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Why Matildas fans should pay attention to the Women’s European Championships

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Starting this week, England will play host to some of the world’s best women’s national teams as the 2022 European Championship kicks off.

From July 7 to August 1, 16 of the continent’s strongest nations will take the field in some of England’s most storied stadiums including Old Trafford, St Mary’s, Bramall Lane, and Wembley as they compete for the quadrennial title, which is currently held by the Netherlands.

The Netherlands won their first and only Women’s European Championship in 2017 after defeating Denmark in the final.(Getty Images: Anadolu Agency/DeFodi)

So why should Australian football fans care about a competition happening half a world away?

Because just over a year from now, several of the countries competing at this year’s Euros will make their way Down Under for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, which Australia is co-hosting with New Zealand.

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Four of Europe’s allotted 11 teams have already qualified for the World Cup (Sweden, Spain, France, and Denmark), with six spots still to be decided.

England, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Finland, Northern Ireland, Italy, Scotland, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Switzerland are just some of the nations still vying for 2023 qualification, with their final play-off tournament to take place in October.

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The Euros, then, will be one of the last major glimpses the rest of the world gets into the teams that could potentially win next year’s World Cup.

So which nations and players should Aussies keep an eye on for these three frantic weeks in August?

The defending champions

The Netherlands

FIFA ranking: 4
Coach: Mark Parsons
Group: C (Sweden, Portugal, Switzerland)
Last Euros: Winners (defeated Denmark 4-2)
Player to watch: Vivianne Miedema
The young gun: Esmee Brugts

A women's soccer team wearing orange poses for a photo
The Netherlands seemingly came from nowhere to clinch the 2017 European Championship title. Can they go back-to-back?(Getty Images: NurPhoto/Jose Breton)

Under the guidance of now-England head coach Sarina Wiegman, the Netherlands appeared to come from nowhere to take out the 2017 Euros title on home soil with a 4-2 victory over the Pernille Harder-captained Denmark in the final.

More than just a flash in the pan, though, the Dutch continued their rise up the ranks following that tournament, making it all the way to the 2019 Women’s World Cup final after overcoming Japan, Italy, and Sweden in the knockouts, only to fall to eventual champions USA 2-0.

But following that two-year high, the Netherlands’ fortunes have slightly turned. Their Tokyo Olympic campaign started as a goal-scoring frenzy, topping the group with 21 goals (including 10 against Zambia, where striker Vivianne Miedema scored four, as well as an 8-2 win over China), but their run was cut short soon afterwards thanks, once again, to the USA who beat them on penalties in the quarter-final.

That unsteady feeling has continued following the departure of Wiegman and arrival of former Portland Thorns boss Mark Parsons. They’ve drawn four and lost two of their last 13 games, including a 5-1 thwacking at the hands of England late last month and a 3-1 loss to fellow Euros challengers France in February.

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However, the Dutch have still retained their core squad that won the 2017 crown, spearheaded by the country’s all-time record goal-scorer Vivianne Miedema, who comes into this tournament with 92 goals in 108 appearances (having surpassed Robin van Persie’s record back in 2019 when she was just 23), and recently extended her contract at Arsenal despite rumours she’d be headed for Barcelona or Lyon.

Supported on either flank by the electric Lieke Martens and Jill Roord, with a solid-as-iron midfield of Jackie Groenen, Danielle Van de Donk, and 201-capped Sherida Spitse, and with a backline anchored by Stefanie van der Gragt and Merel van Dongen (not to mention captain Sari van Veenendaal in goal), the Netherlands have one of the most consistent spines of the tournament.

They’ve also got a handful of exciting emerging players including 18-year-old Esmee Brugts – who’s seen as the next big thing in Dutch women’s football – and 22-year-old Lyon midfielder Damaris Egurrola.

They may not be the outright favourites to claim the 2022 Euros title, but having gone all the way only a few years ago, the Netherlands certainly know what it takes.

