricardo Kishna (Den Haag), Zakaria Labyad (Utrecht) or Luc Castaignos (Vitesse), however the revolving door gives no signs of ceasing at every transfer window; the most recent players fleeing the nest before fully asserting themselves being 22-year-old right back Rick Karsdorp (Feyenoord to Roma), 21-year-old midfielder Riechedly Bazoer (Ajax-Wolfsburg) or 22-year-old winger Anwar El Ghazi (Ajax-Lille).

Chelsea FC loanee Marco van Ginkel is unlikely to ever find his way back to the Premier League powerhouse (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Additionally, such annual exodus has another major repercussion, the watering down of the Eredivisie’s level of play as clubs can’t afford to replenish the rosters by recuiting the type of mature players that would, immediately, fill the shoes of the departed and, in turn, end up choosing richer locations. From here, a chain reaction emerges, with players easily snapped out because they can’t properly develop at home due to unsatisfactory competition (and coaching), and teams reeling, particularly internationally, since many revenue streams are dependent on results and, consequently, on the overall quality of the squad.

Once the perfect breeding ground for talents from all over the world, the gateway for the likes of Ronaldo Nazário, Romário or Luis Suárez, Dutch clubs haven’t exactly lost the eye for spotting quality, or even the appeal for a youngster from Belgium, Denmark, Mexico, Scandinavia, the Balkans or the Baltics, just to cite a few examples, yet  the story arch for a foreign signing is quite similar, as they also arrive earlier now and say goodbye when fans had barely met them, relegating the Dutch top-flight to the role of a, de facto, conveyor belt and supplier of the dominant European leagues.

VII – Rays of sunshine: from the prototypical Dutch player to the stars of tomorrow

Running parallel to a decaying national league that fails to prepare its athletes to the speed and intensity of the top-tier competitions, the Dutch player developed at home is also known to display a few characteristics that may play a small part in the current futility of the game in the Netherlands.

While as smart, versatile, technically proficient and tactically astute as any other, most Dutch products seem to have been coaxed out of some of the best attributes former generations enjoyed: the self-determination to express themselves in the middle of collective tenets and the audacity to think and execute differently. Some of this can be pinned on the decline of street football and the consistent football practices instructed worldwide, but there’s some basis to the notion that the Dutch have succumbed to the error of culling individual flair in favour of purely diligent players, who can read the game and fulfil a routine task with the efficiency of the best although they do struggle solving unexpected problems and going off-script.

Leaving behind the reality that this delicate balance between individualism and collectivism was pivotal during the Oranje’s heyday, experience also dictates that some of the quirks of Dutch players of the past are gone since today’s players seemingly perform better under a manager who tells them exactly what to do – like Louis Van Gaal – rather than someone who challenges and affords more leeway.

Additionally, with this mutation in the genetics of the Dutch game, their positional strengths have shifted away from the roles that demand more artistry and improvisation. Once a nation brimming with creative offensive players, the chivvying of dribbling, for example, is responsible for the sparse number of Dutch wingers that excel in one-on-one confrontations or look to execute in crowded spaces. And those that exist frequently butt heads with their clubs and coaches, like happened with Memphis Depay at PSV.

Sweeper, midfielder, goalscorer. The incomparable Ruud Gullit symbolized the wild nature of Dutch football. In the picture, he is in action against the URSS at the Euro 1988 (Pichon/L’Équipe)

Furthermore, the elegant ball-playing defenders that were key features of legendary Dutch sides haven’t been seen in a long time, which is a shame for the nation that pioneered the sweeper role where Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman, Danny Blind and Frank de Boer excelled by mastering the art of the long pass, advancing from the back line and becoming an additional midfielder that would confuse the opposition and open passing lanes.

Fortunately, though, there are a few positive signs regarding these problematics, not only with a change in mentality that was evident on the free-flowing Ajax side that dazzled in Europe last season but, particularly, in the form of the rising tide of Dutch talent, whose development should continue to be handled with extreme care. For a case in point, look no further than the most exciting offensive talent to emerge in the country in a long time, 18-year-old Justin Kluivert (Ajax), who is already dealing with a lot of pressure, both for his notable bloodlines – he’s the son of Patrick Kluivert – and magnetic skills with the ball at his feet, namely the ability to eviscerate defences with his dribbling and close control.

The pacy wing man is already hailed as the heir apparent to Robben, however there’s more help on the way, including two well-rounded midfielders that impress for their intelligence in possession and smart passing, 20-year-old Donny van de Beek (Ajax), who has already bagged over a dozen of goals this season, and AZ Alkmaar’s crown-jewel, the gangly Guus Til, who complements his technical skills with the ability to win aerial challenges in the middle of the park.

Still, it is in another young midfielder that lies the biggest potential to reshape the face of Dutch football, 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong (Ajax), a mesmerizing talent for his ability to effortlessly fill any role in midfield due to his vision, passing range and versatility, but also a player that is thriving this season from deeper areas, used as a libero with free reign to define the pace of play, dribble out of the back and stride forward in mazy runs, raising comparisons to Franz Beckenbauer or a young Ruud Gullit.

The 20-year-old Frenkie de Jong is one of the diamonds of Ajax’s squad (ProShots)

Moreover, the cupboard in defence also features left-footed center back Rick van Drongelen, who made a seamless jump from Sparta Rotterdam to Hamburg at age 19 and is garnering admirers for his impressive Bundesliga debut season, Feyenoord’s Jeremiah St. Juste (21 years old), a bright spot during his team’s Champions League campaign, and, of course, the precocious Matthijs de Ligt. Already an Oranje first-team indisputable, he took over the captaincy duties at Ajax Amsterdam at age 18, and his physical and emotional maturity is a sight to behold, with de Ligt displaying outstanding composure on the ball, the ability to pick out passes of any range from the backline and decisiveness in confront with opposing forwards, where the teenager flashes uncanny speed and sense of timing.

