IN WHAT some interpreted as another clever ploy by manager Louis van Gaal to deflect attention from the story of Dutch goalkeepers, focus was trained on a goalscorer yesterday as the Netherlands’ plans for tonight’s World Cup semi-final against Argentina were hit by a fitness concern surrounding Robin van Persie.
The Dutch skipper cut an unhappy figure after being isolated from the rest of his team-mates yesterday as he trained alone in Sao Paulo – the striker having picked up a stomach upset. It is an infuriating ailment for the player to have contracted on the eve of one of the biggest matches of his career. It has also made for sobering news for the Dutch to digest after the elation of the goalkeeper-switch that paid off against Costa Rica.
If that drama seems recent, then it could be because it was. It was only on Saturday evening when the team came through a last-eight fixture that included such an absorbing finale that included Tim Krul replacing goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for the shoot-out. Van Gaal noted the tighter turnaround compared to other World Cup games, when a five-day break is the norm, but stressed top athletes should cope with challenge. The possible absence of Van Persie means there is the prospect this evening’s game could turn into a fright night for the Dutch. Van Gaal was asked an unusual question yesterday about whether children in the Netherlands should be allowed to stay up late to watch the action, following Saturday’s late finish. Van Gaal would not be surprised if tonight’s match became similarly extended, which could mean another cameo appearance by Krul.
“I would always allow my children to watch the game. This is unique,” said Van Gaal. “Just look at the impact of the World Cup at a global level. Most of the children are on holiday anyway so we should not deprive them of this experience. They will not sleep anyway. They will be so tense about wanting to know the result. I would recommend them watching the game.”
This discussion, sparked by a question from a reporter for a Dutch youth television programme, provided some relief from the worries over Van Persie’s fitness, which were compounded by the plasters the player sported on his legs yesterday. These, the manager explained, are precautions because of historical knee and thigh problems. “Van Persie is our captain and in that capacity alone is very important,” said Van Gaal. “In principle my captains always play but he has to be fit. As for the plasters on his legs, he always has them.”
There was good news for the Netherlands when Van Gaal revealed Nigel de Jong was back training with the squad. Remarkably, the combative midfielder could feature tonight. He was originally ruled out for the rest of the tournament after sustaining a groin injury against Mexico in their last-16 clash.
There is little, it seems, that Van Gaal cannot do. He described De Jong’s potential return as a “miracle”. Now the manager must focus on stopping Lionel Messi, the striker who many believe is destined to inspire Argentina to World Cup glory in the Maracana stadium on Sunday night. When asked if he had a plan to stifle Messi’s influence, Van Gaal remarked that “we do not refer to individual players, only teams”.
However, when pressed on the subject of Messi, he added: “I believe he was once elected football player in the world, that was not for nothing. If you can score as many goals as he has you have added value. At this stage, he can always pull it off. He has found it difficult to show consistent form at international level. But he wants to do that here and we have to stop it, which is quite a challenge.”
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella is the one blessed with having a player such as Messi on whom to pin his own ambitions of becoming a World Cup- winning manager, which must make his days of playing for Sheffield United and Leeds United in the late 1970s and early 1980s seem like a long time ago. Sabella arrived at Bramall Lane in the summer of 1978 as a 23-year-old when manager Harry Haslam took his search for fresh talent to South America. The story is that Haslam’s initial target was a 16-year-old Diego Maradona, whose signature even then proved hard to secure due to the hype surrounding him.
Sabella was persuaded to join instead from River Plate, and proved every bit as exciting an acquisition as someone signed from a country where the national team had just been crowned world champions would expect to be. However, life in the English Second Division was not always as comfortable as Sabella would have hoped. One former Sheffield United team-mate yesterday remembered him hugging a radiator in a dressing room to keep warm.
“He hated the cold,” said Tony Kenworthy. “At half-time, he would wrap himself around any radiator he could find in the dressing room. We played at Hartlepool and he didn’t come out for the second half. He wouldn’t come back out. He was too cold. We had to make a substitution at half-time.”
Even in drizzly Sao Paulo, the low temperature won’t be a concern tonight as Sabella aims to lead Argentina to their first World Cup final since 1990, in neighbouring Brazil of all places.
The manager signalled his determination to allow nothing to deflect from their purpose when scheduling their training session to coincide with Brazil’s semi-final with Germany, when nearly everyone else in the country sat stunned in front of the television.