Few teams saw their reputation enhanced more in the past four years than the Netherlands, which enters this World Cup as reigning European champion and among the betting favorites to lift the trophy this summer. That's a far cry from the team that left its World Cup debut in 2015 as a bit of a bust after stumbling into a short stay in the knockout round following a third-place group finish.
Everything changed with the 2017 UEFA Women's Euros. Hosting that tournament, at a time when the country's revered men's side had failed to qualify for a World Cup and was in disarray, the Dutch women won all six of their games, played in front of more than 100,000 fans and ended Germany's 24-year reign as continental champion. Now the question is whether a team whose lone World Cup win came four years ago against New Zealand is really ready to take a permanent place among the elite.
How they got here
Some of it was certainly self-inflicted, but no team traveled a longer road to France (at least metaphorically) than the Netherlands. The Dutch played their first qualifier in October 2017 and didn't lock up their place until November of the following year, playing 12 games in the process. So while it took a team like Canada 10 days to qualify, it took the Netherlands 385 days.
The extra work, which involved winning a four-team playoff for the final European berth, was largely the product of a 2-1 loss against Norway, which was without Ada Hegerberg, in the final round of group play in European qualifying. Added to an earlier stumble in a scoreless draw against Ireland, that left the Netherlands in second place in the group and forced it to beat Denmark, in a rematch of the Euro final, and then Switzerland in back-to-back two-leg playoffs.
It isn't part of the Dutch soccer identity to be conservative, and coach Sarina Wiegman's team is very much a product of its environment. The Netherlands scored 13 goals in the Euros, which included nine in three knockout games. Then only Belgium, England, Germany and Spain scored more goals in the group phase of European qualifying. The first-choice front line of Lieke Martens, Vivianne Miedema and Shanice van de Sanden is in the conversation with the U.S. trio of Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in terms of ability to get on top of opponents.
The question for this team, especially playing on something other than home soil, might be consistency from game to game. Roster rotation played a role in disappointing results in the Algarve Cup this spring, but losses to Spain and Poland, and a draw with China still feed into the narrative of the team that struggled in Canada four years ago and initially stumbled in qualifying.
Money stat: 25
The average age of the Dutch team is 25 years old. That's a scary proposition, both for foes who will face most of this group for years to come and also for the Dutch themselves. France has Amandine Henry, 29, and Wendi Renard, 28. If the U.S. makes the final, that entire front line will be 30 or older. Canada still leans on Christine Sinclair. Even on a relatively young German team, Dzsenifer Marozsan and Alexandra Popp are older than most of the Dutch stars.
Players to watch
Jackie Groenen: How might history be different if she had been allowed to play for Belgium.
"We want to be underdogs, and we are telling everybody that because this is only our second World Cup." -- defender Kika van Es
"The FIFA Women's World Cup 2015 in Canada was the first World Cup we attended with the Netherlands. We needed that experience to know what happens in such a tournament. The traveling, also the media, huge stadiums. ... The players and staff need that experience to grow. That's the main thing we take with us. But since 2009, we have also attended the European Championships. The world has changed after the 2017 Euros for us. Before the tournament, the expectations were not that high, we just wanted to do really well and show people how good we were." -- Sarina Wiegman
Glory rarely comes quickly in sports. It's easy to envision a scenario in which Canada edges out the Netherlands for first place in the group, sending the Dutch into an opening knockout game against Sweden. They win that one, but Germany reasserts European order in the quarterfinals. It's still a step forward for the Netherlands, just not the giant leap some expect.