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LYON, France — If you’re a women’s soccer diehard, you might wonder what’s up with this headline. Lieke Martens is 26. A proven commodity, not some fresh-faced prospect. In 2017, she was named FIFA and UEFA’s best player. Earlier that year, she led the Netherlands to the European title. Hell, France 2019 isn’t even her first World Cup; four years ago in Canada, she scored her country’s first goal in its tournament debut.
But the fact of the matter is that Martens remains mostly unknown to audiences in Africa, Asia, South America and, especially, in the United States.
If casual fans — and let’s be honest, millions of people across the globe have gotten their first taste of just how spectacular women’s soccer can be over the last month — have heard of the crafty Dutch winger at all, they only became aware of her over the last few weeks. But she and her team tore through the knockout stage on the biggest stage her sport has to offer and to make Sunday’s World Cup final against the defending champions U.S. women’s national team [11 a.m. ET].
Whether she actually plays in the title match remains to be seen. Martens scored both of her side’s goals in an upset of 2011 champ (and 2015 runner-up) Japan in the round of 16, including a penalty kick with just seconds left in the contest. Amid the celebrations, teammate Jill Roord accidentally stepped on her foot.
The toe injury forced Martens to limp out of Wednesday’s 1-0, extra-time victory over Sweden at halftime, although she’s hoping to be sufficiently recovered in time for Sunday’s decider.
“As a player you always want to play in one of the biggest games of your career and this is one of the biggest ones,” she said afterward. “I am hopefully going to play.”
The Oranje will be hard-pressed to beat the Americans without her. While Martens isn’t the only Dutch threat USWNT coach Jill Ellis and her heavily favored squad will need to worry about at Stade de Lyon — striker Vivianne Miedema is an elite finisher who already has three goals in France, and midfielder Jackie Groenen stroked home a 99th-minute winner vs. the Swedes — her strong runs up the flank consistently open up space for other attackers.
She can score goals and set them up. And with 109 international appearances, third-most on Sarina Wiegman’s 23-woman roster after defensive midfielder Sherida Spitse and backup goalkeeper Loes Geurts, the Barcelona forward’s big-game experience will be crucial on Sunday.
“I am going to do the recovery and I really believe in the medical staff and that something can happen, so let’s see every single day how it goes,” she said.
If she’s able to go, Martens will have the opportunity to introduce herself to a massive number of new fans. This competition has smashed television viewership ratings in countries around the world. In the U.S., Sunday’s match could top the 25.4 million who tuned into the the 2015 final, still the most-watched soccer game — men’s or women’s — in the nation’s history.
That’s the power of a World Cup. When the next one comes around for the women in 2023, don’t be surprised if Lieke Martens is a household name in every corner of planet football.
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