Shanice van de Sanden is a 24-year-old striker from Utrecht in the Netherlands. She started playing football at age 12 and became a full international just four years later. Currently, she plays in England for Liverpool L.F.C. and is renowned for her explosive pace and goalscoring ability.
Shanice van de Sanden is counting down the days to the biggest match of her career. The 24-year-old forward is a key member of a Dutch women’s national team hunting glory on home soil when the European Championship comes to the Netherlands this summer.
For van de Sanden, the opening game against Norway on July 16, in her hometown of Utrecht, will be particularly significant. The stands at a sold-out Stadion Galgenwaard will be packed with partisan Dutch supporters, and among the sea of orange will be her family and friends — familiar faces she has known her whole life. Her people.
Yet while you’d forgive van de Sanden for obsessing solely about this deeply personal occasion, she is acutely aware of the bigger picture. “The opening game will be very special for me,” she says. “We start in Utrecht, and I was born just two minutes from the stadium. My whole family comes from Utrecht. It is special that we start there, and if we perform well, then our sport will also be on the rise. I think that is very important.”
Van de Sanden’s own progress has been rapid. She started playing football comparatively late, aged 12, yet within just four years she was selected for the full national team.
"It felt like jumping on a fast train," she says, reflecting on a journey that began with her playing in male teams. “First I was in the under-17s, then the under-19s and soon after I was training with the national team. That was really amazing; it’s hard to describe that feeling. I just remember how my family responded, how proud my brothers and mother were.”
Women’s football is the fastest growing team sport in the Netherlands, with female membership of the KNVB having reached 153,000 at the end of last year. Growth is strongest among girls under the age of nine.
Van de Sanden relishes the fact that she and her teammates are at the vanguard of the sport’s burgeoning popularity and believes that a successful summer for the Orange Lionesses could prove the catalyst for a boom in her homeland.
“I just hope that, in time, women’s football will be big in the Netherlands. Just look at how far it has progressed,” says van de Sanden, who has nine goals in 33 international appearances since her debut in 2008.
The Lionesses, who are ranked 11th in the world, are in a highly competitive group alongside the 13th ranked Norwegians, Denmark (9) and Belgium (17). A top two finish will see them progress to the last eight, but anything less than first place is likely to see them meet the Germans, winners of the last six European titles in a row. However, van de Sanden is confident they can thrive this summer, largely because of a unique team spirit which has been a long time in the making.
“We are friends, and I think you see that on the pitch,” she explains. “We have been playing football together since a young age. You experience a lot of things together, and you bond. It's great that we can play together on the national team, especially with the European Championship coming up. In the end, you need to win together, and I think that is the biggest strength of women’s football, and specifically our team.”