With Sweden out, my World Cup experience improved. I’m a bit double about Belgium. I have a lot of sympathy for them and really love their team and players but to think about them winning the World Cup before we do… That was hard to do. But that is not going to happen. So now I’ll root for England. They were one of my faves from the get go, although I did tip France for the title. It’s not that bad, to have to say we were blocked from getting to the World Cup by the future winner, right?
Only one week to go and then this second debacle for Oranje is behind us and we’re all even Steven again. Ready to go for the Euro2020 tournament. (Which is where?? I really don’t know… England?)
Lets talk about another World Cup star who couldn’t show his skills at the top level this Summer.
He was the spectator in Cardiff, last season, when Real Madrid and Juve played for the CL title. This season, he played in the finals. Virgil van Dijk lost, but that doesn’t stain his magnificent rise to stardom. The complacent and talented defender grew into Big Virg. Lets look at how.
He had his chin up, when he was analysing the lost CL finals in Kiev in front of the cameras, right after the final whistle. There was a lot to say about the match. Sergio Ramos’ wrestle move to get Salah out of the game. The blunders by Loris Karius, the Liverpool goalie. But Van Dijk didn’t do excuses. “Excuses don’t count. Losing is an art we have to master as well. We win together and lose together. So tonight, we applaud the winner and take our loser medals home to try again next time. And yes, losing Salah was a blow, but we still have enough quality left to win this. But we didn’t. Mistakes are part of football. It’s a shame we were the ones making them tonight.”
Virgil van Dijk spoke as a player who’d seen it all, at the highest level. The UEFA selected him in the Best Team of the Champions League this season, which is another high after setting the record transfer fee for a defender and getting the captain’s band for Oranje. A series of high points in a career in which luck played a strong factor as well.
The story has been told often. Scout Grads Fuhler decided to go and watch the Willem II juniors on a certain Saturday afternoon. Player’s manager Wessel Weezenberg was there as well and recounts the story: “Any football player can use some luck. Van Dijk…it wasn’t like you couldn’t believe your eyes, wow he’s so good kinda thing… But he was good enough to attract attention. And that was something at that level. His name was Van Dijk and when I asked about him that afternoon I found out he didn’t have a contract yet. I did go and speak to him but he told me he already had someone taking care of his business. Usually, I walk away. But Grads was convinced. He was calling FC Groningen manager Henk Veldmate when he walked of the grounds: “Henk, sign this kid now!”. They signed a potentially good defender for the development fee of 12,000 euros. Nothing!”
That was then, the summer of 2010. The summer Oranje lost the World Cup finals vs Spain and Dutch football was experiencing an alltime high with Sneijder winning the CL finals with Inter. No one could guess that Virgil would be the world’s most expensive defender 8 years later. Or that Ronald Koeman would see in him the new leader of Oranje.
Kees Kwakman played in the Groningen defense next to Van Dijk for two seasons. “I knew he would make it big and that he’d reach Oranje. He’s the kind of player that attracts the eye, when you see him. You’re like: whoa who’s that? His charisma, length, his facial expression. He was so strong. I remember our first training, and I was triggered immediately. Very relaxed on the ball. He was a junior coming in but I realised that it wouldn’t take long for him to get into the first team. And I think it took six games for the coach to be convinced and he never left the team since.”
The Van Dijk story at Groningen is worthy of a movie. And that movie was produced, as a documentary on Fox Sports. And all the supporting actors were present. Scout Fuhler, Henk Veldmate (now Ajax) talk about how they picked him up for a song. His coaches Robert Maaskant and Erwin van der Looi talk about his development and his growth, his talent and agility but also about his weaknesses. His soft side. Complacency. A bit phlegmatic. And Groningen CEO Hans Nijland, big thinker. Nijland smiles broadly when he talks about the development of all these big talents in the North of the country (Robben, Koeman brothers, Suarez, Tadic, Van Dijk, Hateboer)
In the documentary, Dick Lukkien is the most clear of all. He is now the famed coach bringing Emmen into the Eredivisie, but when working for FC Groningen he was the one polishing the rough diamond that was Virgil van Dijk. Lukkien mentions four characteristics of Van Dijk: confidence, conviction, intelligence and humour. The biggest weakness according to Lukkien: despite Van Dijk’s strong radiance, he was not the toughest. And Lukkien worked hard on this to make him ready for the striker in the Eredivisie. And once he gets to that level, the high points come as do the low points. He makes personal mistakes, in particular in big matches (Young Oranje vs Young Italy) or against big opponents (PSV, Ajax).
Kees Kwakman: “Virgil was so strong that even Graziano Pelle of Feyenoord said he had never played against a defender so strong. And that’s a striker from Italy! But Virgil kept that laziness in his game. And I saw it again, in the international vs England, some months ago. That goal. I’m cursing in front of the tv. Virgil, you’re two meters tall and one meter wide, throw yourself in front of that ball. But that nonchalance is maybe a strong point of his. He never panics. And when Liverpool pays 84,5 mio for you and you play your first derby vs Everton, everyone talks about that fee, and bam…you head home the winner… well, that is Virgil.”
