Can Netherlands finally go all the way?
The bronze medallists from the EHF EURO 2018 are once again among the clear favourites in 2020. But this time, Netherlands start as world champions.
With the experience and confidence gained in recent years, both as a national team and on an individual level with players scattered across the finest clubs in Europe, Netherlands have become even stronger than they were two years ago.
What the numbers say: an unbeatable semi-final run
The number one fact of note about the Netherlands is their run of semi-final participations, which alone is enough to make them a clear contender to at least be present on the final weekend of the EHF EURO 2020. They are indisputably and consistently one of the leading national teams of the last five years, and no other side has a semi-final record to match.
Since their maiden semi-final appearance at the World Championship 2015, Netherlands have not missed one ticket to the penultimate stage in any major international tournament.
At the 2016 Olympic Games, they did not win a medal, but placed fourth on what was their long-awaited debut. At the EHF EURO 2016, Netherlands finished with the silver medal, losing the final to Norway after beating Denmark in the semi-final. At the World Championship 2017, Netherlands defeated Sweden to win the bronze medal, following a semi-final loss to Norway. At the EHF EURO 2018, Netherlands were beaten in the semi-final by France, before defeating Romania to clinch the bronze medal.
At the World Championship 2019, it was a semi-final win against Russia then a victory over Spain in the final that took them to the top of the podium. In Japan, Netherlands’ place in the semi-final came down to the wire – it was only at the final whistle of the very last group match (Norway vs Germany) that the Dutch could celebrate the return to the penultimate round at the World Championship.
It is worth noting also that these achievements were made with three different coaches: Henk Groener, Helle Thomsen and current leader Emmanuel Mayonnade, reflecting the quality of the squad.
The Japan 2019 semi-final ticket made it six in a row for the Netherlands. Can they stretch it to seven?
Burning question: Can the squad make up for the absence of Estavana Polman?
The MVP of the World Championship 2019, Estavana Polman, will miss the EURO 2020 due to injury. At first glance it would seem a considerable blow, but the Dutch team have managed to perform year after year without top stars.
After being named the All-star Team line player at the World Championship 2017, Yvette Broch announced a break from handball - though she has meanwhile returned to training at Metz. With Broch gone and Danick Snelder injured, the EHF EURO 2018 looked a difficult tournament for the Netherlands, but once again they took a medal.
Star centre back Nycke Groot decided to focus on club handball after the EURO 2018, and without her, the Netherlands were a question mark at the next major event, the World Championship 2019. And this time they raised the trophy.
Every time the Netherlands look weaker on paper prior to a tournament start, they have proven they are not.
Lois Abbingh, top scorer at the World Championship 2019 and the scorer of the memorable goal that won the final, will undoubtedly have increased responsibility in the absence of Polman.
There are also some new names to watch out for, with Nykøbing line player Nikita van der Vliet – top scorer of the Youth World Championship 2018 and All-star Team line player at that event – as well as Krim back Harma van Kreij set for their first senior tournament.
Path to a third straight final EHF EURO weekend
As the current world champions, Netherlands are an obvious favourite to medal at the EHF EURO 2020.
The Dutch will undoubtedly enter the preliminary round confident, set to face three opponents against whom they have taken victories in the last official tournament meetings. Netherlands defeated their EURO 2020 round 1 opponents Serbia in the preliminary round at last year’s World Championship by a decisive margin. They beat their other preliminary round rivals, Hungary and Croatia, at the EHF EURO 2018, taking wins in each encounter.
“I have a feeling that they really know when to explode in a good way. I want to finally sink their ship, but they have a lot of great players,” said Hungary back Noémi Háfra of the Netherlands.
In the main round, Netherlands’ potential opponents would include the group B sides Romania, Norway, Germany and Poland – again, some familiar rivals from recent championships. Both Norway and Germany were opponents of the Netherlands at the World Championship 2019, with Germany earning the win in their main round encounter while Netherlands defeated Norway for the first time in two decades in the preliminary round.
In 2018, Romania and Netherlands competed in the same EHF EURO main round group, earning the semi-final tickets – the Dutch as group winners, Romania as second-ranked. The Netherlands won their mutual encounter by five goals.
The only team the Netherlands could meet on the path to the final weekend whom they have not faced at a championship in recent years is Poland, who start in preliminary round group D and may be a main round opponent. The sides last met at the EURO in 2016, with Netherlands winning the preliminary round match.
It is therefore a familiar route with recent positive memories for the Netherlands. The element of confidence gained as world champions will be a valuable asset to overcome the obstacles once more.
At the end of November, Team NL presented a documentary about the Netherlands’ world title win in Japan, which was aired on Ziggo Sport on TV and is also available to watch on the official website.
The documentary, entitled ‘Wilskracht’ (Willpower), examines the World Championship in detail, and looks at how the Netherlands needed the experience of losing the finals before in order to clinch their first trophy. A number of the national team players, including Polman, Abbingh, Tess Wester and Danick Snelder, are featured (interviewed in Dutch).
As Polman says in the documentary, “you have to lose a final to win one.” Could 2020 be the year the Netherlands conquer the EHF EURO?