Former PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal looks back on the summer that changed Dutch women's football forever.
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This article also appears in the official UEFA Women's Champions League final programme. Get your copy here!
Former PSV Eindhoven and Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal looks back on the summer that changed Dutch women's football forever, in the official Women's Champions League final programme.
As the biggest game in women's club football comes to Eindhoven, local minds will surely be transported back to another landmark event on Dutch soil.
Sari van Veenendaal will never forget her role in that watershed moment – the three-week fairy tale which ended with the Netherlands' home triumph at Women's EURO 2017. The retired goalkeeper can still feel the buzz gripping the nation during that euphoric summer and is proud of what has followed in its wake. Just don't ask her how it felt to lift the trophy.
"I can't really remember," she confesses. "I wish I could do it again, you know? But with all the crowd and everything around me as well. I think it was quite heavy but I can't remember. It's kind of like living a dream. It feels very special."
Her compatriots can doubtless relate. The entire country seemed to be swept up in the excitement, and the Netherlands became the first Women's EURO hosts to sell out all their matches. Indeed, the 2017 edition set a (then) competition aggregate attendance record of 240,045 spectators as fans flocked to watch the likes of Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema. They and their colleagues became instant local heroes, as did coach Sarina Wiegman, while the reputation of Dutch players soared across the continent.
It is no coincidence that Wolfsburg have a trio of Dutch internationals in their squad – including EURO 2017 winners Dominique Janssen and Jill Roord. As their team bus arrives at PSV Stadium for this final, they too may find their thoughts drifting back to the tournament that changed everything for women's football in the Netherlands.
"People don't understand how big the difference was for us before and after the EURO," says Van Veenendaal, who spent the last two years of her playing career with PSV. "Before, if we had a crowd of 7,000 people, it was very, very good. We were surprised that the first game was sold out. We came to the stadium and it was just orange; people were screaming. We were, like, 'Oh my God, what's happening?' We couldn't believe it. Everyone wanted to be part of it and that made it even more special. We just brought people together and that's something the women's game is doing right now too."
Going into the finals, Van Veenendaal and her team-mates had definite dreams of going all the way. Even so, she believes it would never have happened without that huge support. "If I look back, we had such a great environment, such a strong group. We wanted to show the Netherlands that we were there, that we needed them to build something together. But we never expected something as big as what actually happened. We had that dream – we said to each other that we wanted to be European champions, but we knew it was a very small chance. The crowd made a big difference. It felt like we flew."
The Netherlands scaled fresh heights, winning every game before they dispatched Denmark 4-2 in the showpiece. Van Veenendaal was named goalkeeper of the tournament and pinpoints that glorious summer as "the best sporting moment I've ever had", surpassing her trophy-laden spells with Arsenal, Twente and Utrecht. What gives her the most satisfaction, however, is the impact the victory has had on women's football in the Netherlands.
"Maybe the biggest difference is that when little girls talk in class, they can just tell people they want to be a professional footballer. Before, people would have laughed because it wasn't possible. There weren't even teams where they could play. After that EURO, even boys, and of course girls, wanted to be like Lieke Martens. Boys also had jerseys with Vivianne Miedema on the back. We opened that door for them so that they can be proud of what they want to do and believe it's possible. It's very important for girls to know they can achieve wherever they want. If you want to be a professional player, it's possible. That's the change we've made together."
It's quite a legacy to leave behind, to go with an impressive career which Van Veenendaal called time on last summer. A league champion and domestic cup winner in the Netherlands and England, she also finished a runner-up at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, where she was named goalkeeper of the tournament. She likewise picked up FIFA's award for the best women's keeper that year, but retirement did not go to plan. Having decided to step down after EURO 2022, she was forced off injured in her side's opening game and that was that. "It was very hard, but already before that I felt like I was done. I wanted to see what else was around and I wanted to retire as the number one for my club and my national team. I was ready to find out what was next."
For Van Veenendaal and her partner, that turned out to be the open road. "We bought a small van and travelled around Europe. There's always something in women's football – you never get a holiday. So, it was good to be away for two months. We travelled with that minivan in Spain, Portugal, France and then via Lyon to see Daniëlle van de Donk before going back to the Netherlands. I'd wanted to make that journey for a long time."
Life away from the pitch has also given her the chance to follow the Women's Champions League closely. "The level is so much higher and it's still growing. It also adds something that they play in big stadiums with good crowds. Every year, it's getting faster, quicker and better. And that's what we need because that makes it more attractive to watch. That's good to see. I love that."
Get the official final programme
This article is from the official 2023 Women’s Champions League final programme. What better way to prepare than by immersing yourself in bespoke storytelling, stunning imagery, tactical analysis as well as player and coach interviews? The stage is set in Eindhoven as Barcelona and Wolfsburg prepare to light it up. Get your copy here!