Provided the development of these building blocks goes smoothly, and they continue to expand the base, there’s a potential for a return to the winning ways to come in the medium-term for the Netherlands, and such timeline can even be accelerated if they could add two crucial pieces to this cohort. An elite goalkeeper that would take the mantle from Edwin van der Saar, one of the first stoppers proficient with the ball at his feet and versed on the advantages of assuming a meaningful role in the team’s circulation, and a skilled, prolific marksman to spearhead the line and push incumbents Vincent Janssen and Bas Dost down the pecking order, continuing the heritage of Marco van Basten, Patrick Kluivert, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robin van Persie.

Conclusion

Few doubts exist the Netherlands have hit rock-bottom, that a country and a national team whose ground-breaking approach to the game merited cult status are nowadays in a state of trauma, probing for solutions and a new direction in a world that has moved on from their philosophy. Still, the best part about floundering is the sense there’s only one way to go – back up – and, sooner or later, the vibrant orange jerseys will, unequivocally, marvel the football world again.

A litany of errors and missteps have been made at all levels, from a national federation that has struggled to find answers to stop the slide down the sport’s hierarchy, to the clubs, unable to compete with counterparts from countries that face similar challenges in a new economic reality that favours the giants, a coaching class that lacks the outside-the-box, forward-thinking attitude of yore, and players that can’t simply rely on natural talent and smarts alone, however no one disputes the Netherlands are still one of the sport’s guardian nations.

Dutch fans wave flags during the Women’s Euro 2017 Final in Enschede, Netherlands (AP)

That much is evident in the streets, on the slick fields of the lowlands, on the colourful fans that, while distressed with the current situation, keep showing up in major numbers and, from time to time, on the biggest football meetings, as last summer’s triumphant Women’s European Championships exemplified.

It may take more than anticipated to rebuild Dutch football from the ground up, to advance coaching and management practices that are lagging behind their competitors, to groom and mould the stars of tomorrow, to recover the respect cultivated over four decades and, especially, to come to terms with the country’s stand in this ever-evolving football landscape where knowledge is widely available to everyone who seeks it, but others countries went through their own soul-searching periods, sought inspiration outside, overhauled their processes and are now reaping the benefits of their methodical approaches.

The “neurotic genius” of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff turned around football history in a country that was an afterthought for the first half of the XXI century, and if the Dutch hope to avoid a return to this faraway past, the non-conformist, inventive aura instilled by those visionaries should guide them out of the crumble and through the paradigm-shifting changes needed. Even if those include the hard-to-digest decisions they’ve been dreading and putting off for clashing with their romantic, self-professed football notions and the idealistic “Dutch-way” of doing things. Because, it goes without saying, football is rarely beautiful when one is losing.

 

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2018 Winter Olympics review: Final Takeaways

We’ve figured out who were the best athletes and our favourite moments of the 2018 Winter Olympics, but before closing the book for another four years, I wanted to touch on a few other topics to deliver a more comprehensive picture of what the action in PyeongChang entailed and what we can derive from it, especially on a country-by-country basis.

However, before we delve into the results, let’s award a few special mentions that could complement the previous chapters of this Winter Olympics review.

Best duel: Alina Zagitova vs Evgenia Medvedeva

Friends, training partners and compatriots, but also opponents with distinct skating styles and artistic concepts. The 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, despite her ballerina manners, is all athleticism and poise, exploding off the ice for breath-taking sequences of jumps and twists that she lands with age-defying efficiency. Three years older, Evgenia Medvedeva is eminently gracious and creative, an artisan who pours her soul into the routines and disappears into character, sublime in the technical aspects though not quite able to pull off the same physical exertion of her rival.

Standing head and shoulders above anyone else in the ladies’ figure skating competition, a mere 1.31 pts separated them in the end; Zagitova’s advantage secured with her world-record short program and controversially kept by the jury when the two teenagers scored the same total in the free skate. Superior in the choreographic and interpretative elements, the World Champion Medvedeva was left to rue her luck as Zagitova’s strategical decision to backload her act with the most difficult jumps to leverage extra points paid off. And so the fledgling prodigy beat the established star for Olympic gold, and one girl sobbed while the other smiled, still insensible to what had she had accomplished.

Russian teenagers Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova shared the podium in PyeongChang (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Similarly to gymnasts, the career of female figure skaters, particularly those that explode at such a young age, is difficult to handicap, but if Medvedeva and Zagitova can keep the flame burning, watch out. This could be a rivalry for the ages.

Eye-watering (non-sport) moment: Team Korea

We all know the world didn’t change because North and South Korean athletes and officials walked out together in the Opening Ceremony and waved the same flag, depicting a unified Korean Peninsula, but if PyeongChang is to be remembered as a miniscule step towards a political agreement that ends a decades-long stalemate, we can all agree that it was worth it. Platitude or not, sport really does have the power to unite people and nations like few else, and even the most cynical person would have to breach a smile at the sight of players from both countries battling and celebrating together on the ice while forming bonds off it.

And if, ultimately, this concerted effort by both nations’ leaders and the IOC means nothing, every person caught on that arena when Randi Heesoo Griffin scored Korea’s first goal will always have one historical moment to look back on. As will all the members of North Korea’s delegation that got to spent two weeks outside of their secluded state, including the mesmerizing “army of beauties” who trudged from venue to venue, unmistakable on their matching outfits and physical features, waving props, dancing to the beat, clapping and singing catching tunes like “Be Strong” and “Win. Win.”. Ok, the chants were bad but that’s not really what counts, is it?

Worst storyline: The brutal wind

After the mild temperatures found in Sochi 2014, the Winter Olympics were back in the appropriate environment, with freezing conditions castigating the athletes right from the Opening Ceremony, yet the Games could have been staged without the merciless gusts of wind that wrecked competitions and forced multiple delays, particularly in the first week.

Amongst all sports, the alpine skiing calendar was the most affected, with many races postponed to dictate a schedule compression that compelled star athletes (Mikaela Shiffrin, for instance) to drop events, while both biathletes and ski jumpers endured conditions that hampered their ability to shoot straight or land safely.

