Fresh off the back of her debut FA Women’s Super League season which saw her make a surprise post-season move to Reading, Netherlands captain Mandy van den Berg is with her national team mates in Tilburg ahead of Tuesday’s friendly with Mark Sampson’s England.
The Netherlands national team is back on track after a poor few years which saw them crash out of the Group Stages at Euro 2013 – the same stage Hope Powell’s England also bowed out of the tournament. Like England, Van den Berg and her country bounced for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, both once again exiting in eerily similar fashion, 2011 world champions Japan defeating both on their way to the final.
Parallels between the two nations don’t end there, England met Netherlands in the semi-finals of Euro 2009, Jill Scott’s 116th minute winner enough to see the Lionesses into the final against a side housing names such as recently retired Manon Melis – Netherlands’ top goal scorer with 59.
Whilst some scarily similar coincidences link the two over past years, captain Van den Berg missed Euro 2009 with an injury sustained just one week before the tournament commenced, joining current England captain Steph Houghton on the sidelines – the defender damaging her cruciate ligaments in the build up to the tournament.
“For me these Euro’s will be extra special, not just because they are being held in the Netherlands,” says the 26-year-old. “I missed my first Euro’s because of an injury so to lead my team out in front of our fans will be amazing, it is one of those things you grow up dreaming about but you never imagine it will actually happen.”
Born in Naaldwijk – a city of just 19,000 people – Van den Berg spent her later teenage years with ADO Den Haag before earning a move to Sweden which would eventually lead to a move to LSK Kvinner in Norway at the end of 2014.
A successful season with saw LSK seal the double earned her a big move to Liverpool in the FA WSL last winter and she’s looking forward to coming up against some familiar faces on Tuesday night.
“It’s really important for us to have these competitive games against teams like England because we had no qualifiers; it’s good for us to face the top ranked teams in the world.
“England came third in the World Cup so we are aware how good their team is so we’re looking forward to it – the fact it’s England makes it extra special for those of us who play in the FA WSL.”
Indeed England and the FA WSL has become a breeding ground for Dutch talent lately with the arrival of six regulars in Arjan van der Laan’s squad. Sari van Veenendaal, Dominique Janssen and Danielle van de Donk have all joined Arsenal in the past 18 months whilst van den Berg was joined at Liverpool by winger Shanice van de Sanden last winter.
Midfielder Tessel Middag arrived at champions Manchester City in the summer and van den Berg believes Dutch players are choosing England due to the growth of the league, opportunities to be a professional footballer and the style of football adopted by several teams.
“I think playing in England is a great chance for us to play with a philosophy similar to that of our national team,” says van den Berg.
“We like to play out from the back and if we can come up to speed with the physical play and counter attacking football then it can only benefit us in the long term. It’s very interesting for us to come and play here, the quality and tempo of play is very high and that can help us become complete players.”
It’s not just the FA WSL players that bring top quality to the Netherlands side, attacker Lieke Martens plays for Swedish giants Rosengard and was a star of the 2015 World Cup whilst Vivianne Miedema is currently tearing up the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich at the age of just 20. Miedema already has over 20 goals for the national team and van den Berg is confident her team can spring a surprise or two in their home Euro’s next year.
“I really believe we can surprise people,” states the captain. “It’s hard to say where we will finish because we don’t want to rush things but I really do believe we have a very talented squad.”
She adds: “If we can continue along the road we have started and continue to put in the hard work and energy then hopefully that will show for us next summer.
“We have players who play both at home and abroad so we have a lot of different qualities in our team, we can’t wait for fans of all countries to come to the Netherlands for one big party next summer, it should be a great occasion.”
Van den Berg is also impressed with the growth of the women’s game in the Netherlands over recent years and hopes hosting the tournament will continue to progress the sport.
TV audiences are continuously on the up, as are attendances within the stadiums themselves and the defender has no doubts the game will continue to grow at home even after the tournament is over.
“Everyone is working together to grow and develop the game, in the end for us it’s important we keep performing against quality players and quality teams.
“We have the fastest growth in girl’s football over the last few years, we have teams like Twente regularly competing in Europe and others like ADO Den Haag and Heerenveen who have been there since the beginning. Hopefully we can continue to build towards a professional league where everybody gets paid well like we do in England, our fans are getting behind the team and embracing the sport so it’s a very exciting time all round.”
England face the Netherlands on Tuesday 29th November, live on the BBC Red Button at 5:45pm