At various moments run over from behind, scythed down from below and smacked in the face, Dutch midfielder Danielle van de Donk won’t need any reminders of the stakes from the game she played Tuesday. She’ll feel those stakes each time she wakes up for the rest of the week.
Ice will help. So will knowing that Europe’s champion might yet be a part of Europe’s World Cup.
With a 2-1 win on the road against Denmark on Tuesday and a comprehensive 4-1 advantage over both legs of the home-and-home playoff, the Netherlands advanced to the playoff final that will determine the last European entrant in next summer’s World Cup in France.
The Dutch will play Switzerland, which tied Belgium 1-1 at home Tuesday and 3-3 over both legs but advanced by virtue of scoring more away goals. The final will be played over two legs in early November.
Tuesday’s game between the Netherlands and Denmark was a rematch of last year’s final in the Women’s Euro and produced the same outcome in much the same manner. Danish star Pernille Harder was fouled in the box in the opening minutes Tuesday, and Nadia Nadim converted the penalty kick for a 1-0 lead, just as she gave Denmark a lead from the spot a year ago.
In this case, the lead only gave Denmark hope of evening the aggregate score, but even that was snuffed out within 90 seconds. Subbing for not-fully-fit standout 22-year-old forward Vivianne Miedema, 21-year-old Lineth Beerensteyn showed off the Dutch depth when she headed home a goal that tied the score 1-1 and left the Danes facing an insurmountable challenge overall. Beerensteyn added a second with matters already settled, courtesy of a Miedema assist off the bench.
It was as comfortable a day as the Dutch could have hoped for in Copenhagen, a reminder of the pace and skill that has lifted the national team to 10th in the latest FIFA rankings and made stars of Lieke Martens, Shanice van de Sanden, Miedema, van de Donk and others. And yet as van de Donk’s bruises might attest, Tuesday was more gripping drama than anything the ongoing CONCACAF Women’s Championship is likely to produce for its favorites. All the more with any potential United States-Canada meeting likely being for bragging rights rather than a place in the World Cup.
That is the tale of two continents at the moment. Qualifying lasts 13 days in CONCACAF, a one-off aberration over 90 minutes the only chance most of the confederation has of competing with minuscule budgets and young rosters. The process lasts 13 months in Europe and tests not just the reigning Euro champs but the likes of Germany, which flirted with the playoffs until the final two games in its group.
“With the type of opponents that we have in CONCACAF, this makes sense,” U.S. forward Tobin Heath said diplomatically this week of condensing qualifying into a single tournament. “When you look at Europe and stuff like that, [a longer campaign] makes sense for them. Even if you look at the playoffs going on, with the teams that are in the playoffs, you’re like ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ They just have so many more teams that are quality. It’s hard for them to get in. Whereas I think this format is a lot more pressure. In European format you can skip a beat; in this tournament you can’t skip a beat for a second. We know as football fans anything can happen in 90 minutes.”
Every now and again, as when Mexico beat the U.S. women in 2010, lightning strikes. Perhaps Jamaica edging ahead of Costa Rica this year is positive. Perhaps Panama can stun Mexico. But it’s not often enough.
The reigning European champion has never failed to qualify for the Women’s World Cup, primarily because that reigning European champion has in almost every instance been Germany. (The lone interruption in the German run of Euro titles was Norway, which won the European title in 1993 and then went on to win the World Cup title in 1995.)
Now the Dutch are grinding their way through the playoffs, while the reigning European runner-up is already eliminated. (The only other time the runner-up failed to reach the next World Cup was Italy in 1995, when only four European teams qualified on the field alongside host Sweden.)
This isn’t about the clock striking midnight and the Dutch turning back into an appropriately colored pumpkin after their first Euro title. They conceded two goals total in eight qualifiers in the group stage and scored an average of nearly three goals a game. They endured one day of frustration when they couldn’t turn 32 attempts into a goal in a 0-0 draw against Ireland and then lost 2-1 in Oslo to lose the group to Norway in the final round of that stage.
And even now a difficult test remains. Switzerland reached the knockout round in the 2015 World Cup and coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is well thought of enough that Germany already hired her to take over its national team at the conclusion of qualifying.
The Dutch are still alive to get their chance to prove themselves the equal of the United States next summer. But if they make it to France, there will be nothing equal about the paths taken.