Course crew slide slip to the finish area after the women’s giant slalom was postponed due to high winds at the Yongpyong Alpine Center (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Nonetheless, the really problematic situations happened in the women’s snowboard slopestyle and women’s aerials (freestyle skiing) events, which shouldn’t have gone ahead because of the whipping wind. Turning the competitions into a mess or mere survival battles, the unpredictable conditions led to a parade of ugly falls and swaths of athletes restraining from attempting their riskier acrobatics, and that’s a real shame for the IOC. Athletes shouldn’t work four years with a single goal in mind, only to be forced to stake their physical well-being beyond the reasonable for the sake of a sporting competition.

Best venue atmosphere: Short track speed-skating

The Gangneung Ice Arena doubled as the figure skating venue, yet no other ticket in town was a sought-after as an invitation to the electric nights of short track, when locals regularly lost their marbles in the face of their favourite winter sport, the excitement palpable even for those watching on television.

Already one of the most action-packed, chaotic disciplines in the Winter Olympics, every short track race where the national athletes took part was an adventure on its own, with fans enthusiastically cheering name introductions, saturating the building with nervous tension, puffing at the sight of a fall and exploding in hysterics every time a South Korean moved up the pack to close on victory or contest a sprint. And let’s not even get to the outrage and rebelling raining from the stands when any home favourite got disqualified…

Local favourite Choi Min-Jeong strides to victory in the semi-final of the 1500m as two of her opponents wipe out in behind (ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images)

Country-by-country roundup:

Non-traditional nations that accomplished milestones

A record 30 National Olympic Committees gained medals in PyeongChang, and among those stand out a few that reappeared on the list after long absences. For instance Hungary, one of the most decorated Summer Olympic nations, who reached a podium for the first time since 1980, and couldn’t have asked for better from their short track men’s 5000m relay team, which made the national anthem sound for the first time in a Winter Olympics. Encomiums are thus in order for Viktor Knoch, Csaba Burján and siblings Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandór Liu, born in Budapest to a Chinese-father and key parts of the country’s seventh Winter medal since 1924.

Meanwhile, Spain hadn’t medalled in 26-years when Regino Hernández finished the men’s snowboard cross competition in third place, and they didn’t have to wait much more for another since figure skater Javier Fernández twirled his way to a deserved bronze medal in the men’s singles event contested two days later. Although, if we’re rewarding the quickest rebound from feast to famine, New Zealand takes the cake, tripling its all-time count in Winter Olympics in a matter of minutes due to consecutive bronze medals from a pair of 16-year-olds, freestyle skier Nico Porteous (men’s halfpipe) and snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott (women’s big air), the first Winter medallists from the Pacific nation since 1992.

Javier Fernández celebrates with the Spanish flag after winning a bronze medal on the men’s singles figure skating event (David J. Phillip)

Sick of watching their northern neighbours hoard medals in speed skating, Belgium coaxed a bit of glory when Bart Swings finished second in the men’s mass start to snag the country’s first medal since 1998, whereas alpine skier Tina Weirather finally fulfilled her Olympic destiny, placing third in the women’s Super-G to reopen Liechtenstein’s account after 20 years. With Weirather’s success, now 7 of the 10 medals obtained by athletes from the tiny Principality belong to the same family since Tina’s mother, Hanni Wenzel, and uncle, Andreas Wenzel, also achieved podium positions in representation of the only country to hold medals from the Winter Olympics but not the Summer Olympic Games.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

Stripped of the national flag, anthem and colours in result of a scandalous doping scheme, the Russian athletes were placed on the eye of the storm and the results they delivered in strenuous circumstances underwhelmed, with the country’s representatives falling way short of the 11 golds and 29 medals that, to this day, make the official tally from their home Games in 2014.

A total of 168 athletes were cleared by international federations to don the special OAR tracksuits in PyeongChang, however, deprived of leading figures such as short track star Viktor Ahn, biathlon’s Anton Shipulin or cross-country’s Sergey Ustiugov and Alexander Legkov, the distinctive performances amongst the group were few and far between, with the Olympic Athletes from Russia totalling 17 medals and just two golds.

While true that those came in iconic events, men’s ice hockey and women’s singles figure skating, it’s no less legitimate to affirm that discomfort from not possessing enough clean athletes to compete in team events in biathlon or speed skating was galling, and things would have looked even bleaker if not for a tremendous up-and-coming generation of cross-country athletes headlined by Aleksandr Bolshunov, Denis Spitsov and Yulia Belorukova, who amassed a surprising 8 medals, almost half of the team’s final sum.

Ice hockey delivered one of just two gold medals for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (REUTERS/Grigory Dukor)

Furthermore, despite all the back spinning going on at the IOC, who seemed desperate to reinstate the Russian Olympic Committee in time for the Closing Ceremony, the OAR delegation still found a way to undermine their own chances, producing two of the four doping cases of the 2018 Olympics: the bizarre failed test of curler Alexander Krushelnitsky, who had to return his mixed doubles bronze medal, and the burlesque positive of bobsleigh pilot Nadezhda Sergeyeva, who had modelled a “I Don’t Do Doping” t-shirt just days before the start of the Games.

Still, Russia’s NOC was eventually welcomed back right after the dust settled, and mediocre results slipped under the radar at home because Vladimir Putin got the last laugh and the one thing he really desired: Olympic gold hanging from the necks of his ice hockey heroes.

China

Four years before the winter sports show stops in Beijing, China got an idea of how much work it still has ahead if hopes of making waves in 2022 are to be realized. In PyeongChang, Chinese athletes collected just 9 medals, the same number of Sochi, yet only one was mined from the most valuable metal and, critically, no improvements could be discerned in most sports despite the army of foreign experts brought on board to expedite the process.