Kwakman used to be a tad jealous when he looked at Van Dijk. Kwakman had less talent and had to work a lot harder for it all. Fate did help a bit. It started as belly ache on a Monday, and four days later Virgil was on intensive care in the Martini hospital with a combined appendicitis gone wrong and a kidney poisoning. Virgil almost died then and there. “When Virgil came back he had lost weight. He was weak. Same as me, as I also came back from injury. So we both started that season earlier, with special programs and he was only getting stronger and better. When we were halfway the season, him and Tadic, they played at 70% for us and they were the best on the pitch. It was clear both players would be on their way out.”
Somehow, none of the big clubs in Holland dared to take the gamble. They all saw his talent, but there was always doubt. Maybe it was that health scare, maybe it was his complacency. Kwakman: “I was shocked to be honest. When you are in doubt, pick up the phone. Call Maaskant, Huistra or Van der Looi. Or Veldmate or call me, even! They would have all heard the same story. But no, and now he went to Celtic for a small fee. Any Dutch top club could have paid that. There was a plan to bring Van Dijk to the top and his agent Chin did a good job. Celtic was a good sub station for this. When you demonstrate your skill there, the English clubs will see it. And Koeman was the smartest of them all. And he saw what we now all can see.”
Scotland was a winner indeed. After a few weeks, manager Neil Lennon can’t believe Van Dijk plays at Celtic. For the price of a small Ford, the club has acquired a Rolls Royce, the manager would say. “I was impressed with his temparement, his physical strength and his completeness as a player. I could see him play passes over 50 yards at Groningen. Right on the chin of the forwards. I figured some Premier League side would get him. We ended up signing him for 3 mio euros. I wondered, what did I miss. Does he have one eye? During his first practice session with us, I told him: Mate, enjoy the time you’re here. It won’t be long! He was the steal of the century.
Lennon is still surprised Van Dijk ended up playing two seasons in Glasgow. Lennon did get many calls about van Dijk from many different managers in England. “I told them all: sign him! And still it took two seasons. And Liverpool got him now, for only half of what they made on Coutinho. If they would have done their homework, they could have signed him for 15 mio euros. Southampton was the smartest of them all.”
Ronald Koeman took the punt. “I knew him from the Eredivisie of course. When I was at Feyenoord, I had De Vrij and Vlaar and he was on my list to sign, but we didn’t have that kinda cash to just get a player for a position we had covered. So we never signed him.”
As Southampton manager Koeman did have the cash and signs Virgil. “I know there was more growth in him. When he was at Celtic we would go and watch him. And you could see he was playing with ease there. Also in the CL games. He has the charisma, leadership and he’s a good football player too. Can he make that last step up? We thought so. I was surprised we could sign him this easily.”
Once in a Southampton jersey, Koeman sees all Van Dijk’s skills. But, Koeman also sees that all the doubts about Virgil were legit. “He is the total package as we seay, but he has a tad of arrogance, or complacency. I decided to work with that by making him important. When you are so good as he is, you need to do more. You need to step up and lead. And by giving him the responsibility, he became sharper. He needs to be triggered, challenged. And at Liverpool, he will be on a weekly basis.”
In Southampton they still revere Koeman. He made almost 70 mio pound for the club. And also Sadio Mane was a 40 mio profit player for the Saints. Koeman smiles: “Yes both players did well for the club and the CFO but we also got some signings wrong. But yes, since that Neymar deal, this market is going berserk. I think it’s a good step for Virgil and for Liverpool.”
Ronald Koeman picked Van Dijk as the new captain. “When I started with Oranje, it was a new start. And I decided that with a new start, we needed a new captain. Virgil has the right age. Plays for a big club, in a role that is good for a captain, so…lets see if he has it in him. And with Van Dijk and Wijnaldum playing the CL finals, Dutch football will get a lift. I hope to see that learning curve back in Oranje.
In Liverpool, no one moans the fact that Van Dijk is the most expensive defender in the world. Klopp actually sees Van Dijk as his missing piece of the puzzle. “Everyone says WOW what an amount! But I don’t. The price is decided not by us. But by the market. We look at his qualities, at what he can bring to us. We are 100% convinced Virgil will make us stronger. And with him, all the other players will be able to lift their game, so that price tag, it’s the price we pay to make Liverpool better.”
Gini Wijnaldum knew what Liverpool was getting with Virgil. “I knew him of course, and he is perfect for us. The perfect leader on the pitch, strong, brave and off the pitch a truly relaxed guy, both feet on the ground. Everyone likes him here.”
Jordy Clasie summarized Van Dijk’s career. The little midfielder played with the Oranje skipper at Southampton. “When he came to the club it was clear from the start: here was a confident player, who would make us all look good. And he developed into a world class player. And then to think that no top club in Holland believed in hm. If you know his story, you know how amazing his journey was…”