We all know the story. A 17 year old Barendrecht player watched the adventures of Oranje in 2014 Brazil with his mates in Amsterdam. And at some stage, the athletic and extraverted lad says: “I am going to go for this. I am going to be an Oranje player one day!” And so it went. Made his way to Sparta Rotterdam that year, where he thundered on the right flank in the second tier. Heerenveen swooped him up after two seasons and it took only one season at Heerenveen for him to land a transfer to PSV, where he got his first invite for Oranje in his first season.
His secrets? Dedication, mental strength, focus, physical strength and speed.
Sure, his basic skills, his touch, his vision… All lacking a bit mainly due to a lack of solid foundational work in his early days at Smitshoek. He grew up in a small town club, not much pressure, and Denzel played as a striker. His new club Barendrecht (top amateurs in Holland) got him switching to defender. Feyenoord tested the lad in these Barendrecht days (it’s a village close to Rotterdam) but Feyenoord decided he wasn’t good enough. Well…
And here were, looking back at 2021, a watershed year for the tall Dumfries. He was Oranje’s danger man at the Euros, he made a big transfer to Inter Milan and sired his second kid.
Denzel is just settling into his new apartment in the city centre of Milan and when the interviewer asks him why he decided to live smack in the middle of the city, Dumfries smiles and says: “Look around you…”. And yes, Milan at night, in Xmas times, looks amazing indeed! Christmas markets, candle lights, music…
Dumfries is still living at the Milan Hilton, but not for long. “I love walking through the city. It’s such an amazing city, and the people… I am never hassled, or stared at. Sometimes a photo, ok, but that is cool. And I’m happy because yes, I came here to play football, but I also like to enjoy my life. And the food here, the fashion, the lifestyle, it’s amazing.”
His start was not so easy. He had to prove his worth and fight himself into the starting line up, but in the Serie A and in the CL: Dumfries is the go to guy. He scored his first goal with a diving header and his joyful celebrations in front of the fans shows how much that goal meant. “I could understand my bench position with my head, but not with my heart. I knew it was going to be a transition… I mean, moving to another country, another language, different team mates, coach, systems and principles. I was prepared for that. But I did expect more game time. However, they had a plan with me and they needed to bring me step by step and in a way, I felt less pressure this way. The step from parochial PSV to cosmopolitan Inter is a big one. And it wasn’t all complete for me, I was living in a hotel room… Now we have the apartment, now I can really settle and focus on football.”
The language is still a challenge for Denzel, but the weekly intense lessons do pay off. “The Inter football, or actually, Italian football is very tactical. Completely different for me. I play on intuition. I want to leave everything on the pitch, but here it is not needed, not even desired. I am the wide back in a 3-5-2 and I actually play more like a midfielder. Perisic helps me a lot, he plays in my role on the left. And all these guys, they’ve been in Italy for a while now, they all understand the Inter tactics to the T. It helps me, all the players can explain to me what is needed.” The typical decisions a wing back are dealing with? “When to squeeze inside, when to stay away. In Holland, when the ball is on the left flank, you squeeze inside. I have been doing that for 20 years! Now, in Italy, they want me to stay wide. Don’t come in. I am working hard with the assistant coaches to get my decision making right.”
The Inter games and tactical plays are all based on patterns. “We practice this to the nth degree. Is it boring? Sometimes yes. We sometimes practice with eleven versus zero. It’s almost computer-directed football. You know exactly where to play the ball when. Every player is programmed like this. It’s totally different to the Dutch approach and I will have to adjust. I do notice I am getting smarter in situations, I do have more ease on the ball and that is the way they want me to play.”
So when are the training wheels off? “Hahaha, for me, I think after the winter break. I want to present myself fully. I am now used to the team, the tactics, the coaches, the opponents… I feel I am ready to be the number one right winger for Inter. And I want it like that. The first months: adapting to the new world, but now I’m there.”
Asked what Denzel’s high point of 2021 was: “Ha, the Euros of course. I was in such a flow. Like a dream come true. My first goal for Oranje was against Ukraine. I had missed a sitter in the first half, so my winner was like orgastic wonderful, hahaha. I was so focused on success. I realised that 7 years before, I was in Amsterdam cheering them on and I remember thinking: this is what I want! I didn’t know it was going to be so amazing. I am playing with top notch players, like Gini, Frenkie, Memphis… so playing in Oranje is made easier because of this. And I am not of their level on the ball. But I have something different. I have my energy, my will and personality. I can help the team with that.”
Is getting ousted by the Czechs on that so favourable side of the draw still an open wound? “Ah no, I can talk about it. We noticed on the pitch that we weren’t playing our usual level. It was tough, hot, the pitch was slow and we didn’t have it. But we were in the game until the red card. I don’t blame De Ligt, I mean… we failed as a team, really. It’s such a waste, but what is there to say. We played in Budapest, a Euros match and literally 5 hours later I am standing in my living room again, thinking… “And now what??”. It just crashed dramatically, no one had expected this.”
And so Frank de Boer resigned. “Yes, and I get that. What he had to endure on social media and in those football programs… Lower than low. I thought it was terrible. He is very experienced. I thought he was a great guy. Crazy about football and very focused on the mission. He is a good man.”
And then Inter. “Yes, but it didn’t go smoothly. I was also talking to Everton. Also a top notch team but for me, Inter was the top. The best option for me. Champions League. Historical club. Those colours. The San Siro. Milan, Italy. I mean the whole package. But I had to call my agent (Raiola) daily at a certain point to push because I was getting a bit anxious. And then I was sitting in the Inter dressing room before the derby vs Milan and the roar of the crowd… I realised then and there: this is why I am here…. And to walk onto the pitch, where greats like Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Seedorf, Davids, Van Bommel, Bergkamp have played… goose bumps.”
And now, onwards and upwards with Oranje and Louis van Gaal. “Yes he is different. Unique, probably. He’s open, honest and truly interested. But he can be tough too. And that is needed. The qualifications went well, bar that away game against Montenegro. Up 2-0 and conceding two goals at the end of the game, I mean…those matches, you might play one of these in 20 years. And it happened to us right then and there. And we knew, it has to happen now versus Norway. The pressure was on and we felt it. I mean, Van Gaal in a wheelchair, Bijlow out, De Vrij out…. The signs were not good. We were vulnerable. I sat next to Frenkie in the dressing room and after the match we realised it was still a close call. We left it late. But now we can look ahead and prep for even bigger things.”
Denzel Dumfries: 30 international games. “Yes! And I’m only 25 years old! I mean, this is all a dream.”
Qatar, the World Cup. A dream too but for some a nightmare… “Yes, I am very aware. We all are. We have made a statement and we will speak out when we want to. We have a role model function, I get that. Other than that, I believe we can really do something at the World Cup. In terms of age and clubs represented, we can be proud: Inter, Juve, Barca, Liverpool, PSG, Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, Spurs, Valencia, I mean… that is the level of players we can bring to Qatar. I’m super excited. But my biggest joy will actually be happening in the winter break: we’re expecting our second child, a girl this time! I want a big family, so yeah… we are well on our way. On all levels, hahahaha.”