Jurgen Klopp gave him a tremendous compliment: “The successes of this Liverpool were partly built on the legs, lungs, brains and heart of Gini Wijnaldum!”.
After his 75th cap against Georgia, Wijnaldum chats with VI.
It’s busy times in the heat in Lagos, Portugal. Wijnaldum takes his job as Oranje player and skipper serious. But he was also dealing with a new club, a new future. And where the whole football world believed Barcelona was going to reunite the former Sparta talent with Ronald Koeman, PSG swooped in with a sensational offer and Wijnaldum couldn’t resist. Although, officially, he will not yet formally declare where he’ll play next season: “I want to talk about Oranje now. The only thing I can say is: I will play elsewhere next season.”
What is the key determining factor in picking a new club?
“My intuition. Always. It never left me. And that is fueled by the conversations you have, why do they want you, what is their football vision, who play there now, etc. I go over all that, and at some point my inner gut tells me what to do. I went from Feyenoord to PSV, because I felt I wasn’t ready for a foreign club. When I left for Newcastle, most people wondered why, but it was the perfect step for me. I think you can still mess up when you follow that guidance, but than at least it was on your own terms.”
You started as a playmaker, a #10. Then you became a right winger, and at Liverpool you played holding mid, right back, left winger, everything. What is your next step?
“Goalie? Hahaha, no I don’t think I can learn that. But I get your point. I have transformed as a player and I can play in different roles. They say a player is ready with learning when he’s 30 years old. I think it is BS. I still want to learn and develop. I want to improve and learn new skills and go new heights.”
Do you plan your career?
“Yes, but intuitively. Not literally. Young players ask me for advice, as people tell them that Gini made the right steps. And they come and ask me about their careers and I don’t know, you know. Everyone is different and need to follow their own journey. What I have done might not be best for Frenkie or for Gravenberch. It’s also important to realise where you are now. I was at Feyenoord, young still. It was a tough time, there wasn’t a lot of money, we struggled in Europe, and to go to a big club from that situation wouldn’t work. Frenkie and Mathijs excelled in the Champions League with Ajax. You’ll have a different start with your new club in that situation. Their move to a big club worked for them.”
Why are you leaving Liverpool?
“This is not working for me. We are starting the Euros. I want to talk about Oranje. Now is not the time to discuss Liverpool. I will explain my decisions, but after the Euros.”
But what a beautiful farewell they gave you!
“I know, I was fighting back the tears. I didn’t know this! I am still emotional about it you know. I realised then and there: this was my last match for Liverpool. And a lot of players left before me, who haven’t been offered such a send off, so they made me feel special.”
And therefore: why are you leaving Liverpool??
“That is the problem: people look at this from the outside, and don’t get it. Supporters plead with me to renew but there is more. It’s not about Liverpool or the contract, but I need to explain this after the Euros. The people at Liverpool that I worked with, and my team mates, they know and they understood. And that was all that mattered to me.”
Back to Oranje. You were one of the few who was at the World Cup 2014…
“The World Cup Brazil, 2014… That sounds like a long time ago, 7 years. Crazy! Those two missed tournaments, they still hurt. Normally, you would be there, as international. Missing one tournament is maybe acceptable, every 20 or 30 years, but two in a row? I couldn’t watch those tournaments. I was on holidays. But even that felt wrong, I was supposed to be playing matches with the NT.”
But, you remained positive about Oranje, always.
“Of course. I was in training with these guys, and I can see what quality we have. And I could see what was coming. I knew, this will come good. And not just the quality of the squad is important, also the vibe in the group. And that vibe is very good. It’s like we were in Brazil. A real tight squad, we would do everything together. That disappeared a bit after the World Cup and Koeman was able to bring it back. And when you win, well…that is the best medicine of course. The way we are currently as a team, it really reminds me of the 2014 days.”
How important is the role of the National Team manager in this?
“Very. I met Edgar Davids in Brazil, he was at the tournament. He wanted to know how we liked or disliked working under Van Gaal. And I told him, it was cool. We could go for a stroll and our kids and wives were present close by and we were allowed to go to the beach every now and then… Edgar couldn’t believe it! He said they were never allowed anything under Van Gaal. So Van Gaal realised what the impact was back then and decided to allow us to have fun and take responsibility. And it worked. And when we lost the semis and had to play Brazil for the third place, I happen to speak to Cocu, my coach at PSV. I called him for some pre-season details and he said they let their “little finals” go, back in 1998. They were so peeved that they lost the semi finals, resulting in them also losing the little finals and ending fourth. We wanted to win that bronze medal desperately, also for Van Gaal. And when we got that, we were all super proud: third of the world. And you could see Van Gaal loved to have one too. The dynamics between coaches and players in Brazil was top!”
