It is heartening that the scaling of individual and domestic heights have not doused Virgil van Dijk’s appetite for a national cause. Qualification by the Netherlands for next summer’s European Championship marked another milestone for the Liverpool centre-back, who barring injury will appear in a major tournament for the first time. Dutch failure to reach Euro 2016 and the World Cup two years later provided an itch Van Dijk was anxious to scratch. These failures provided deep embarrassment.
“I’m delighted that we are back at the Euros, back where we belong I think,” said Van Dijk, who made his international debut in 2015. “We’ll not look too far ahead but we are looking forward to this. It means a lot to the people. I’ve heard we’re going to probably play all our group games in Amsterdam. It will be massive.
“It was a big thing for us to miss those tournaments, it was tough. But we don’t need to look too far back, we need to focus on now and everything is looking good. We still have to make a lot of progress and we’re very happy that we can show the spirit, talents and the quality we have at the Euros. Personally, I think we’re back where we belong.”
The same applies to Van Dijk himself, of course. It would be ludicrous if a player of such standing was not afforded at least one crack at a major international tournament. “I’m not doing much different to what I do at Liverpool,” said the 28-year-old of a captaincy role in Ronald Koeman’s side. “I feel like I can always improve. The 18-19 season was outstanding personally but also on the team level. We set the bar pretty high. I’ll just focus on the team; outside of that I don’t really care to be honest.”
Van Dijk – who will miss the Netherlands’ match against Estonia on Tuesday after withdrawing from the squad for personal reasons – is a relatively experienced hand in a Dutch setup that includes the youthful brilliance of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek. Linked in part to the recent prominence of Ajax, there is a prevailing sense of a new and exciting generation within Dutch football. Unity – not always a staple – is key. “We have a strong squad, very close, and the manager likes to keep the squad the same,” Van Dijk explained. “Everyone is very good with each other but in the end it’s all about the end product on the pitch. So far so good, now we have to just keep it going and we will.
“We know we can improve, can do a lot better in certain aspects of the game. But you know, we qualified after missing two tournaments, so we have to enjoy it.”
When pressed on what Dutch finals aspirations should be, Van Dijk gave a legitimate warning. “We have missed two, maybe we have to get used to it again,” he said. The prospect of a knockout meeting with England and so many familiar faces drew both a smile and a reminder that the Netherlands defeated Gareth Southgate’s team in the Nations League. “They are fantastic, fantastic players, but the knockout phase is too far ahead to think of,” said the former Celtic defender.
Koeman cut a contented figure after Saturday evening’s scoreless draw against Northern Ireland, which confirmed the Netherlands’ finals berth. The likelihood is Germany will win this qualifying group but no one in orange seemed particularly perturbed about that.
“We always have pressure,” added Van Dijk. “We are players at big clubs and we have to do it all together. Since the manager has come in the way we play, set up, outside the pitch how we present ourselves as a group? So far so good.
“We have different styles of play. We showed we can match the fighting spirit of Northern Ireland and we can play through bigger countries; France, Germany as well. We have fantastic players but we have to show it and stay humble.”