In reality, between the Nordic disciplines (alpine skiing, cross-country, biathlon and ski-jumping) and the three sliding sports (luge, skeleton and bobsleigh), the Chinese failed to place a single athlete in the top 10, and even though they picked up some honours in freestyle skiing, snowboard, figure skating and speed skating (first podium appearance), the only sport where they’re undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with remains short track speed skating, where they’ve conquered 30 of 53 all-time medals. And, naturally, China’s only title in South Korea was conquered at the Gangneung Ice Center, with 23-year-old Wu Dajing setting two world records on his way to an impressive, wire-to-wire victory in the men’s 500m.

Short track speedskater Wu Dajing was the only Chinese athlete to leave PyeongChang with a gold medal (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Japan

For only the second time, and first outside of their home soil, the Japanese reached double digits in terms of Winter Olympics honours, and the secret behind that progress were the remarkable results achieved in the Gangneung Oval by their ladies, whose rejuvenated speed skating program tabbed 6 of 13 Japanese medals, and three of the four Nipponic golds.

Accordingly, the highlight of the Japanese performance in South Korea was, arguably, the spectacular victory in the women’s team pursuit over the mighty Dutch trio, though the star of the delegation was still figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who defended his title by finishing ahead of compatriot Shoma Uno in the men’s competition despite concerns over a nagging right ankle injury. As for the less expected outcome, it would pertain the third-place obtained by the women’s curling team, which spelled a first ever medal in the sport for the country.

Japan’s Miho Takagi (left), Ayano Sato (center) and Nana Takagi race in the women’s team pursuit final en route to a gold medal. | KYODO

South Korea

The unified ice hockey team grabbed the headlines at home, particularly during the first week, and that may have been exactly what the rest of the South Korean contingent needed to shake off the nerves and deliver an outstanding fortnight, eventually ensuring that the proverbial host nation bump signified a doubling of the medal tally from Sochi (8 to 17).

As expected, most of the load fell on the speed skaters, not only in the short track (3 golds, 6 medals) but also on the longer course (1 gold, 7 medals), whereas figure skating retreated into the shadows on the wake of Yuna Kim’s retirement to cede the stage to a swath of unprecedented successes in disciplines that hold significantly less following in South Korea.

Members of the South Korean women’s curling team celebrate after their semifinal victory over Japan (Aaron Favila / AP)

The case in point would be the success of the “Iron Man” Yun Sung-bin, who tamed the Alpensia track like no other skeleton competitor, but the nice stories extended farther, comprising the four-man bobsleigh unit, who shared the podium with two German sleds, snowboarder Lee Sang-ho, who became the first Korean athlete to win a medal over snow when he finished in the runner up spot of the parallel giant slalom, and the lovely women’s curling team. Nicknamed the Garlic girls for their city of origin, they notched an incredible 8-1 record in group stage before securing silver in what was the country’s first ever participation in the sport.

Sweden

A traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse, Sweden’s delegation left PyeongChang one medal short of Sochi’s total (14 instead of 15) but, probably, in a much better mood by influence of the seven Olympic titles, which equalled the record haul of Torino 2006.

In fact, the total of 2014 was enormously dictated by cross-country (11 of the 14 medals), and while it wasn’t ideal that they got eclipsed by rivals Norway in endurance skiing this time (6 medals against 14), the Swedes found a way to compensate elsewhere, with the most unexpected news travelling from the biathlon centre, where a young team shone brightly to score four podiums and two brilliant gold medals (women’s individual and men’s relay) that bested their neighbour’s record.

Fredrik Lindström heads to the finish line in front of the Swedish crowd in the final moments of biathlon’s men’s relay (Getty Images)

Moreover, in another major battleground for Sweden, the slopes, veterans Frida Hansdotter and André Myhrer claimed a surprising sweep of the alpine skiing (individual) slalom events, while both of the nation’s curling teams played the respective finals in front of the visiting King Carl XVI Gustaf. Unfortunately, the men skipped by Niklas Edin couldn’t resist an American group on a mission, settling for silver, but Anna Hasselborg’s foursome completed the job and made up for the disappointing results in ice hockey, where both Swedish teams failed to reach the last four.

Netherlands

For the second consecutive Olympics, the Netherlands lodged inside the top-five in the final medal standings and, this time, they even showcased a bit of range, spraying some of their speed skating expertise to success in the short track, which accounted for a fifth of their twenty podiums. Including a first ever gold medal, captured by Suzanne Schulting in the 1000m, and a remarkable bronze snatched in the women’s 3000m relay after the Dutch got relegated to the B Final!

Dutch athletes Yara van Kerkhof and Lara van Ruijven rejoice after learning about their unlikely bronze medal in the women’s 3000m relay (ANP)

As for the proceedings in the Oval of Gangneung, the winners of a staggering 23 of 36 medals in Sochi 2014 garnered 16 of 42 (two mass start races added) in Pyeongchang, and 7 of 14 titles, a tally that seemed on the rise when they picked up six in the first seven speed skating events contested before falling flat. Regarding podium sweeps, after the incredible four of 2014, the Dutch swayed just one this time (women’s 3000m) and that can’t be disassociated from the decline in performance of their two legends, Sven Kramer and Ireen Wüst.

The veteran duo, though, still managed to pick up medals number 9 and 11, respectively, to become the most decorated speed skaters in Olympic history, and they were not the only flying Dutch to rewrite the history books since teammate Jorien ter Mors will be immortalized as the first female to medal in two different sports at a single Olympics, winning the 1000m in the long track and bronze with the 3000m relay in the smaller ice rink a few days later.

United States of America

Ranked fourth in both the gold medal (9) and total medal (23) counts, the United States produced their worst Winter Olympics showing since Nagano 1998 because they metamorphosed into the team of the “Almost”.

Indeed, an uncharacteristic 35 American athletes finished between fourth and sixth, however the most worrying trend is another, which keeps popping up at every four year cycle: despite all the money, the USA have grown increasingly reliant on the X-Games events – added in 1992 – to keep a meaningful slice of the pie, and that is manifested in 11 of 23 medals originating from the plethora of freestyle skiing and snowboard showdowns.

