1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How Dutch league hopes to follow national team

September 25, 2022

The Netherlands' Euro 2017 win saw the country take a warp-speed jump to the top of women’s football. The domestic league has had a slower trajectory but that could soon change, with big clubs starting to invest.

EM-Qualifikation: Niederlande - Deutschland 0:1
Manon Melis was a vital part of the Dutch national team for over a decade.Image: MAARTJE BLIJDENSTEIN/ANP/dpa/picture-alliance

Feyenoord are one of the most storied clubs in Dutch football. Over their 114-year history, they've amassed 15 league titles, 13 cups, and multiple European titles.

Their women's first team history is nowhere near as long. In fact, they only have a single full season under their belt. Understandably, it’s also nowhere near as illustrious as that of their male counterparts.

Manon Melis is the woman tasked with changing that, and helping further bolster the foundations of Dutch women's football.

The Rotterdam native is the seventh most-capped woman in Dutch history. After a successful, swashbuckling career featuring stops in the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, Melis hung up her boots and has been Feyenoord’s Director of Women’s Development since 2017.

She's overseen the evolution of Feyenoord's women's department from a couple of youth and girls' teams to the establishment of a women’s side in the Dutch first division. Feyenoord had to balance the hefty expectations tied to their well-established name with the challenges facing any new club.

Eindhoven | Feyenoord women | Manon Melis
Manon Melis has helped build Feyenoord's women's program from scratch.Image: Remko Kool/picture alliance

"We know what we're doing and how we want to do it. But you know, everybody else thinks Feyenoord is a big name in the Netherlands. So they have expectations, but it's really important to keep the focus on your own goals and how we want to do things," Melis told DW.

Feyenoord had a respectable outing in their opening campaign, finishing fifth out of nine teams. They've started their second season on firm footing, winning both their matches so far.

The Dutch National team's explosive growth

While Feyenoord are playing catch up to other Dutch sides, rival clubs didn't have as long of a headstart as one might guess. Big-spending PSV and Ajax only launched women's teams in 2012, and 8-time title winner Twente is ancient by comparison, having been founded in 2007.

Even these sides, dominant in the Netherlands, struggle internationally. Ajax may have the chance to knock out Arsenal ahead of this season's group stages on Wednesday, after a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their playoff. But no Dutch team has made it past the Champions League round of 16 since 2006, before it was rebranded.

The Dutch league's diminutive stature makes it all the more impressive that the Netherlands have morphed into one of the stronger teams in Europe. While they came up short of defending their Euros title this summer, the Netherlands have evolved into contenders at both the European and global level

"I think with the national team, things went a lot faster. Even with things like facilities, or how many times you can practice in a week, these things improved faster [than at the club level]. And of course, a lot of our girls are playing in different leagues, for some of the best clubs in Europe," said Melis.

"After Euro 2017 everything changed. Beforehand the team wasn't that popular. Afterwards [the Netherlands] began playing in front of full stadiums, and more players started going abroad," she continued.

Leaving the Netherlands remains the most viable way for Dutch players to test themselves at the highest level. Still, more than half of the Dutch Euro 2022 squad were based in the Eredivisie, which means the national team can't rely solely on players earning their wages in France, England, Germany or Spain.

The professionalization push

According to Melis, conditions at Feyenoord are nearly unrecognizable from her playing days. "They're totally different worlds. Everything changed in recent years. The competition in the Netherlands improved, especially when it comes to facilities. When I started we were all amateurs. Now, clubs like Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord have really nice conditions. It's normal for young girls now," she said.

Still, women's teams with deep-pockets are a relative anomaly in the Netherlands. Melis estimates that only a few teams are fully professional, and semi-pro Feyenoord still have a long way to go on that front.

"We have some of the girls work for the club on various projects, and a lot of other girls are at university or studying. We can't offer for them to be professional players yet, but hope in a few years we will be able to," she said.

England, France and Sweden currently have fully-professional women’s leagues, and Italy and Spain just joined their ranks this season. According to Nadine Kessler, UEFA's Head of Women's Football, expanding that number further is a major element to growing women's football on the continent.

Vivianne Miedema celebrates a goal for the Netherlands
Vivianne Miedema is one of a number of Dutch players who had to leave to play abroad earlyImage: ANP/IMAGO

"We need to really make sure that all of these doors are open right now to all girls all over Europe. What England did with the Women's Super League needs to happen across Europe. I always say five to 10 professional leagues, that's when we make change. That's when the parent says, 'Okay, there's a job opportunity out there for my girl, that's something I'd really push her to do'," Kessler said at a press conference before the Euros kicked off.

While the relatively slow growth of Dutch domestic football seems odd in light of the national teams successes, it's reflective of the broader state of women's clubs football. Full-professionalization for Feyenoord and the rest of the Eredivisie might be a ways out, but Melis at least has clearer immediate objectives.

"If you see Lyon or Barcelona, their budget is different than what we have here in the Netherlands. So I don't know if we can reach that. But it's also about the young, talented players. We need to focus on our own youth players and trying to have them stay longer in the Dutch competition," she said.

Holding on to top talents a bit longer would help raise the overall level of the Eredivisie, and as the game continues to grow, could bring in transfer fees down the line. If Feyenoord were around a decade ago, they might have been able to sign one of the club's biggest fans, Vivienne Miedema.

Miedema, who recently eclipsed Melis as the highest goal scorer in Netherlands history, grew up watching the Feyenoord men play with her family. Further growth at clubs like Feyenoord means the next Miedemas might be able to launch their careers at their childhood club.