- Virgil van Dijk among the nominees for The Best FIFA Men’s Player
- World-class defender overlooked early in his career
- Netherlands and Liverpool star now regarded as at the top of his field
When footballers reach the very pinnacle of the game, humble beginnings will always get romanticised. Now regarded as one of the top defenders – if not the very top – in the world, it’s no surprise that Virgil van Dijk’s past has been given similar treatment.
And who can blame people. The image of the towering Netherlands captain – the scourge of strikers throughout Europe since his move to Liverpool – washing dishes in the back of a Breda bar and restaurant, while still a 17-year-old, is a charming one. Particularly for a player now nominated for The Best FIFA Men’s Player.
While some teenage prodigies are sporting price-tags accompanied by six zeroes, with their path to the top seemingly mapped out before them, that wasn’t the case for Van Dijk – even if he was already a physical presence. He wasn’t even considered a rough diamond at the time.
“He was a rock on the pitch, but I didn’t really see the new captain of the Dutch national team,” Robby Hendricks, his Willem II youth coach, later reflected, while he suffered from having “too many limitations” according to reserve coach Edwin Hermans.
“From the start he was big and solid on the ball, although he struggled a little bit when it came to his decision making.
His speed, calmness on the ball and passing ability surprised me. This, together with his obvious physical superiority made him a very complete footballer.”
Having not got a look at the Tilburg club’s first team, and flown totally under NAC Breda’s radar, Groningen gave him his first platform to shine. He was scouted by a man who knows a good Dutch defender when he sees one, too – Martin Koeman, the father of Oranje legend Ronald (who would later coach Van Dijk at Southampton and now with the national team).
Even then, having muscled his way into his new side after the first international break of the 2011/12 season, playing 90 minutes in 20 of the next 22 games, it wasn’t plain sailing. A serious case of appendicitis, which threatened his life and hospitalised him, saw an abrupt end to his breakthrough. “My body was broken,” he recalled.
There was no going back to the sidelines once he returned, though, with coach Rob Maaskant knowing he had something special in his midst. “When I saw him play, there wasn’t any doubt that I was going to pick him,” he told the Telegraph. “He was a strong character, great passer but a bit nonchalant now and then.
“When he walks around, he looks like one of those basketball players when you see them off the court. So slow and then the game starts and all of a sudden – boom – they can do everything.”
That element in his character was arguably what dictated his path forward. While a few missteps against the big boys of the Dutch Eredivisie saw the likes of Ajax and PSV pass on him, that attitude was a trait that caught the eye of Celtic.
“I remember first clapping eyes on him and being impressed in terms of what he had at that stage as a footballer,” former Celtic chief scout John Park told the Daily Record. “Virgil was a free spirit at Groningen.
“I quite like that in a player, someone who likes to gamble even though it will lead to the occasional mistake. I like to see young players trying something different. And Virgil would attempt things which was a positive quality in my eyes.”
Moving to Scotland in 2013 as an imposing 22-year-old, under the guidance of Neil Lennon he quickly became a fan favourite during two years in green and white. Any lingering doubters were proved wrong when Ronald Koeman subsequently brought him to Southampton and, with two and a half seasons maturing on England’s south coast, he moved to Liverpool for what was a world record fee for a defender.
With UEFA Champions League winners and runners-up medals, alongside helping the Reds to their best ever Premier League performance, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone on Merseyside – or in the Netherlands these days – who doesn’t consider him a fully polished gem.
“You could write a book about his skills, his strengths, how much I like him, what a fantastic person he is.”
Van Dijk went 64 competitive games for Liverpool without a single player dribbling past him, a run which included two Champions League finals.
The Dutch defender won a whopping 75 per cent of his aerial duels in the Premier League last season.
Since his arrival at Anfield in January 2018, only the free-scoring front three of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have scored more than Van Dijk’s eight goals for Liverpool.