17 year-old Red Gerard won the first medal for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics (Mike Blake/Reuters)

At one point, the four Olympic titles obtained by American athletes belonged to snowboarders, with 17-year-olds Red Gerard and Chloe Kim pairing repeat Champions Jamie Anderson and Shawn White in the slopestyle and halfpipe competitions, but the final picture wind up getting a fresh coat of paint in the form of the three standout gold-medal performances amongst the entire American contingent: by the women’s ice hockey team, which ended Canada’s domination, the cross-country’s women’s sprint team, which secured the first ever Olympic title in the sport, and the men’s curling team, with John Shuster’s band of renegades charging to gold over Sweden.

Other positive surprises included a first ever singles medal in luge, courtesy of Chris Mazdzer, and the unmatched ability to generate contributions from 11 of 15 sports, though that shouldn’t disguise clear underperformance from the likes of bobsleigh, both speed skating disciplines – even if the women’s team pursuit salvaged bronze after the embarrassing goose egg in the Oval of Sochi – and figure skating, whose disastrous overall display in the women’s event was just the tip of the iceberg. In a minor level, reference to biathlon – the only Olympic sport where the USA have yet to reach the podium – and alpine skiing, which had to live with floundering men and the three medals gathered by Mikaela Shiffrin (gold and silver) and the departing Lindsey Vonn (silver).

Canada

Eight years after Vancouver, which marked a first look at the results of the “Own the Podium” program, Canada signed off from PyeongChang boasting a new record tally of medals (29) and a total of 11 golds, ranking third in both categories (and ahead of the USA, it should be noted), however these notable achievements couldn’t completely wash out the bittersweet taste left by what they missed out on.

Ice hockey and curling are Canada’s national past times and the proud holders of the four Olympic titles attributed in both sports were left to lick their wounds after relinquishing every single one of them in South Korea. They picked up the title in the novel curling mixed doubles event, but that’s small consolation since both genre’s foursomes finished off the podium, something that had never happened to Canadian men or women since the sport debuted in 1998. In addition, on the other sheet of ice, the women’s hockey team capitulated to the USA in the Final and the men had to settle for bronze in a tournament contested without NHL players.

Canada forward Meghan Agosta (2) and forward Marie-Philip Poulin (29) react after losing to the United States in the shootout of the women’s Olympic final Olympic (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

On the positive side, Canada’s beloved figure skating pair won two golds in PyeongChang, with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir leading the way in the team event before recovering the ice dancing title, and to the four figure skating medals acquired, the country appended a healthy five in short track speed skating, with Kim Boutin snagging one in each individual event, as well as four golds and an admirable seven podiums in freestyle skiing, a sport where they hold the all-time lead.

Furthermore, Canada medalled for the first time in luge, with Alex Gough hitting the top-three in women’s singles and as part of the relay, Dutch-born Ted-Jan Bloemen became the first Canadian athlete to win an individual Olympic speed skating event in 34 years, and the bobsleigh two-man unit piloted by Justin Kripps stunningly tied for gold with a German sled, repeating the unusual circumstances of Nagano 1998, when Canada and Italy couldn’t be separated in the first gold medal dead heat in bobsleigh’s Olympic history.

Germany

Anointed as the pre-Olympics favourites to top the medal table, the Germans fell just short of the goal, bagging a mere 31 (the maximum are still 36 at Salt Lake City) in spite of matching Norway for a new winter record of 14 titles, nonetheless their authorities should be thrilled with the performance.

Improving massively on the haul of 8 victories and 19 podiums collected four years ago, Germany was only blanked once in 16 days of competition and managed to keep their usual strongholds, sweeping the gold medals in the Nordic Combined, including the entire top-three in the Individual large hill/10 km event, and bobsleigh, where they had been shockingly shut out in Sochi, and coming close in luge, with the fourth triumph flying wayward due to Felix Loch’s mistake.

World champion Johannes Rydzek led a German one-two-three finish in the Pyeongchang 2018 Nordic combined individual Gundersen large hill/10 kilometres event (Getty Images)

In truth, between the three sliding sports, the Germans bagged a record six golds at the Alpensia Sliding Center – more than all the other countries combined – and 11 medals, but there was much more to be excited about, from the 3 titles and 7 podiums heaped by biathletes in spite of Laura Dahlmeier’s “modest” contributions, to the four medals conquered by ski jumpers.

Regarding the rest of the contingent, a deserved reference to the gold captured by 34-year-old Aliona Savchenko (partnering Bruno Massot) in the pair’s figure skating competition of her fourth Olympics, and the surprising silver in men’s ice hockey, where the underdogs eliminated the reigning World Champions (Sweden) and Olympic Champions (Canada) on the way to a first medal since 1976.

Norway

I have no idea if Norway’s success in winter sports is based on their reticence to keep score below the age of 13, allowing the kids to fall in love without the pressure of competition, or some truth to the old adage that Norwegian children are born with skis on, however I’m convinced the future is unlikely to bring another Olympics where so many things go right at the same time for this Nordic nation.

Landing in PyeongChang with the 10th largest commission (109 athletes), the Norwegians not only blitzed past the United States’ Winter Olympics record of 37 medals (Vancouver 2010) and destroyed their previous best, totalling an unprecedented 39 after the 26 of Lillehammer and Sochi, but also matched Germany (2018) and Canada’s (2010) marks with a record 14 gold medals at a single Olympics.

Simen Hegstad Krüger waits for team-mates Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund as Norway completed a clean sweep in the men’s 15 kilometres + 15km skiathlon (Getty Images)

It’s well known that Norway’s national sport is cross-country and, unsurprisingly, their athletes drove the bus in South Korea to erase memories of a tepid performance four years ago, racking up an unparalleled 14 medals which comprised 7 golds, a podium sweep in the men’s 30km skiathlon, five metal biscuits for the legendary Marit Bjørgen, three titles for wunderkind Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and, amazingly, 0 honours for the reigning World Cup and Tour de Ski Champion Heidi Weng….

