Hard as it might be to imagine now, there was a time when Robin van Persie was Dutch football’s enfant terrible.
The talent was apparent even then, but sulking off the field and strops on it led many to question whether this then-winger would ever realise his potential. Injuries and inconsistency didn’t help either, but it was Van Persie’s volatility and perceived immaturity that raised most question marks among his many detractors.
Even to long-time admirers, the Van Persie of old is unrecognisable to the player and, more significantly, the person who today leads by example as captain of the Netherlands’ national team. That reluctant winger has blossomed into one of the game’s most efficient, effective and consistent centre-forwards, and when the Dutch needed rescuing against Spain on Friday, no-one was surprised by the identity of their saviour.
Van Persie had barely finished celebrating his equalising goal, in fact, before footage of his brilliant diving header had been tweaked online to show him flying to meet the ball in an orange cape. What followed seemed just as fantastic as any superhero story, with the Manchester United player striking again as the Netherlands turned a one-goal deficit into 5-1 win over the world and European champions.
The consequences were inevitable. The Dutch, having been considered too young and too weak to challenge for the Trophy, suddenly found themselves installed among the favourites. Yet faced by this sudden wave of optimism and elation, who else would be found bringing a nation back to earth than the team’s serene and, yes, sensible skipper?
As Van Persie told FIFA: “The tournament has barely started yet. We achieved an impressive result but we have a long way to go to win this tournament. This is my fifth [major] tournament and I know how these things work: the euphoria vanishes just as quickly as it appears. So we have to make sure that we hold on to it – not only for the people and fans, but also for ourselves.
“Everybody is euphoric and happy in the Netherlands. We are dealing with people’s expectations here, which had been low compared to other years. I actually think this worked to our advantage because nobody expected much from us. But after such a performance, the dynamics have naturally changed. However, as a country, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We have to stay realistic.”
He may exude calm and moderation, but Van Persie – while guarding against wild expectations – is keen not to detract from his team’s achievement in crushing the reigning champions. Neither the result, nor the manner in which it was achieved, could possibly have been anticipated, and the Dutch captain was among those taken aback.
“Spain have won everything there is to win over the past six years,” he said, referring to La Roja’s run of victories at three successive major championships. “They have shown the world what they have to offer again and again, so to break their streak is fantastic for us.
“It was an amazing start for our World Cup, and I think we’ve made a lot of people very happy. I’ve seen the spectacular footage and images from the celebrations across the world, and that makes me so proud. However, as I said, those were only the first three points. Now the focus is on Australia, and I think that will be completely different to the game against Spain.
“Australia have a very different style and I think we are going to have to adjust our own game to beat them. It’s an interesting process, having to adjust your game every time. However, we have a fantastic technical staff who know exactly how to prepare us for matches, so I’m not worried.”
The mutual respect between Van Persie and Louis van Gaal has been a key feature of this Oranje era. It was, after all, the Old Trafford-bound coach who took the bold and controversial decision to strip Wesley Sneijder of the captaincy and hand it to his star striker. Van Persie, in turn, has repaid that faith by emerging as the top scorer in Europe’s World Cup qualifiers, becoming his nation’s record marksman in the process and, now, inspiring one of their most famous victories.
“We have a coach who’s won everything and who is greatly respected and trusted by our team,” he said. “And we are in tune with what he wants. If you have such a connection with your trainer, and I speak for the whole team, it is definitely a huge advantage. Our coach isn’t easily impressed, and he lets us know too. So we are taught to respect our opponents, but not be intimidated – because we are just as good. That’s something we proved to everyone against Spain.”