England failed to even qualify for the Women’s World Cup in the year Sarina Wiegman retired as a player but two decades later the former Dutch defender-turned-coach and her Lionesses stand on the brink of a first world title.
Wiegman was hardly an unknown when she became England manager in 2021, having led the Netherlands to their first major title at Euro 2017 and then to the World Cup final two years later.
Yet the transformation of the Lionesses since then has been nothing short of remarkable, with a Euro triumph on home soil last year and now a first World Cup title-decider against Spain in Sydney on Sunday.
“She’s not bad, is she?” defender Lucy Bronze said of the quietly-spoken 53-year-old coach after the semi-final win over co-hosts Australia.
“To have done it with her home nation must be something she’s incredibly proud of, to win the Euros back-to-back was astonishing.”
The word “genius” is often bandied around the Lionesses camp, while the phrase, “In Sarina we trust” has become a mantra back in England among fans and pundits.
“She’s a phenomenal coach, she’s a genius, she doesn’t get enough credit, she’s great to play for,” full back Rachel Daly enthused.
“Great to work under, she’s so honest and her knowledge about the game is a joke, as is everybody on the staff.”
Wiegman’s football journey started when she cut her hair short as a girl to blend in with the boys playing in her hometown of The Hague.
Apart from a stint abroad at the University of North Carolina, where she played for the Tar Heels, Wiegman spent her entire playing career at Dutch side Ter Leede, winning two league titles.
She represented her country more than 100 times, but before the national federation had invested significantly in the team, helping them become a European power.
After winning her 100th cap and being awarded a special shield in 2001, Dutch soccer great Louis van Gaal said: “I have a lot of respect for Sarina. For the men, everything is arranged. Here, this is much more difficult.”
Overcoming adversity has been a defining characteristic of Wiegman’s teams, with England rising above every challenge presented over the four weeks of the tournament with a calm, ruthless efficiency.
“She’s done a remarkable job. And they’ve adjusted during the tournament. They found ways to win at times, they’ve come back from being behind,” said former coach Jill Ellis, who led the U.S. to successive World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019.
“And it’s tough to go out and play in front of 75,000 people that are not cheering for you. So I think we’ve got to give full credit to England and to their staff. I think she’s managed an incredible tournament and they’re on the way the final and it’s waiting for them.”
Having won trophies as a manger at Ter Leede and then in the newly-formed Eredivisie with ADO Den Haag, Wiegman joined the Netherlands setup in 2014 as an assistant before stepping up as head coach in 2017.
Throughout the triumphant Euros run, Wiegman kept her players grounded while the host nation worked itself into a frenzy at the prospect of a major trophy “coming home” to the birthplace of football.
“I think the expectations in England have been high all the time but after winning the Euros, it even went up (higher),” Wiegman said on Wednesday.
“I also think that the lives of the players has changed a lot. They really had to adapt to a new life which has lots of very good things, but also some challenges because everyone wants something from you.
“We always says performing brought us where we are right now and performing will keep us where we are. And that’s what we try to do.”
Unfailingly modest, the Dutchwoman may be elevated to near saint-hood in England should her side triumph on Sunday. Even if they lose, what might scare rivals is that barely two years into the job, Wiegman is just getting started.
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