Moreover, keeping up with the best practices over two planks, ski jumpers pitched in 5 medals, including the first ever gold in the team event, biathletes contributed with 6, even with a single individual triumph from star Johannes Thingnes Bø, and the strength of their vaunted “Attacking Vikings” – which finally netted a maiden gold in the men’s downhill (Aksel Lund Svindal) – was supplemented with the first podium appearances for female alpine skiers since 1932.

Freestyler Øystein Bråten also joined the ski party by triumphing in the men’s slopestyle, and even the lack of individual medals (silver in team event) in the Nordic Combined, where the country leads the all-time standings, was eventually offset by the timely return to glory of Norway’s once-dominant speed skating team, who hadn’t won a title since 1998 before claiming the men’s 500m (Håvard Lorentzen) and men’s team pursuit in PyeongChang.

Havard Bokko, Sindre Henriksen, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen of Norway celebrate after winning the gold medal during the Speed Skating Men’s Team Pursuit Final (Dean Mouhtaropoulos /Getty Images)

Throwing the bronze medal in curling’s mixed doubles – rescued after the OAR disqualification – into the pile, 8 of the 11 sports where Norway competed chipped into the pot, and that summons their approach: capitalize on what you’re good at and leave the other chips to fall where they may.

Women’s Euro 2017: Best player, Best Eleven and All-Star Team

After taking a look at the main incidences and trends from the three weeks of action, it’s time to call to the stage the women that made the spectacle possible. Or the best among them, the players that better eschewed the fatigue of a long season and performed at the highest level to help their teams succeed.

As the traditional heavyweights of the women’s game fell short of expectations, so did many of the world’s elite footballers, therefore our 23-women All-star roster features many players that greatly benefit from the exposure obtained in the tournament to enhance their career prospects.

As usual in these occasions, representatives from the last four teams dominate the squad, a reality amplified by the fact that stars from pre-tournament favourites really need to stand out to make the cut when eliminated precociously, and revelations from teams that are bounced out in the group stage rarely compile the body of work to outshine those in more successful outfits. Hence, prepare for a lot of Dutch, English, Austrian and Danish players, who paid their dues to deserve the spotlight.

Furthermore, after presenting the names that made the All-star roster, I nominated what I deem to be the ideal line-up of the competition and elected the best player in the tournament. You can check UEFA’s choices for these categories here and compare, if you so desire.  And off we go.

All-Star Team

Goalkeepers (2)

Manuela Zinsberger (Austria)

Fast and decisive getting out of the posts and composed under pressure, Austria’s goalkeeper wasn’t shy about taking command of the penalty area and rallying the troops, displaying signs of maturity well beyond her 21 years of age.

Austrian goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger holds the ball and looks on.

Four clean sheets in five games firmly validate the work she and her teammates put on, and a perfect record of 24 saves in 24 shots on goal was an intercepted corner away. Mostly a backup for Bayern Munich over the last three seasons, this was the type of performance that propels a career to another level.

Almuth Schult (Germany)

The last woman to shoulder responsibilities for the defending Champions’ downfall, Almuth Schult grabbed headlines for a couple of superb saves and regularly exhibited her impeccable positioning, outstanding reflexes and solid technical base, giving the team total ease to move up the pitch with numbers.

Comfortable with the ball at her feet, the 26-year-old was also an active member of Germany’s ball circulation, and can be excused for all three goals allowed during a tournament where she reaffirmed her status as one of the continents’ finest stoppers.

Defensemen (7)

Lucy Bronze (England)

A superb athlete that could gallop down the flank for days, Bronze is England’s flamboyant right back and most unique player. Capable of dismantling defensive organizations with her speed in transition, superb offensive instincts and smart movement off the ball, she somehow manages to rarely get caught out of position in defence, where her aggressiveness, elite anticipation and ball-winning skills set up more bold runs forward.

England’s right back Lucie Bronze prepares to deliver a throw-in

That much was evident on England’s match-winner in the quarter-finals, a game that further confirmed what any women’s football fan already knows: the 25-year-old is the world’s best full back by a wide margin.

Theresa Nielsen (Denmark)

On the field for each one of Denmark’s 570 minutes, Nielsen revealed incredible stamina along the right lane, efficiently completing the Danish back four and recurrently rushing forward to support the attack with purpose. That would be enough to merit a spot, but it only helped her case that, in one of those offensive incursions, the 31-year-old notched the tournament’s most iconic goal, the header that ended Germany’s 22-year reign.

Simone Boye Sørensen (Denmark)

Dependable, assured in possession and technically competent, Simone Boye Sørensen was the leader Denmark’s defence needed as injuries knocked down fellow center backs Janni Arnth Jensen and Mie Jans. Always expertly positioned, the 25-year-old proved insuperable in the air and solid at field level, shepherding the adapted Stine Larsen through the ups and down of a journey that would only end with a finalists medal hanging around her neck.

Denmark’s Simone Boye Sørensen heads the ball away from Belgium forward Tessa Wullaert

Anouk Dekker (Netherlands)

A defensive midfielder by trade, Anouk Dekker was deployed by the hosts as a central defender to exploit her imposing physical presence, and she responded by marshalling the Netherlands’ backline on a Championship campaign. Affected by physical ailments, Stefanie van der Gragt and captain Mandy van der Berg rotated by her side, but Dekker always stood firm, concealing her lack of speed and agility with positioning, and thriving in aerial battles.

Carina Wenninger (Austria)

Tapping on a decade worth of experience playing in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Wenninger assumed a leading role guiding Austria’s stout defensive unit in the regular absence of captain (and club teammate) Viktoria Schnaderbeck. Patrolling the centre lanes and directing traffic, she inspired her less seasoned teammates by intercepting uncountable crosses and rebuffing many attempts at penetrating the Austrian wall.

