The Dutch women’s team will be playing their first competitive match in nine months when they open their campaign in EHF EURO 2018 Qualification Group 7 against Belarus in Eindhoven on 27 September.
Four days later, the Netherlands visit Kosovo, while Hungary are the other opponents in the group. All qualifiers will be streamed live on ehfTV.com.
As the 2016 silver medallists, the Netherlands are regarded one of the title favourites again, and getting to next year’s finals tournament in France should not cause them serious troubles.
“Absolutely, we just have to win these two matches,” centre back Nycke Groot tells ehf-euro.com, looking forward to the Belarus and Kosovo games. “I think we can also use some time next week to try out various things for the World Championships.”
Eager to get going again
Not just Groot and her teammates are eager to get going again, the Dutch fans can hardly wait, too.
The venue for the Belarus game, the 3,600-capacity Indoor Sportcentrum Eindhoven, sold out in less than nine hours after tickets went on sale in July.
Organizers decided to build additional stands in the arena, but the 750 extra tickets were also gone within one day.
Anything else than two clear Dutch victories against Belarus and Kosovo would be a surprise, even though they are without star player Estavana Polman, who is working her way back after giving birth to daughter Jesslynn in June.
Meanwhile, Groot herself is also recovering after suffering from tonsillitis in the off-season.
“After three treatments with antibiotics and undergoing surgery I am still behind the others at the moment. I am doing all I can to get 100 percent fit again as soon as possible,” says Groot, adding that she is still working on her physics. “It’s frustrating when playing handball and things don’t go exactly like I want to. But I am getting there.”
Groot is aware that the third qualifying opponents, Hungary, are on a different level. As a Györi Audi ETO KC player, just like line player Yvette Broch, she is particularly looking forward to playing them.
“Yes, those matches will be special. We will be playing against girls we daily train with. I hope they schedule that match in Györ. It would be great to play in front of our own fans.”
Reminded of 2016 final over and over again
While the focus now is on the EHF EURO 2018, Groot is being reminded of the 2016 edition in Sweden over and over again.
In that final, the Netherlands came agonizingly close to taking world champions Norway into extra time. Trailing by 30:29 and with four seconds left on the clock, ‘Oranje’ was awarded a free throw. But Danick Snelder’s sloppy pass landed on Groot’s feet, denying the Dutch a last attempt on goal.
Looking back now, Groot doesn’t think the Netherlands lost the match in those closing seconds.
“The final was tight, for sure, but we already gave it away too early in the second half and we didn’t have enough time to recover from that deficit. We have to learn from that so it will not happen again,” says the 29-year-old, who was awarded MVP of the EHF EURO 2016.
“Overall, we played a very good tournament but it was just not enough for gold – once again,” says Groot, referring to the 2015 World Championship final, which the Netherlands also lost to Norway.
Her biggest career victory
At the TIPPMIX EHF FINAL4 in May, Groot celebrated her biggest career victory on club level when she led Györ to the title while being awarded MVP again.
However, that triumph could not make up for the missed gold medal with the Netherlands.
“Those are completely different targets for me. I am very happy and proud that we won the Champions League but it spurs me on even more to go for gold with Oranje.”
Their next opportunity is only few months away with the World Championship coming up in December, when the Netherlands share a group in the preliminary round with the likes of hosts Germany, Serbia and South Korea.
After surprisingly taking silver in Denmark two years ago, Groot knows that expectations from Dutch fans and media will be high from the start this time.
“It definitely puts us under pressure. After our first success at the worlds in Denmark, we wanted to prove that this was no fluke. We managed to do that at the Olympic Games (by finishing fourth) and at the European Championship last year.”
Having twice been within touching distance of the highest step of the podium, this could actually be the time to do it for the Netherlands, Groot believes.
“Our game is still improving and I hope we can keep that going. It would be incredibly nice to finally win a gold medal but then all the puzzle pieces have to fit together.”