The Favourites

England

FIFA ranking: 8
Coach: Sarina Wiegman
Group: A (Austria, Norway, Northern Ireland)
Last Euros: Semi-final (lost 3-0 to the Netherlands)
Player to watch: Beth Mead
Young gun: Lauren Hemp

Women soccer players wearing white pose for a photo
With a squad filled with talent, experience, and depth, hosts England are seen as one of the favourites to take out the 2022 title.(Getty Images: FA/Naomi Baker)

Like their male counterparts, expectation has never sat comfortably on the Lionesses. Despite regularly boasting some of the best players in the world, there has been a feeling that England have never quite hit the heights that, on paper, many believe they should soar past.

And, as the host nation, there is an even brighter spotlight on a team that have qualified for the final twice but is yet to win Europe’s coveted title.

But there is something different about England this time around that could see them finally break their major tournament hoodoo.

One of those is the influence of new head coach Sarina Wiegman, who led her homeland Netherlands to the 2017 title and 2019 Women’s World Cup final. Under Wiegman’s leadership, England are now looking every bit as well-rounded, dangerous, and consistent as they always promised they could.

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They have not lost a game since Wiegman took over in September 2021, with 12 wins and two draws in the past 14 matches, including scoring 84 goals and conceding just four.

Their recent routs of fellow Euros nations Northern Ireland (5-0), Belgium (3-0), Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) has given England blistering momentum heading into their opening game against Austria at Wembley on Thursday morning.

From back to front, England contain both quality and depth in their squad, with all but four of their players starting for one of the top four Women’s Super League sides in Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

Their three-pronged attack stars in-form wingers Beth Mead (Arsenal) and Lauren Hemp (Manchester City), as well as a rotating cast of centre-forwards like Ellen White (City), Beth England (Chelsea), and Alessia Russo (Man United).

Beneath them is a multifaceted midfield featuring the creativity of Fran Kirby (Chelsea) and Ella Toone (Man United) alongside the metronomic Keira Walsh (Man City) and passing wizard Leah Williamson (Arsenal), while their backline is made up of the breakwall pairing of Millie Bright (Chelsea) and Alex Greenwood (Man City), often flanked by Lucy Bronze (Barcelona) and Demi Stokes (Man City).

With such a formidable squad, and with the wind in their sails, the feeling from their own experts is this will be the year that the Lionesses finally fulfil the destiny that has, until now, been just slightly out of reach.

Sweden

FIFA ranking: 2
Coach: Peter Gerhardsson
Group: C (Netherlands, Portugal, Switzerland)
Last Euros: Quarter-final (lost 2-0 to the Netherlands)
Player to watch: Kosovare Asllani
Young gun: Hanna Bennison

A women's soccer team wearing yellow and blue poses for a photo in front of a crowd
They’re one of the most consistent teams in women’s football history, but Sweden haven’t won a title in over 30 years. Is this finally their time?(Getty Images: David Lidstrom)

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Despite being one of the most consistent teams across Europe over the past decade, Sweden have not got their hands on a major trophy since the inaugural European Championship back in 1984.

Having reached the top four of the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, as well as the finals of both the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, there is a buzz that the 2022 Euros and 2023 Women’s World Cup could finally be Sweden’s moment in the sun.

This is a team that is almost purpose-built for tournament football. With the majority of their squad now reaching their peak performance years of between 24 and 30, and with little rotation of their main group over the past few years, Sweden’s case for finally hoisting a major trophy has never seemed stronger.

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Unlike other nations vying for the title, Sweden do not boast a singular global star the likes of Sam Kerr or Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema. What they do have, though, is a handful of vastly experienced core players including goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl (188 caps), defender Linda Sembrant (128 caps), midfielder Kosovare Asllani (161 caps), forward Sofia Jakobsson (144 caps), and European appearance record-holder Caroline Seger (230 caps).

These veterans are complemented by a number of world-class players including Chelsea captain Magdalena Eriksson, Manchester City midfielder Filippa Angeldahl, Swedish top scorer Stina Blackstenius, and Barcelona winger Fridolina Rolfo. 

