As the Netherlands returns to the World Cup after missing out in 2018 they will be led by Virgil van Dijk, who has grown into one of the game’s best defenders.
Runners-up in 1974, 1978, and 2010, the Netherlands came within a penalty shootout of reaching a fourth World Cup final in 2014 when Louis van Gaal’s squad defied expectations to make the semifinals.
The straight-talking Van Gaal is back for a third stint in charge of the national team, courageously coming out of retirement while receiving treatment for aggressive prostate cancer.
The 71-year-old underwent 25 bouts of radiotherapy, including during training camps with the national team, and watched from a wheelchair following a bike accident as the Dutch qualified for Qatar last November.
Van Gaal, christened the ‘Iron Tulip’ in his homeland for his authoritarian style, overlooked a young Van Dijk for the 2014 finals, but the Liverpool centre-back has since developed into the steel backbone around which the team is built.
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Van Dijk also missed out on Euro 2020 last year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
So remarkably, through a combination of circumstance and misfortune, only now is the 31-year-old set to appear at his first major international tournament.
“We have to believe in our qualities and ourselves and be confident,” Van Dijk said.
“We have a fantastic manager, an experienced manager. We have players who play at the highest level, the biggest clubs in the world.”
Van Dijk’s emergence coincided with a transitional period for the Dutch, who failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.
The Oranje suffered a disappointing last-16 exit at Euro 2020 without the injured Van Dijk, but they are unbeaten in 15 games since the reappointment of Van Gaal in August 2021.
“We have experience, we have talent, we have a good mixture. First and foremost we have team spirit – I think that’s the start to the key to success,” said Van Dijk.
“It’s not guaranteed success of course but it’s a good way to start and we’re looking forward to the first game.”
Van Dijk became the world’s most expensive defender when Liverpool signed him for £75 million from Southampton in January 2018.
Liverpool finished runners-up to Real Madrid in the Champions League a few months later, but the Reds got their hands on European club’s football biggest prize the following season.
Van Dijk lost out on the 2019 Ballon d’Or to Lionel Messi by a handful of votes but earned the recognition of his peers by winning the English PFA Players’ player of the year prize.
He played every minute during the Covid-interrupted 2019-20 campaign as Liverpool ended a 30-year wait for the English title, only for injury to then strike him down.
Van Dijk chose to give himself time to fully heal instead of rushing back for Euro 2020, but he has made up for lost time as evidenced by a recent report by global players’ union FIFPro.
It showed Van Dijk had played the most minutes of those analysed – 7 597 in 78 games – between July 12, 2021 and October 24 this year.
The report highlighted the unprecedented demands posed by a mid-season World Cup, but in Qatar Van Dijk at least will finally get his chance on the biggest stage.
“It’s going to be a very big one against the African champions,” he said of Monday’s Group A opener against a Senegal side missing star man Sadio Mane, a close friend of Van Dijk’s.
“I’m very sad for him that he’s going to miss the tournament,” said Van Dijk. “I’m definitely going to miss seeing him out there.
“(But) we’ll do everything in our power to get a good result and start our World Cup in the best way possible.”