LONDON — Before Vivianne Miedema’s brother could walk, she said, she would place him in front of a soccer net and fire shots at the goal for practice.
“He would just stand there; he couldn’t really do anything,” Miedema said with a mischievous smile, shrugging her shoulders. “I was using him, kind of.”
Years later, Miedema is still scoring with ease. Thirty-nine goals in a Dutch league season when she was 18. Six in a single game for the English club Arsenal. And 61 for her country — a record for Dutch men and women.
She has won league titles in Germany and England, and a European one with the Netherlands. In July, she will rejoin her national team when it plays in the Tokyo Olympics. And Miedema is still only 23.
“So far,” she said of her career, “it’s been working quite well.”
In a few short years, in fact, Miedema has developed into an unparalleled international talent, a forward capable of swift turns and powerful strikes, a sea of tranquility amid 22 shifting bodies on the field. If the ball lands in the back of the net in one of Miedema’s matches, it’s quite likely she was the player who put it there.
“She’s one of a kind,” said Netherlands Coach Sarina Wiegman, who first saw Miedema play when she was 16, and last summer coached her and the Netherlands to the Women’s World Cup final.
By most standards, including her own, Miedema has already exceeded expectations. After beginning her career at Heerenveen at 14 and making her national team debut at 17, she moved to Germany, where she won two Bundesliga titles for Bayern Munich.
At Arsenal, she has padded her list of honors: a single-season record for goals in England’s Women’s Super League, with 22 last season (she leads the league again this season); player of the year honors from the Professional Footballers’ Association; and a place on the short list for the Ballon d’Or as world player of the year.
That does not, however, mean any of it has come easy.
At 17, Miedema said, she cried for the first three months after moving to Bayern Munich because she was unable to speak either German or English. In retrospect, she admits now, it was the right time to leave the Netherlands — “the league just got too easy” — but Bayern Munich’s long-ball style eventually bored her.
“I wanted to have something else,” she said. “I wanted to go back to the way I played football.”
Those who have played against her say Miedema has an intelligence for the game beyond her years. “I think she’s a little more clever,” said the veteran Swedish defender Nilla Fischer, who faced Miedema in Bundesliga and marked her at the World Cup last summer. “She really tries to go on your blind spot and then make a move when you’re not ready.”
Miedema, who already had a reputation as one of the top players in the world when she joined Arsenal, is something of an enigma. She strays from the narcissistic triumph of a typical striker. She doesn’t usually celebrate after scoring, nor is she dazzled by fame and accolades.
Obviously, Miedema says, being a top goal scorer is something to aspire to. “But I was 22 and I kind of took over that,” she said offhandedly of her goal-scoring record with the national team.
“I’ve probably won more than I ever thought I was going to win,” she added. “I would really like to be one of those people that can bring women’s football up to a higher platform.”
But Arsenal is not the Netherlands, where the stadiums are sold out for national team games within 24 hours, and where fans turn even the walk to a game into a dance party.
That is the kind of following that Arsenal, despites decades of women’s soccer success, has yet to claim. When the team played Chelsea last month, it endured a 4-1 defeat in front of a capacity crowd, arguably drawn by Chelsea’s latest signing, Sam Kerr. When the teams meet again on Saturday, in the annual W.S.L. Cup final, the site will be the City Ground in Nottingham, not a grand stage like London’s Wembley Stadium.
“It’s a one-off situation and we need to be consistent,” Arsenal’s manager, Joe Montemurro, said of the big crowd against Chelsea in January. Fulfilling dreams that the team might one day play in the Emirates Stadium, the home of Arsenal’s men’s team, will take work. “We need it to be a weekly scenario.”
Miedema sees that, and other gains for the women’s game, as a challenge for players like her.
“I think with the national team we are breaking barriers,” Miedema said. (The Dutch soccer federation recently announced the team would receive pay equivalent to the men’s squad starting in 2023). “I think it’s too easy to say right now every single country or club deserves equal pay, because we’re not there yet.”
But she was adamant that they do deserve better — some of her Dutch teammates, Miedema said, have struggled to pay their rent in the past — and that continued investments in women in the club and in international games would help close the gap.
When the Netherlands and the United States faced off in the World Cup final last July, the 2-0 loss immediately became her least favorite moment of the tournament. The Dutch players, she said, were fatigued coming off an overtime match in the semifinals and playing on one less day of rest. “At that moment,” Miedema said, “they deserved to win that final.”
Now Miedema is forging ahead. “I am still quite young,” she said. “I’d like to think I’ve still got my best years ahead of me.”
A league title with Arsenal is her first goal, then a strong performance at the Olympics. She also hopes to win a European championship next year with the Netherlands to match its first, claimed in 2017. “Not just once,” she said of the team’s goals for the championships, “but keep winning it.”
If personal rewards and recognition come with that, so be it.
“I’m not going on the pitch on a Sunday to have in the back of my mind, ‘Oh, I want to win an award this year,’” Miedema said. “That’s not the way you work as a footballer. I’m going on the pitch to try and win the game.”