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World Cup Group E preview: Lieke Martens spearheads Dutch ambitions

Lieke Martens of the Netherlands applauses after her team defeating Denmark at the Women’s Euro 2017
Netherlands midfielder Lieke Martens claps after a win over Denmark in the women’s Euro 2017 final.
(Patrick Post / Associated Press)

When Lieke Martens first started playing soccer as a kindergartener, there were no girls teams to join in her small town in southeastern Holland. So she played with the boys.

“I had a totally different way than the girls in the U.S.,” said Martens, who made her debut with the national team at 18. “I had talent. I wanted to do something with it. It’s better to play the boys. I learned a lot.”

In the last four years that education has paid off with a European championship, a FIFA best player award and her country’s first-ever World Cup goal in Canada. And she’ll ride that wave of momentum into this year’s tournament in France where the Netherlands, ranked eighth in the world, opens Group E play against No. 19 New Zealand on June 10 in Le Havre.

The quartet also includes No. 5 Canada and Cameroon, making it one of the more difficult groups in the tournament.

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“The game’s getting smaller and smaller,” said Martens, 26, who was named player of the tournament in the 2017 Euros after leading the Dutch on an unbeaten run to the championship. “Every single game can be really exciting. In Europe especially a lot of countries have progressed. The level of women’s football is getting higher and higher.”

Five countries have won the top prize in the seven previous Women’s World Cups, with the U.S. winning three times and Germany twice. This summer as many as a half-dozen teams, including the Netherlands, have a legitimate shot at the title.

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But no matter how the Dutch finish, Martens and her teammates have already made a major impact back home, where little girls can not only grow up playing soccer against one another, they can also aspire to be among the best in the world.

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“It’s cool now that I can be a role model,” she said. “Even parents, they are more excited that their daughters are going to play football. They can see that women’s football is cool.”

Group E

Canada

World ranking: 5

How qualified: Runner-up, 2018 CONCACAF Championship

Last World Cup: 2015, quarterfinals

Best World Cup finish: Fourth place, 2003

Key players: F Christine Sinclair, MF Sophie Schmidt, D Kadeisha Buchanan, MF Jessie Fleming

Outlook: Christine Sinclair has played more than 280 matches for Canada and is poised to break Abby Wambach’s record of 184 international goals. But what she really wants is a major championship after winning two Olympic bronze medals and reaching the World Cup quarterfinals since 2012. In France she’ll be playing in her fifth World Cup, surrounded by a mix of youth and experience. The midfield features Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt, both older than 30 with more than 140 caps each, alongside two collegians in Texas’ Julia Grosso and UCLA’s Jessie Fleming. The defense is anchored by former University of West Virginia star Kadeisha Buchanan, voted best young player in the last World Cup.

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Cameroon

World ranking: 46(t)

How qualified: Third place, African Cup of Nations

Last World Cup: 2015, round of 16

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16, 2015

Key players: F Gaelle Enganamouit, D Christine Manie, F Gabrielle Onguene, D Augustine Ejangue

Outlook: Cameroon won over fans with its exuberant play in Canada four years ago when it beat Ecuador 6-0 in its World Cup debut. It wound up getting bounced in the round of 16 but not before gaining experience that could prove valuable since 11 of the 13 players who appeared in that 1-0 loss to China are back this summer. The core of the team goes back to the 2012 Olympics, Cameroon’s first major tournament appearance outside Africa.

New Zealand

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World ranking: 19

How qualified: Winner, OFC Women’s Nations Cup

Last World Cup: 2015, group stage

Best World Cup finish: Group stage, 4 times (last 2015)

Key players: F Rosie White, GK Erin Nayler, D Abby Erceg, D Ali Riley

Outlook: Don’t sleep on the Ferns, who don’t come in with a great ranking or a roster of big-name players -- just a solid, experienced and talented team. Nine players have more than 85 international caps and coach Tom Semanni, a former U.S. women’s coach, was so sure of what he had he named his final roster in April. The draw did New Zealand no favors, however, pairing it with No. 8 Netherlands and No. 5 Canada. Former UCLA star Rosie White, who had surgery last year to repair stress fractures in both feet, leads the attack.

Netherlands

World ranking: 8

How qualified: Winner, UEFA qualification playoff

Last World Cup: 2015, round of 16

Best World Cup finish: Round of 16, 2015

Key players: F Lieke Martens, GK Loes Geurts, MF Sherida Spitse, F Vivianne Miedema

Outlook: The Netherlands has won just one World Cup game, but it comes to France as the reigning European and Algarve Cup champions. It also has Lieke Martens, the 2017 world player of the year, who can carve up opponents by slicing in from the left wing. Martens, who plays for Barcelona, will be joined in the attack by Chelsea’s Vivianne Miedema; combined the two forwards have 99 international goals. The Dutch are led by former national team captain Sarina Wiegman, who was named FIFA coach of the year after going unbeaten in the 2017 Euros. She played at North Carolina alongside former U.S. World Cup champions Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.

Schedule

June 10: Canada vs. Cameroon

June 11: New Zealand vs. Netherlands

June 15: Netherlands vs. Cameroon, Canada vs. New Zealand

June 20: Cameroon vs. New Zealand, Netherlands vs. Canada


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