Australian fans will be familiar with this ruthless Swedish side: they swept past the Matildas 4-2 in the group stage of the Tokyo Olympics (after defeating reigning World Cup champions USA 3-0) before adding insult to injury with a 1-0 win in the semi-finals, though they were ultimately beaten to the gold medal by a stoic Canada on penalties.

But even with their impressive record and tournament-hardened squad, there is still a vibe that Sweden is an outside chance to hoist the 2022 title. Their bizarre underdog status is such that the Swedes have literally given their opponents a blueprint on how to beat them, weaving their tactics and player profiles into their jerseys for the tournament.

With their own ‘golden generation’ now at their peak and with several years’ worth of tournament experience under their belts, there is little doubt Sweden will be one of the contenders for the title that they last won three decades ago.

Spain

FIFA ranking: 7
Coach: Jorge Vilda
Group: B (Finland, Germany, Denmark)
Last Euros: Quarter-final (lost to Austria 5-3 on penalties)
Player to watch: Alexia Putellas
Young gun: Claudia Pina

A women's soccer team wearing red, blue and yellow poses for a photo
Can Spain’s ‘golden generation’ lift their first major women’s trophy?(Getty Images: Tullio M. Puglia)

Like Sweden, Spain have finally arrived at the first of what will likely be many “golden generations” of players.

Despite being so dominant on the men’s side, the women’s national team has only begun its rise up the international pecking order in the last few years, making a particular splash at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. They’ve not gone further than the semi-finals of the Euros, which came all the way back in 1997, and have been bundled out of the quarters in each of the last two editions.

But given their meteoric trajectory over the past three years, all that is certain to change. Conducted from midfield by centurion and reigning Ballon D’Or winner Alexia Putellas, the Spaniards blitzed their Euros qualifying campaign with seven wins and two draws in nine games, scoring 48 goals and conceding just once.

Their squad is one of the most in-form and technically gifted of the tournament, containing several players who’ve developed together at two-time Champions League finalists Barcelona, as well as emerging Primera Iberdrola competitors Real Madrid.

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As if that wasn’t enough, at the 2020 UEFA awards, La Roja collected top gongs for best goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, forward, and overall best player: the first time players from a single nation have won each category.

The 28-year-old Putellas is the puppet-master for Spain that she is for Barcelona, pulling the strings of a side that have not lost a competitive international match since that 2019 World Cup: a tight 2-1 loss to eventual champions, USA.

Since that loss, Spain have scored 123 goals and conceded only five, though their draws with England and Germany at the Arnold Clark Cup earlier this year did show some chinks in their otherwise-impenetrable armour, while the absence of all-time top scorer Jenni Hermoso through injury could also pose a problem against better defences.

Matildas fans got a glimpse of Spain’s firepower in their 7-0 friendly loss in late June; a game that, at times, like the Spaniards barely got out of second gear.

Having risen to their highest-ever world ranking of 7, and with the pre-built chemistry of Barcelona players like Irene Paredes, Patri Guijarro, Aitana Bonmati, Sandra Panos, Mapi Leon, and Mariona Caldentey — who are now all in their peak performance years — there’s little doubt Spain are primed for the most successful international run of their history. And it could all start this month in England.

The Underdogs

France

FIFA ranking: 3
Coach: Corinne Diacre
Group: D (Belgium, Iceland, Italy)
Last Euros: Quarter-final (lost 1-0 to England)
Player to watch: Marie-Antoinette Katoto
Young gun: Selma Bacha

A women's soccer team wearing blue and red poses for a photo
France have been plagued by off-field dramas for the past few years. Can they overcome that to win their first European title?(Getty Images: NurPhoto/Jose Breton)

While they’ve sat near the pinnacle of women’s international football for the past decade, France have zero silverware to show for it, with their best-ever finishes being fourth at the 2011 Women’s World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, while they’ve never made it past the quarter-final of the Euros.

