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Listen to them roar: Netherlands won't be lacking support in WWC final vs. USWNT

LYON, France -- As the opening notes of the Dutch national anthem floated through Stade de Lyon Wednesday night, 500 miles north, a fire was burning. More than 5 million people in the Netherlands -- nearly one-third of the country's population -- were tuning in to watch their women's national team take on Sweden in the second semifinal of the Women's World Cup. Thursday morning, those fans woke to front-page headlines in the nation's largest papers trumpeting the Oranjileeuwinnen's thrilling 1-0 overtime victory and midfielder Jackie Groenen's exquisite, if unlikely, game-winning goal.

Needless to say, the Orange Lionesses have sparked a movement back home. "It's a Dutch party," forward Vivianne Miedema said earlier this week.

It's also an example of a return on investment. The Netherlands national team's rise from 2011 World Cup onlooker to world champion contender, while impressive, didn't happen overnight. For all the talk of what it would mean for countries around the world to invest more heavily in women's football, the Dutch team, and its effervescent fans, are living, line-dancing examples of what can happen when a country backs up that talk and backs its women athletes.

"The potential has been there for a longer period of time, but the facilities weren't there," Netherlands head coach Sarnia Wiegman said after Wednesday night's semifinal win. "Since 2007, when the players got better facilities and could train more, they developed so much that they improved. And when you play at big tournaments, then they develop even more."

In 2007, the Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVB) launched a women's professional league, the Eredivisie Vrouwen, which has seen several iterations and now sends its winner to the UEFA Women's Champions League. Several members of the Dutch national team now play for teams in the English WSL, the German Bundesliga and the Spanish Primera Division, and in May, Groenen became the first international signing for Manchester United of the WSL. All of that means access to higher-quality facilities, better training and year-round competition, as well as salaries that allow them to train full time.

"When I started playing on the national team in 2013, we had 500 or 1,000 people at our games," Miedema said. "In the buildup to Euros, it was five or six thousand. You could see that as the league level got better, the national team got better, and as the team became stronger, the popularity started growing."

After contesting their first Women's World Cup in 2015, the Orange Lionesses surprised their continental peers by winning the 2017 European Championship. More than 4 million Dutch fans tuned in for the final of the Euros, 1 million fewer than watched Wednesday night's match, but a record at the time. With that win, the team began to increase its caravan of followers.

When the team qualified -- albeit by taking a tough route through a four-team playoff -- for their second Women's World Cup, the bandwagon began to heave under the weight of supporters jumping on board.

"I don't think you can miss the Netherlands fans with the orange everywhere," American midfielder Lindsey Horan said Friday morning. "They've been absolutely amazing. That's how it should be. You see it for the men's World Cup, fans traveling everywhere to come support their teams. When you see that support from [the Dutch] fans and our fans, that makes the games so much more special with that atmosphere."

Here in France, the "Orange Army" has been as newsworthy as the squad it's here to support. In each city where the Netherlands plays, a double-decker bus pulls into town and brings with it a rowdy bright-orange celebration. Supporters of the Orange Lionesses meet in city squares to drink and sing and dance in unison. At the matches, men and women with their faced streaked in orange paint unfurl giant banners featuring the face of a lion and the team's slogan, #ONZEJACHT, or "one hunt," a rallying cry for their singular purpose here in France.

Throughout matches, fans chant and cheer as their band plays an unusual, yet sing-a-long-able repertoire of tunes, from "Hey, Baby" to "Auld Lang Syne," turning the atmosphere into one that feels more like an American college football game (minus the "Auld Lang Syne") than an international grudge match. After each victory -- the Dutch women are on a 12-match winning streak at major tournaments -- they remain in the stands and continue to sing for as long as security will allow.

In Valenciennes last week, more than 20,000 Dutch fans traveled to support the women in their quarterfinal against Italy. Here in Lyon, city administrators advised against the group's "orange parade" marching the more than six miles to Parc Olympique Lyonnais stadium during an extreme heatwave, so Wednesday afternoon, fans gathered instead in Place Antonin Poncet to line-dance and take photos before crowding into city trams destined for the stadium.

"So far, we've been really lucky that we've played in the north of France so many fans can come," Miedema said Monday. "In the second half against Italy, we could hear them, and we got so much energy from them. We hope a lot are coming in Lyon, too."

That they did, and their numbers are certain to multiply by Sunday's final. But while the Dutch fan base has drawn attention for its voracious support this past month, it's the team's performance that is driving that bus.

"At the Euros, no one expected a lot from us, and once we started winning, we got in that flow, and now we have our fans behind us," Miedema said. "They started to say we would be world champions, and that was pressure. The first couple games [here in France], we didn't play the best football, but I think now you can say that we are back in that flow."

And as they've been singing in the streets all month, Hup, Holland, Hup!

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