The Netherlands will face the United States in the final of the Women’s World Cup, following a dramatic late goal against Sweden after extra time in their semifinal match on Wednesday.
In the 99th minute, Jackie Groenen scored the only and winning goal, with her wonderful strike into the bottom-left corner, securing the Dutch a spot in Sunday’s final against the Americans.
Though the Netherlands is the reigning European Champion, the US women’s national team may have seen little in this semifinal to concern them ahead of the title decider in the same stadium.
For World Cup pedigree, the finalists are poles apart: three-time winner US is facing a team ranked eighth in the world, which is in its first final and competing in just its second World Cup.
But the Dutch are part of the European wave of traditional men’s soccer powerhouses who have invested in women’s football in recent years and the country’s improvement has been exceptional. It is undoubtedly a talented team.
Indeed, the Dutch women are now on a 12-match winning streak in major tournaments after winning Euro 2017 and reaching the final in France, and as Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman told reporters: “It’s one match and anything can happen.”
The showdown between women’s football’s old and new powers will also be the second World Cup final to be contested by teams managed by female coaches, a significant feat considering only nine of the 24 teams which featured in this tournament were managed by women.
“Women need to have the guts to make the choices and take risks to go for higher positions, but what we need to do as women is show that we have qualities,” Wiegman said.
Winning streak continues
Whether it was the occasion – both teams were attempting to reach the final for the first time, the sudorific conditions or, simply, two evenly-matched sides successfully negating each other’s threats, neither team particularly sparkled.
But both goalkeepers, and the woodwork, played a part in a goalless 90 minutes as they held firm under aerial bombardment from the flanks and set-pieces.
The Netherlands’ Sari van Veenendaal was the busier of the two in the first half, with the 29-year-old called into action because of the energy of Stina Blackstenius and Sofia Jakobsson.
The 29-year-old Jakobsson was at the heart of all that was good about Sweden’s forward play, putting Blackstenius through early on only for her compatriot to hit straight at the goalkeeper.
Van Veenendaal flapped at a Jakobsson cross to send Dutch hearts racing but, ultimately, it was an uninspiring half.
That the supporters completed two rounds of Mexican waves in the first 45 minutes told its own story.
The Netherlands’ band of trumpeters played on regardless of the nervy spectacle before them, rousing the good-natured Dutch fans into a cheerful chorus of well-known tunes.
With their marching parades to the stadiums and their impressive repertoire of songs, the thousands of Netherlands Oranje fans in attendance in France have added much to this tournament. After the final whistle, trumpets were enthusiastically blown and Dutch flags waved as the fans stayed behind to cheer their history-making team.
That the two teams with the most vociferous support in France have made it to the final will make it even more of a spectacle.
But it was only in the second half that the Dutch fans had much to shout about, Vivianne Miedema forcing Sweden’s goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl, into a fingertip save which rattled the crossbar only minutes after Sweden’s Nilla Fischer had hit the post with a long-distance daisy-cutter.
In the 70th minute, much to the delight of the Dutch fans, lightning quick winger Shanice van de Sanden was introduced from the substitutes’ bench. Immediately, her teammates sought her out and her pace put Sweden’s defense on its heels. The US will be tested should the winger feature.
Such was the Lyon forward’s impact, she could be seen urging the Dutch fans to raise the decibels in the closing stages of the 90 minutes and their response was instant.
In the 90th minute, with a rasping shot across goal, Van de Sanden forced a fine save from Lindahl but it was left to Groenen create history.
But the sight of Kosovare Asllani being carried off the pitch on a stretcher towards the end of the match, after being hit by the ball following an aerial duel, was a sour ending.
“I know nothing right now,” Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson told reporters in the immediate aftermath of defeat.
“I have a feeling of emptiness, whether that’s the match or Kosovare, I have a sense of emptiness.”