Virgil van Dijk, teenage cast-off turned Dutch giant
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.
The Dutchman lost out on the 2019 Ballon d’Or to Lionel Messi by a handful of votes but earned the recognition of his peers by winning the English PFA Players’ player of the year prize.
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.
A torn ACL sidelined Van Dijk for over nine months and kept him out of Euro 2020, where the Dutch flattered to deceive and exited in the last 16 after cruising through the group stage.
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.
– ‘Physical monster’ –
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.
He was working part-time as a dishwasher in a Breda restaurant while in the Willem II academy, and 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.