Van Dijk, teenage cast-off turned Dutch giant

Netherlands captain will finally get his chance on biggest stage of all this month


AFP November 02, 2022

PARIS:

One of the world's most formidable defenders, a combination of circumstance and misfortune means only now is Virgil van Dijk set to appear at his first major international tournament.

From a teenager essentially discarded by Willem II to an underrated prospect at Groningen, Van Dijk became the world's most expensive defender when Liverpool signed him for £75 million from Southampton in 2018.

He quickly ingratiated himself with Anfield supporters by scoring the winner on his home debut against Everton in the Merseyside derby, and his arrival coincided with a run to the Champions League final.

Van Dijk's displays the following season helped the Reds return to the biggest game in European club football, with Liverpool defeating Tottenham Hotspur to lift their sixth European Cup weeks after being pipped to the Premier League title on the final day by Manchester City despite racking up 97 points.

Van Dijk played every minute during the Covid-interrupted 2019-20 campaign as Liverpool ended a 30-year wait for the English title, but his absence was keenly felt the next season after he was injured in a collision with Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

The 2014 World Cup came too soon for Van Dijk, who didn't make his Netherlands debut until a year later. But the national team's declining fortunes saw the Oranje miss out entirely on Euro 2016, despite the tournament's expansion to 24 countries, and the World Cup in Russia.

Described as a "physical monster" by Erling Haaland, it wasn't until Van Dijk grew 18 centimetres the summer he turned 17 that his transformation from "a slow right-back", as he told the BBC, began to take shape.

Had it not been for the intervention of Martin Koeman – the father of fellow Dutch internationals Ronald and Erwin – he may never have made the grade.

Koeman scouted Van Dijk while working for Groningen, the club the latter would join on a free transfer in 2010. Van Dijk made his debut the next year but was taken seriously ill, aged 20, with peritonitis and kidney poisoning.

"I remember lying in that bed. The only thing I could see was tubes. My body was broken. I couldn't do anything," he told Voetbal International magazine, revealing he had signed "a sort of will" to prepare for the worst.

Van Dijk soon recovered and impressed once more, but found no suitors among the bigger Dutch clubs, paving the way for his transfer to Celtic in 2013.

Southampton came calling after two seasons in Scotland as the Koeman connection resurfaced, with Ronald coach of the club on England's south coast.

Van Dijk's performances caught the eye of Liverpool, prompting the defender to put in a transfer request that was eventually granted in January 2018.

Shortly after he was named captain of the Netherlands by Koeman. In Qatar he will finally get his chance on the biggest stage of all.

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