Millie Bright (England)

The least experienced player in England’s preferred line-up rewarded Mark Sampson’s faith with a string of impressive showings where her strength and vigour proved a perfect complement to captain Steph Houghton. Used to play a few meters up the pitch for her club, the powerful Bright never looked out of place and quickly became England’s preferred target in lateral free kicks and corners, with the ball directed towards the far post to capitalize on her uncommon aerial prowess.

England’s Millie Bright wards off Portugal’s Carolina Mendes in a group stage match

Demi Stokes (England)

In a tournament where few left backs caught the eye, Stokes’ reliability was a welcomed sight, as the 25-year-old did an admirable job shutting down opposing wingers, helping inside and providing width and depth when England had the ball. Not as skilled or dynamic as her opposite full back, Stokes was a guarantee of balance every time Lucy Bronze rampaged forward.

Midfielders (8)

Sarah Puntigam (Austria)

Puntigam is another player with ample experience in the German League that flourished under brighter lights at the Euro 2017. Starting from a deep-lying midfield position, she displayed her tactical nous in numerous occasions, covering for her teammates, tackling resolutely, impelling the team forward with incisive passes off his left foot and swinging set pieces into the box.

Austria’s Sarah Puntigam watches as her penalty shot sails into the Spanish net

The 24-year-old tallied the decisive penalty against Spain, but then went from hero to villain after missing from the spot against Denmark, an opportunity that could have changed the complexity of the semi-final. An unfortunate circumstance that fails to overshadow her excellent tournament.

Amandine Henry (France)

Amid a French team that once again underperformed, Henry stood out for the unwillingness to bend until the last whistle, the determination to fight back against mounting challenges apparent on every tv plan of her face.

The 27-year-old drew a late penalty against Iceland, scored to snatch a point from Austria, ran more than anyone else, initiated plays and carried the ball forward time and time again, pressed high, shot from distance and attacked the box. At times, Henry got caught wanting to do too much, so much that her decision making suffered as a consequence. It was still inspiring to watch, even if her level of play was a few notches below previous competitions.

Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

Jackie Groenen, the beating heart of the Champions. A steadfast, unrelenting working bee that never stopped connecting the dots for the Netherlands, the ambidextrous 22-year-old was subtly brilliant in everything she did: tackles and interceptions, box to box transitions by breaking lines in possession or through direct, swift passes, invade open spaces, exchange positions with teammates to confound opposing defences, spring the wingers on the run and set up Vivianne Miedema on a tee in several occasions. Groenen crafted more scoring chances from open play that any other player in the tournament, collected two assists and left her fingerprints on a few others.

Jackie Groenen maneuvers against Denmark in the group stage

A monstrous performance for the Euro 2017’s best central midfielder, who probably wouldn’t even be a starter were it not for Tessel Middag’s injury weeks before the event.

Jordan Nobbs (England)

At age 24, Jordan Nobbs was finally thrusted into a leading role for England and her influence extended well beyond the right flank, where she forged a tremendous partnership with Lucy Bronze.

Poised and smart, masterminding her team’s best plays with penetrating passes and imaginative combinations, Nobbs scored on a wonderful volley against Scotland and also excelled defensively, unafraid to join the fray in the middle of the park. Her long-range passing and propensity for shooting from deep position were in sight when she was able to drift inside, consequently we’re not afraid to say England’s demise began when Mark Sampson declined to move Nobbs into the role of the suspended Jill Scott in their semi-final affair.

Laura Feiersinger (Austria)

The Austrian right winger may have failed to collect any goals or assists in the tournament, however she came second to none in work rate and importance, playing each second of her team’s 510 competitive minutes.

Austria’s Laura Feiersinger controls the ball against Iceland

A combative midfielder whose engine never stops, Feiersinger’s ability to lug the ball up the field, shield it with the body and draw contact granted her defence some much needed breathing room, allowed Austria a chance to ping the ball into the opposing penalty area, and opened space for others to operate. No surprise at all that coach Dominik Thalhammer was so reluctant to substitute her.

Shanice van de Sanden (Netherlands)

Van de Sanden’s tournament began on a high note when she scored the decisive goal in the opener contested in her hometown of Utrecht, and the 24-year-old never looked back, sprinting down the right flank at blistering speeds over the next five matches to provide two assists, generate many more scoring chances and haunt the dreams of left back after left back.

Tremendously explosive, van den Sanden’s handicap – execution and erratic decision-making – surfaced enough to knock her down a few pegs in the race for Best Player of the tournament.

Shanice van de Sanden ponders her options after leaving behind the Norwegian defenders

Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

A penchant for cutting inside and fire on goal with her strongest foot reminiscent of Arjen Robben, the vision of Wesley Sneijder on those swinging, cross field passes to change the point of attack, even the insolence to emulate the “Cruyff turn” on a couple of occasions.

Ok, we may be overstating things here, but the electric Martens was definitely another disarming offensive talent lighting up a major footballing stage with the orange jersey, seducing with exquisite technique, pace, creativity and an eye for staring in the big moments: the fluctuating cross that dip right into Van de Sanden’s head in the tournament opener; the free kick lashed into the bottom corner to break the deadlock in the quarter-finals; the long-range rocket with her weak foot in the Final. Highlights to inspire a new generation of girls aspiring to be li(e)ke Martens.

Katrine Veje (Denmark)

Fast, clear on her intents and superb shifting gears to leave the opponent trailing behind, Katrine Veje fits the description of the wingers of old. Left footed, the slippery 26-year-old is always eager to charge up the flank, yet she also relishes the defensive work, retreating quickly to help the full back.

Denmark’s Katrine Veje in action against Norway

Characteristics that were in full display during Denmark’s runner up campaign, but are regularly coupled with inconsistencies in front of the goal. After tallying the lone marker versus Norway, Veje missed some glorious chances against Germany, and she can thank her teammates that didn’t turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

Forwards (6)

Pernille Harder (Denmark)

If doubts remained, the Dutch tournament put them to bed: the Danish skipper is one of the best and most complete players in women’s football.

