The pain was great for Merel van Dongen when she was passed five years ago for the team that later became European champion. That the left back is now in the European Championship selection of the Orange Women, therefore, felt “extra special” for her.
Van Dongen was on holiday in Ibiza with her friend when she anxiously awaited a message from national coach Mark Parsons. “It felt like a final exam result: is my phone on sound?” she says in conversation with NU.nl on Thursday after the first training. “I thought I passed, and that was confirmed, but you never know. I’m not Vivianne Miedema or Lieke Martens. And in 2017 I also thought I was there.”
2017 is written with golden decorative letters in the history books of the Orange Women, but for Van Dongen the year is a page to quickly turn. To her great sadness, the left back dropped out in the last selection round for the team of then national coach Sarina Wiegman, which subsequently became European champion in her own country.
Van Dongen had to see on television how the players grew into big stars and were honored by thousands of people during a cruise through Utrecht. At the start of the season in September, she spoke of a “terrible summer”. “And that’s to say the least.”
It is therefore “extra special” for Van Dongen that she is now in the European Championship selection. “It feels like the circle has come full circle. I am proud that I did not give up after 2017, while sometimes it has been very bad. But that does not mean that it is the end of my career.”
However, the election did not lead to frenzied scenes at Van Dongen. “My girlfriend asked me, ‘Are you there?’ She could already see it on my face. Then we gave each other a good hug. I didn’t cry tears of happiness. It’s not that deep anymore.”
Merel van Dongen (right) leads the group during the warm-up before the first training session towards the European Championship.
‘Never been so excited to start’
Van Dongen was asked by her parents on Wednesday evening whether she would like to report to the Orange Women. “Well, I’ve never been so excited to start a preparation. It’s great to be here,” she says along the field in Zeist, where she trained for over an hour with ten players. The other European Championship-goers will join next week.
The 29-year-old Van Dongen is used to something: the European Championship will be her fourth tournament with the Orange Women, after she had previously played at the 2015 and 2019 World Cups and at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year. Where does her extraordinary hunger come from now?
“The more tournaments you play, the more proud you are of getting to play a tournament,” she explains. “That’s why I especially enjoy it. It could just be the last. I feel that very much. I’m 29 years old, you don’t know how it will go.”
Van Dongen emphasizes that she is not working on her farewell tour with Orange. “I will be 100 percent full for the World Cup next year. I am not going to announce the end here, certainly not. But I see the youth coming, they are super good, while I am getting older. I don’t know if my body still can persevere.”
Merel van Dongen in action during training.
‘Cry tears of happiness when I win in final’
With eight tournament debutants, the Orange Women have an unprecedented young group. Routinier Van Dongen therefore sees a mentor role for herself, even though she is by no means certain of a basic place. In the past international matches, 21-year-old Marisa Olislagers was preferred by Parsons.
“I want to teach those youngsters what it is like to play in a stadium with 60,000 people. Some of them have not yet done that. That can be very stressful. I want to talk to the young talents and make sure they feel comfortable . Everyone should be able to share their stress.”
Van Dongen thinks it is good that Parsons has started a rejuvenation treatment. “By having so many young girls with so much quality, we old people are really on edge. I won’t let an eighteen-year-old run past me? They are very open-minded, which creates a new team culture.”
The big question is whether the Orange Women can repeat the success of 2017 with so many young players. Van Dongen sees that countries such as England, Spain, France, Germany and Sweden have gone into “fifth gear”, while the Netherlands has taken a few steps back, according to national coach Parsons.
As defending champions, the Orange Women will nevertheless have all eyes on them. “We are not the favorite if you look at all the other countries, but we have proven that we can perform well at final tournaments,” says Van Dongen. With European success, 2017 has been erased from her memory in one fell swoop. “If I make the winner in the final of the European Championship, you can bet that I will cry tears of happiness.”
Schedule Orange Women
- June 24 in Leeds: England-Netherlands (9 p.m.)
- June 28 in Enschede: Netherlands-Belarus (6 p.m.)
- July 2 in Enschede: Netherlands-Finland (6 p.m.)
- July 9 in Sheffield: Netherlands-Sweden (9 p.m.)
- July 13 in Leigh: Netherlands-Portugal (9 p.m.)
- July 17 in Sheffield: Switzerland-Netherlands (6 p.m.)