Their biggest chance at rectifying that was as hosts of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where they were expected to reach at least the semi-finals given the quality of their core group which included Wendie Renard, Griedge Mbock, Amandine Henry, Eugenie Le Sommer, and Amel Majri.

However, they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by the USA, and the failure of France to capitalise on what feels like their most talented generation of players has led to investigations into the leadership of Diacre — who, in 2017, stripped Renard of the captaincy after claiming the defender cared more for her club Lyon than her national team — as well as the wider culture of the French set-up.

Controversy began to fester on the eve of the 2019 tournament when Diacre excluded young Paris Saint-Germain striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto from the squad, despite her finishing as one of the country’s deadliest goal-scorers with 30 goals in 29 games that year.

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Following their World Cup exit, Diacre made public statements blaming some of her players, including the country’s top scorer Le Sommer, causing some senior members of the team such as 2019 captain Henry, Gaetane Thiney, and Sarah Bouhaddi to speak out and even retire from international duty while she remained head coach.

However, the French Football Federation has not budged and Diacre remains in her role.

As such, both Henry — who had a stellar season with Champions League winners Lyon and was named Player of the Match in the final — and Le Sommer have not been included in the squad. Thankfully, though, Katoto is now firmly in the fold following yet another Golden Boot-winning season with PSG (46 goals in 44 games across all competitions), as are in-form club-mates Kadidiatou Diani and youngster Sandy Baltimore.

Several Lyon players have also been called in following their title-extending season in France, with the veteran Renard/Mbock centre-back pairing complemented by rising full-back star Selma Bacha, who tallied the highest number of assists in the most recent Champions League (9), as well as deadly wingers Delphine Cascarino and Melvine Malard. 

France qualified for the Euros without losing a single game, drawing only once, all the while scoring 44 goals and conceding… none. Indeed, they’ve won each of the 14 games they’ve played since April of last year, including a comprehensive victory in their friendly Tournoi de France series in February, where they beat both the Netherlands and Brazil.

While the absence of Henry and Le Sommer are glaring, this could be the last window for this particular crop of senior French players to win a major trophy before the next generation establish themselves. The question is whether they can overcome the dressing-room dramas of the past couple of years to go further than they ever have at the Euros. It really does feel like now or never.

Germany

FIFA ranking: 5
Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg
Group: B (Spain, Finland, Denmark)
Last Euros: Quarter-final (lost 2-1 to Denmark)
Player to watch: Sara Däbritz
Young gun: Lena Oberdorf

A women's soccer team wearing white and black poses for a photo
Germany have won the most European Championship titles in competition history, but their form has dipped in recent years. Can they rediscover their spark?(Getty Images: Martin Rose)

Rarely do you see ‘Germany’ and ‘underdogs’ in the same sentence, but the eight-time Euros champions (including six consecutive titles between 1995 and 2013) and two-time World Cup winners (2003, 2007) are no longer the force they once were.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Germany these days given their topsy-turvy results over the past couple of major tournaments, going from 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallists to being bundled out at the quarter-final stage of the 2017 Euros and the 2019 World Cup (a result which subsequently saw them miss out on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Games).

While they eased through their qualification games for the 2022 Euros, winning all seven of the games they played while scoring 46 goals and conceding once, they’ve also had a patchy run leading into the tournament, winning just two of their last six games — including two losses and a draw against England, Canada, and Spain in the Arnold Clark Cup back in February.

Their rollercoaster run has also featured a bizarre 3-2 loss to Serbia in World Cup qualifying in April, which exposed the side’s lack of depth following the absence of several players due to injury and Champions League-related breaks, though they walloped fellow Euros competitors Switzerland 7-0 in their most recent friendly last month.

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Indeed, player unavailability has continued to affect Germany, with veteran midfielders Dzsenifer Marozsan (injury) and Melanie Leupolz (maternity leave) both missing for the upcoming tournament.