You played 5-3-2 in Brazil and you played a holding role. Under Koeman, playing 4-3-3, you started to really make a strong impression. And now under De Boer, that 5-3-2 returns. You must be disappointed?
“It’s not secret, I prefer the 4-3-3 with myself in a more forward role. That was a good system under Koeman, but I think it was more the impact of Frenkie de Jong in our team. The minute he came into the team, he took care of the build up and we could focus on our role more forward, as midfielders. And if something slipped through, we had a Van Dijk or a De Ligt still.”
“I don’t mind playing 5-3-2 or 3-5-3, I do get space to run into, although for me, it requires more energy, more running, because you miss a forward. You will always have to run into that space as midfielder. But, it shouldn’t be about me. It’s about winning. We have enough players who can play this system and I can play it too. And Italy away is proof that we can make it work.”
But Italy is a strong nation. We also play North-Macedonia!
“I know! And the coach said, he’ll consider the system per match, per opponent. But sometimes we – Dutch fans – think to simple about the opponents. Everyone thinks we’ll win easily vs Ukraine. But that is a mistake. That is a strong nation. They beat Spain, back in October. You’re not a pancake team if you beat Spain.”
You are currently the skipper, with Van Dijk out of contention. Does De Boer discuss his tactics with you?
“Yes I did and I do. But I am not going to tell De Boer something because it suits me. We need to trust the coach, like he needs to trust us. If he says: this is the system I want to play, than it’s our job to make sure we execute it. We had quite a good flow under Koeman in the Nations League games, but with Corona and those stop and start periods last season, we seemed to have lost some of the flow. You saw it against Poland and Turkey. Key things went wrong. And that wasn’t just us. France, Spain, Germany, they all struggled a bit at times. I think the 5-3-2 will give us a bit of handles, some more stability maybe.”
Did you feel for Ronald Koeman, the way it went in Barcelona for him in the past weeks?
“I don’t like what I read. I wasn’t there, but based on the media reports, I felt… really? Is this how you deal with these things? I think it’s a pity. These things need to be dealt with with grace and respect. A sad aspect of our world.”
Do you miss Virgil?
“Of course! Already, yes. He is important to us and not just on the pitch. As a personality, he’s a real leader. A commander. He would have been able to join you know. I think it would have been possible for him to maybe be fit for a semi finals or finals, should we get there. But he refused, as he also doesn’t want to push out any player who will have carried us to that semi finals or finals. He is a professional, he does choose for his health now, but he also realises that every player needs to be 100%. For the dynamics in the team. You can’t carry players, it might disrupt the unity in the team. He made the right call.”
You are now the Oranje skipper. What does that mean to you?
“Oh wow, it’s amazing. I was talking about this with Salah, who will most likely be the new Egypt captain. It’s such an honour to represent your country as a player. Wow. It’s also a responsibility, and you need the trust from the other players. I feel their trust. But we have more leaders in our dressing room and on the pitch. Memphis is a true leader. He also leads by example, like Virgil. But Marten de Roon is also a dominant voice. Kevin Strootman is also a real captain on the pitch. He learned from DeRossi, hahaha. I played matches along side Kevin, where I wore the band, but he was the real leader.”
You are the captain of a pretty young and inexperienced team…
“Yes, the coach thinks we are currently in the top 8 of Europe. Between 5 and 8, he says. And I get that. When you put the squad lists together, most big nations have more experience as we missed two tournaments. We have 17 players in the squad without big tournament experience.”
What can you tell them?
“That you will have to grow into the tournament. I witnessed it in Brazil and experienced it. Firstly, you need to be top fit. 100% fit. And you need to be ready from the first second. You can’t “feel your way” into the tournament. You need to take all the positives, the courage, the pace and start in 6th gear, in terms of focus and commitment. And build on your wins.”
Have you been vaccinated already?
“Whoa, no comment! Medical privacy. I will not get involved in that vaccination debate. Every one can decide for himself. You want one, fine. You don’t, fine too. Your right. This is the way with Liverpool and with Oranje. I won’t play a role in moving people a certain way in an ethical decision.”
Sunday, Ukraine. The first Oranje match in the Euros, with supporters!
“A Euros tournament without fans is not a real Euros. I am so happy and look forward to it so much. It feels like we are closing the book on a bad dream while opening a new bright story line…”