Sunday 10 October 2021, 07:53

Wijnaldum: The Netherlands are doing so well because of Memphis

  • Gini Wijnaldum has been on fire for the Netherlands in recent years

  • The midfielder discusses his Brazil 2014 memories and Qatar 2022 hopes

  • He hails Louis van Gaal, Virgil van Dijk, Memphis Depay and Lionel Messi

“Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy, Huntelaar, Van Persie… these players averaged a goal every two games. The Dutch have always had great goalscorers. Now they need to find one quickly or this streak may continue.” Those were the words of Jan Mulder following the Oranje's nadir. Somehow, after finishing runners-up at South Africa 2010 and third at Brazil 2014, they had missed out on qualifying for back-to-back tournaments: the UEFA EURO and the FIFA World Cup™. Fortunately, they stumbled across a solution. One of their players has, indeed, averaged 0.56 goals per game over his last 32 internationals, helping them reach EURO 2020 and lead their race for an automatic ticket to Qatar 2022. Astonishingly, he’s not a striker but someone Jurgen Klopp called “the perfect midfielder”. Gini Wijnaldum chats to FIFA about the Netherlands’ fine form, his own prolificacy, playing under Louis van Gaal, the brilliance of Virgil van Dijk and Memphis Depay, his Qatar 2022 hopes, Group G opponent Erling Haaland and becoming team-mates with Lionel Messi. The Netherlands have won three and drawn one under Louis van Gaal, beating Montenegro 4-0 and Turkey 6-1. You must be very pleased with the team’s form? Gini Wijnaldum: We are really pleased with the results. But we think we can play even better football than we have, especially when we have the ball, being more relaxed and looking for spaces where a man is free. We can do much better in this respect, but results-wise we’re very happy. What’s Louis van Gaal like as a coach? He’s a great coach – he’s showed that at the national team and at the clubs he’s worked at – but he’s also a really good person, who you can always talk to. As a coach he shows you exactly what he wants. He’s very strict with the way he wants to play. He wants to make sure everything is clear in the minds of the players. Everyone knows what they have to do and I think you can see that out on the pitch. One of the best things about him is that he is always eager to make players better. This obviously benefits the youngsters, but he wants to improve every player, even the experienced ones. You’ve scored 18 goals in your last 32 internationals from midfield. Was becoming a midfield goal machine a target you set yourself before this run started? Everyone who knows me as a player knows that I can score goals. I can break into the box and be really dangerous – scoring goals, creating chances. Scoring goals is always something I wanted to show I could do, but the circumstances weren’t always right. It depends on the team, which position you’re playing. Since [Ronald] Koeman came to the national team he put me in a position in which I can create chances, score goals. I’m happy with the goals I’ve scored, they’ve been important and helped the team, but I have to say it’s my team-mates who have enabled me to score the goals. I hope I can continue doing it for the national team.

Is Virgil van Dijk the best centre-back in the world? Everybody has their own opinion about it. Some people want to see a centre-back who’s good on the ball. Some people prefer a centre-back who’s a leader, who helps his team-mates. Some people prefer a centre-back who defends really well. Virgil has all of that. He’s definitely up there with the very best. What do you think of Memphis Depay? Memphis is a great player. I think the team is doing so well because of Memphis. Personally, I think I’m doing so well because he’s that good that our opponents are constantly having to keep an eye on him. This creates space for me, for other midfielders. He makes the players around him better. He’s a striker now but he does much more than score goals – he makes things happen, he gets assists. We’re very lucky to have him.

The outcome of Group G could come down to your last game against Norway, whose form has been indebted to Erling Haaland. What do you think of him? He’s a great player. It’s incredible what he does week in, week out for Dortmund. He’s been amazing in the Champions League. He was already showing what he could do at Salzburg, when he was very young. He’s one of the best strikers there is right now. I think he will only get better. He’s young and he will learn so much more. What are your best memories of Brazil 2014? How close we were as a team, how hard we worked for each other day in, day out. The trips to the games – we always had to fly – were memorable, [there was] such a great atmosphere in the squad. And our performances at the tournament. We came third. It was a great achievement, especially after many people thought we’d go out in the group stage. But my best memory was how close we were as a team, how we got on with each other. And I have to say that it’s also the same now. We’re all really close. We’re like family.

How hard was it to miss out on Russia 2018? It was really, really hard. Missing big tournaments is hard enough anyway, but it’s even harder when you’ve already had the experience of being at one. The World Cup was an incredible experience. To know how it feels to go to a big tournament with your country, and then to miss out in 2016 and 2018, it was really painful because you know what you’re missing out on. I didn’t really follow the EURO and the World Cup we missed out on. Every time I tried to watch it, it was just too painful. So we were really happy to qualifying for the EUROs in 2020 and we are desperate to qualify for the World Cup next year. What would it mean to the Dutch people to finally win the World Cup? Dutch people are really passionate about football, especially when it comes to tournaments – the EURO, the World Cup. You have to be in the country to see just how passionate the fans are when the Dutch team is playing. It would mean a lot to them. We’ve been to a few finals and lost them, so if we could bring the trophy home… I can’t even imagine how happy it would make people.

What’s it like to have Lionel Messi as a team-mate at Paris Saint-Germain? (smiles) To see greatness from such a short distance is hard to describe. He’s one of the best players ever. To see him train everyday is a real honour. And to see how nice he is as a person, it makes it even more special. Everyone at PSG is really happy. It’s given the club a real boost. I’m blessed to have him as a team-mate. Who do you regard as the best three players in the world right now? Everyone says Messi and Ronaldo because they have dominated the game for 15 years, and the third player in always different. When you talk about the best players in the world, people automatically say midfielders and attackers, but we also have great defenders. Virgil van Dijk is up there. I now play with Verratti at PSG and he’s phenomenal. People won’t say him because his role is not to score lots of goals and get lots of assists, but what he does in training and on the pitch is magnificent.