Pernille Harder’s performance in the Netherlands was simply mesmerizing. Supremely gifted with the ball at her feet, the 24-year-old exuded class in every touch, in every turn, in every sprint, skipping past defenders, eyes surveying her options and mind set on the best path towards the goal. Quick and agile, she audaciously took into fully organized opposing backlines, but always opted for the best course of action, no matter how much she yearned to take full responsibility.

With the goals eluding her and two assists picked up along the way, Harder was finally rewarded in the Final when her thumping individual effort found the back of the net. Had Denmark lifted the trophy, an additional piece of silverware would have flown back home with her.

Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland)

The only player from a team eliminated in the group stage to break into this all-star roster and for good reason.

Similarly to Lieke Martens, the stocky Swiss forward was named player of the match in two occasions, her disconcerting dribbles and passion rallying the team after the setback in the opener, and her performance against Iceland standing out as one of the greatest in the tournament. In that game, Bachmann devised the play that landed the tying goal, nodded home the game winner and authored a fantastic slalom that was finished with a cracker right off the cross bar. Pity she had to leave so early.

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann evades two French defenders

Jodie Taylor (England)

The tournament’s best goal scorer kicked off the competition in style by notching the first European Championship finals hat trick in 20 years, and then went on to bag a couple more beauties against Spain and France, powering the Lionesses’ dreams with her finishing acumen and abrasive style, which tired defences and cleared space for others to explore.

In the semi-finals, Taylor created, and then squandered a golden chance to cut the Dutch lead and set up a different outcome, yet this was still an inspired tournament for the 31-year-old striker.

England’s Jodie Taylor celebrates her marker against Spain

Nina Burger (Austria)

Burger’s game winner against Switzerland was the foundation upon which Austria’s historical campaign was built, and the talismanic striker did her best to repeat throughout the tournament despite further opportunities proving tough to come.

Working hard to hold the ball up the field, press the opponent’s build up and encourage her teammates, she always lurked behind the defence looking for ways to satisfy her predatory instinct.

Nadia Nadim (Denmark)

The Afghan-born forward looked off in the group stage, lavishly missing the mark and amassing offside calls, yet as soon as the knockout rounds rolled on, she was back to her bruising best, proving a tremendous nuisance for defenders with her blend of strength, mobility, ability to explode off the dribble and proficiency in the air. Nadim’s powerful header started Denmark’s rally against Germany, and she also tallied confidently from the penalty spot to give Denmark an early lead in the Final.

Denmark’s Nadia Nadim reacts after scoring in the Final

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

An exasperating round robin for the usually mild-mannered Miedema, followed by a blazingly hot elimination round punctuated by four goals in three games to threaten Jodie Taylor’s Golden boot. It all started with a tap-in against Sweden, and through graceful off-the-ball runs, deft receptions, mellifluous feints, myriad tunnels under opponent’s leg and decisive finishes, culminated with a liberating blast to seal the Netherlands’ European title.

Players by Nation: Netherlands (5), Denmark (5), England (5), Austria (5), Germany (1), France (1), Switzerland (1)

Missed the cut: Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands), Verena Aschauer (Austria), Sherida Spitse and Daniëlle van de Donk (Netherlands), Caroline Weir (Scotland), Dzsenifer Marozsán (Germany), Amanda Sampedro (Spain), Sanne Troelsgaard (Denmark), Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Fanndís Friðriksdóttir (Iceland), Lotta Schelin (Sweden)

Best Eleven of the tournament (4x2x3x1)

M. Zinsberger (AUT);

L. Bronze (ENG) – S. Boye Sørensen (DEN) – M. Bright (ENG) – D. Stokes (ENG)

S. Puntigam (AUT) – J. Groenen (NED)

S. van de Sanden (NED) – P. Harder (DEN) – L. Martens (NED)

J. Taylor (ENG) 

I confess to have wrestled way more with the all-star roster than with this starting eleven. The front four and Jackie Groenen were pretty automatic choices, and both Lucy Bronze and Manuela Zinsberger emerged as locks early on.

Denmark’s Pernille Harder, here seen battling past two Austrian players, is part of the best lineup of the Euro 2017. But is she the best player of the tournament?

In my opinion, Simone Boye Sørensen and Millie Bright edged Anouk Dekker for the center back roles, while Demi Stokes was my default option at the left back position since none of her counterparts impressed me enough to even make the roster. As the midfield anchor, I pondered Amandine Henry’s name, but ultimately couldn’t stomach rewarding a French player for another failed campaign, whereas selecting the versatile Jordan Nobbs feels like a little swindle. Sarah Puntigam was a lynchpin for Austria, and the debutants deserve more credit than a lone nomination in goal.

In comparison with UEFA’s selection, and based on what I expressed before, I can see where they’re coming from with Verena Aschauer and Sherida Spitse, but definitely can’t grasp how Steph Houghton is favoured over Millie Bright, or Sari van Veenendaal is tipped as the competition’s best goalkeeper. Defining Theresa Nielsen as a right midfielder isn’t absurd for her key role on Denmark’s mutating formation, however believing she deserves the spot over Shanice van de Sanden is bonkers.

Best Player of the tournament

Winner: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

The Best Player of the Euro 2017? Lieke Martens, Netherlands slick No. 11

2nd place: Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

3rd place: Pernille Harder (Denmark)

These three women elevated themselves head and shoulders above anyone else, but sorting out the order is a more complicated endeavour since I could offer strong arguments supporting each candidate. For instance, no player was more valuable to her own team than Pernille Harder, but this isn’t an MVP contest, it’s a “Best player of the tournament” election, and by failing to pick up the title she was at a disadvantage. Moreover, I would have liked to see more from a finishing standpoint (I know, she saved it for the end) to go along with her superb playmaking performance.

Regarding the two Dutch ladies, my heart clamoured for the ubiquitous Jackie Groenen since she was the player I most enjoyed watching, but reason prevailed. Lieke Martens’ gaudy offensive totals (3 goals + 2 assists + 2 “hockey” assists), dazzling skill and timely contributions, including the stunning goal in the Final, ultimately push her just a smidge higher.

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.