However, there are a number of under-rated players who could fill the central void including Sara Däbritz (PSG), Svenja Huth (Wolfsburg), Lina Magull (Bayern) and Linda Dallman (Bayern Munich), while 20-year-old midfielder Lena Oberdorf is a star to keep an eye on.

Germany don’t have the big names they once did, but what they do have are a handful of the most exciting young players going around such as Hoffenheim striker Jule Brand, as well as Bayern trio Giulia Gwinn, Sydney Lohmann, and Klaha Buhl.

Chemistry could be Germany’s saving-grace at this tournament, with all but two of their squad playing with and against one another in the Frauen Bundesliga, dispersed mostly across giants Bayern and Wolfsburg.

They’re in a tough group with favourites Spain and 2017 runners-up Denmark, while emerging nation Finland could spring a surprise or two, but if head coach (and former German player of the year Martina Voss-Tecklenburg) is able to strike the right balance between her more experienced stars and those emerging on the fringes, Germany could start their path back towards the summit of the European game.

Norway

FIFA ranking: 11
Coach: Martin Sjogren
Group: A (England, Austria, Northern Ireland)
Last Euros: Group stage (finished bottom of Group A)
Player to watch: Ada Hegerberg
Young gun: Julie Blakstad

A women's soccer team wearing red and blue pose for a photo
With the return of former Ballon D’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, Norway are a very different proposition at this year’s Euros.(Getty Images: Zhizhao Wu)

Norway, like Sweden, are a bit of an enigma. Despite being one of the most successful national teams in the history of European football — reaching nine Euros semi-finals and six finals since 1984 — they have struggled to turn that dominance into silverware, with their only two continental titles coming in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Things got worse for Norway in the following two decades, reaching just two Euros finals (in 2005 and 2013, losing both to Germany), while they’ve only made it past the quarter-final stage of the Women’s World Cup once, back in 2007. In fact, their only trophy of the 20th century came at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where they won the gold medal after defeating the USA 3-2 in the final.

But if there has been any major wake-up call for Norway, it was arguably their 2017 Euros campaign which was, by all accounts, a disaster. They finished bottom of their group, losing every game and not scoring a single goal all tournament. How the mighty had fallen.

It was the tournament that partly prompted the temporary retirement of emerging striker Ada Hegerberg, who publicly stated she would not return to the national team until there was more support and investment in women’s football by the federation. Hegerberg’s absence from the team became even more prominent as she went on to be crowned the inaugural Women’s Ballon D’Or winner a few years later.

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Thankfully, things began improving soon after her departure. Norway were one of the first nations to guarantee equal financial compensation for their senior national teams back in 2017, and the federation has demonstrated greater ongoing support for the women’s game behind the scenes. 

Hegerberg thus came out of retirement in March this year and swiftly returned to the national team fold, subsequently creating one of the deadliest attacking triumvirates in world football alongside Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen and Chelsea’s Guro Reiten.

Their cultural reset started to bare fruit when they reached the quarter-final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup after defeating the Matildas — their best result at the tournament in over a decade — before ultimately falling to England 3-0.

There is little doubt Hegerberg’s return could make all the difference to Norway’s campaign this time around: the 26-year-old scored a hat-trick in her first game back in April, and is coming into the tournament in top form following a stand-out performance in Lyon’s Champions League final win as well as a record-extending league title in France.

Norway played just six of their eight Euros qualifiers due to the pandemic, yet still topped the group with six wins, scoring 34 goals and conceding just once. The return of captain and veteran defender Maren Mjelde from injury is another huge boost, though there are questions around their goalkeeper depth following an ACL injury to first-choice Cecilie Fiskerstrand. 

Norway may not have the depth of the more convincing favourites for the 2022 Euros, but with a number of top-quality players — including emerging midfielders Ingrid Engen (Barcelona) and Frida Maanum (Arsenal), as well as Norway’s ‘next big thing’ Julie Blakstad (Manchester City) — they could cause a couple of upsets along the way.

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