Next Monday we open the competition and everyone thinks: we will be world champions.
‘Or not. The Dutch national team was largely tarred and feathered ahead of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine and the World Cups in Brazil and South Africa. We also lost Arjen Robben to injury in the farewell match for that last match. Then joined. If you ask me, we won’t be world champions again this year. I really think so. Other countries are strong, including several African countries, although you might immediately question England’s elimination from the Nations League and France’s finals in it. That’s the best thing about the game. Nothing can be certain or predictable.’
Surely a World Cup with every match being a final has a different dynamic?
‘That’s right. There is a good chance that the Netherlands will enter the first round, and then you can grow in such a tournament. Especially so now. They will meet on Monday and a week later they will play their first match. Kneading, confusing and pre-choosing is not an option this time. You should really use those, relatively easy, group matches. However, my fear is that you will miss out on Memphis Depay as he lacks match rhythm at FC Barcelona. The team is still a little short. We don’t have good alternatives for it. Louis van Gaal can certainly do something as a coach, but we are not strong enough in terms of width.
The national coach must be skeptical too, right?
The answer to that is very simple: no. That man is incredibly confident and gets more out of you every day. When I gave him a simple answer during my ten years as press secretary at Orange, he said: “It’s very easy for me. Think about the real answer.” He doesn’t just hesitate, he knows how to convey this to his people. Not only in words, but also in his attitude. Many journalists don’t know this because they don’t every day. Until I visited his house once, he was not really retarded. Until I saw that, I didn’t have a clear picture of him. He convinces his team with knowledge, not pride. Guys like Virgil van Dijk and Steven Bergwijn can easily see the latter. Footballers are like hunters. When the performance comes without you, they notice.’
Still: Most players aren’t hungry for a second air leg early on.
“No, as long as you work with him. Perhaps it is to his advantage that his tenure is shorter this time. In less time, less preparation time than he usually has, you can see him creating a situation: we all have to do it together. Constantly proclaiming that the team is good, sometimes playing badly, but showing discipline, arguing with the press, making amends with the press. Others are very tired, but he never is. He keeps some things private, such as the goalkeeper issue with Tim Krul. The story goes that he refused to test penalties, but I understand Tim himself told Lewis to concentrate on his role at Norwich City first. He couldn’t make those extra efforts at Orange. To be honest with him, I think Tim realized the World Cup was no longer an option for him. The lad is in the twilight of a long life and it remains to be seen how he fares in England. However, Van Gaal would never admit it and continues to tell his own story.
How to focus group during finals?
‘By walking away from football completely each time. Not just football. For example, in 2012, on the recommendation of Hans Zoritzma, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the historian Hermann Blige came to inform our boys about it in the evening. Two years ago, in South Africa, Erik van Muyswinkel, Najib Amhali and Ali B came for a pleasant evening and spent a free afternoon watching a film about the release of Nelson Mandela. That was an eye opener for many. We were immediately ushered into some chairs by the dark staff who waited with their backs against the wall to serve us our food. We thought they wouldn’t be able to see it otherwise.’
The selection also visited Robben Island.
‘I fought with the press about it because I didn’t tell them we were going there. I imagine it well, because I produced all that sports news myself, and such a report would have been fantastic. However, to prevent a sort of advertising spot from Orange on Robben Island, it’s best not to do that this time. But what do you think, when we were in Mandela’s room, having a briefing from one of his comrades who was imprisoned there, a bus full of Orange supporters drove in. “Look! Van der Vaart! Van Persie! Holland! Holland!” It sounded. That’s what I wanted to avoid. Then the boys also said: Sorry, but not now. No photos today.’
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