Lyon, France (CNN)As a child growing up in Amsterdam, Vera Pauw would run up and down the sidelines of a football pitch following the ball, pretending to be playing on the same team as her two brothers whose games she would always watch. With no girls team around to join, she had to indulge in make-believe. Until her late teenage years, she would join them for a kickabout on the streets and take part in impromptu matches with their friends.
The speed with which the Netherlands has caught up with the established powers of the women’s game has been impressive. Competing in a World Cup for only the second time, the Orange Lionesses have reached their first final and will attempt to topple the United States, the defending champion, the world’s top-ranked team and the dominant force in the game.
But the Netherlands’ rise should not be regarded as a story of sudden success because it has been decades in the making, the trigger being Pauw, who successfully fought for the country’s most talented girls and boys to be allowed to play with and against each other until the age of 19.
“Step-by-step we developed a structure in which girls and women could find their own place so it’s not true that this success is coming out of the clouds,” Pauw, named Knight of the Royal Dutch Football Association in 2017, tells CNN Sport.
Backed by research from the University of Utrecht, which she herself helped kick start, Pauw eventually persuaded the powers that be in 1996 to create mixed youth leagues.
“I felt that equality between girls and boys, equality of chances and opportunity to develop, is a human right and I felt that because I’m a triplet with two brothers,” says the 56-year-old, the first Dutch female footballer to play abroad and the first woman to earn a professional coaching diploma.
“The demands on me were the same as on my brothers. I was challenged the same way as my brothers, and that’s what (women’s football in the Netherlands) was missing, and what girls in general are missing in the new world.”
Giving girls a regional pathway drove up standards and a pyramid structure ensured that future prospects were surrounded by excellence.
Over a decade later, with Pauw again the driving force, the Women’s Eredivisie was established as the country’s top professional league, propelling the women’s game in the country which produced the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit, further forward.
“That was a fluid pathway with no place for luck to be involved, no place for luck that somebody would see you,” Pauw explains.
“Every single girl in the Netherlands could play close to home and every girl who wanted to play football got this opportunity and that’s the base for current performances.”
Pauw led the Netherlands to the semifinals of the 2009 European Championship on its tournament debut with the youngest team in the competition. So surprising was the team’s journey to the last four that Dutch journalists reportedly made last ditch trips to Finland to cover them.
Euro 2009 also gave the national team players their first experience of acclaim in their homeland with fans turning up at the airport to welcome them on their return. An appearance on one of the country’s most popular TV programs followed.
But the Netherlands hasn’t always had deep affection for its female players. Like in most traditional powerhouses of the men’s game, women have had to deal with deep-seated prejudices and in the Netherlands female football was repeatedly banned in the last century.
Much has changed. Women’s football is the fastest-growing sport in the Netherlands. The Dutch federation, KNVB, and the country’s top football clubs are putting resources into it. To Pauw’s annoyance, the federation has altered the model she put in place. She argues that encouraging established men’s teams to take over youth development will lower the quality of players.
“Things need to be restored to have the Netherlands still be successful in 2025,” she says.
But most are focusing on the present because a World Cup final looms. Four years ago, the Netherlands competed in its first World Cup, making it to the last 16. In 2017, it won the European Championship on home soil and captured hearts.
Largely as a result of Euro 2017, thousands of Netherlands fans have followed the team around France, their colorful and noisy marches before games becoming a highlight of the tournament. The Orange Lionesses have been well supported back home, too.
The semifinal against Sweden was watched by five million viewers on Dutch TV channel NPO 3, while over 80% of the people watching TV in the Netherlands at the time were tuned into the country’s quarterfinal against Italy.
“The whole country will be watching,” former Netherlands player Lucienne Reichardt tells CNN Sport of the final.
“It’s still not like with the men, where all the streets are orange and all restaurants are filled with people watching the game. The game needs to grow and the US is already much further ahead than the Netherlands. We are not there yet.
“But 10-15 years ago parents weren’t happy for girls to play football, and now they see big clubs starting with women’s football and they see it’s more normal and the prizes that the national team is getting also promotes other girls.”
Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman, the first woman to play more than 100 times for the Oranje, told reporters this week that the formation of the professional league in 2007 has been key to the country’s development.
Though the league briefly gave way to a combined Belgian-Dutch competition in 2012, only to become an all-Dutch division again three years later, it helped create a more professional environment.
“The potential has been in the Netherlands for a longer period of time. But the facilities weren’t there,” said Wiegman, playing her part in making Sunday’s duel in Lyon the first World Cup final since 2003 to be contested by two female coaches.
“Since 2007 players got better facilities and could train more. The players developed so much. And then when you are at big tournaments like European Championships and World Cups, they develop even more.”
Five members of the squad play in the country’s top division, but many of the best players have followed the well-trodden path from the Women’s Eredivisie to Europe’s top leagues.
Goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal, midfielders Danielle van de Donk and Jill Roord, and Vivianne Miedema, widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the world, all play for Arsenal in the Women’s Super League in England.
Stefanie van der Gragt and Lieke Martens, who were named FIFA’s Women’s Player of the Year in 2017, are with Barcelona. Winger Shanice van de Sanden, one of the fastest women in international football, plays for all-conquering Lyon, the six-time European champion.
But recent years haven’t been an unbroken upward trajectory for the Orange Lionesses. Had FIFA, the sport’s governing body, not expanded the number of participants in this year’s tournament, the US would be preparing to face another opponent Sunday because the European champion struggled to qualify, doing so via the play-offs.
And, for World Cup pedigree, there is no comparison between the two finalists. The US is aiming for a fourth title and is competing in a third successive final with a squad filled with players who already experienced glory in 2015.
“For the first time this tournament, we’ll go into a game as the underdog,” Van de Donk has admitted.
The biggest question over the team is whether the defense, regarded as its weakness, will be able to hold firm against the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, should she recover from a hamstring strain, and Tobin Heath. The US has scored within the first 12 minutes of every match in this tournament, so the Netherlands will likely have to withstand early waves of attack.
But the woman whose passion helped create these heady Dutch days believes her compatriots can knock the US of its perch.
“I think the Netherlands will win. I’m the only one in the world probably,” she says, laughing.
“It’s a team for the last minutes. If they manage to stay in the game, towards the end when the pressure is off you can see that the Netherlands will dominate possession and positional play the best.”