No player embodies the spirit and versatility of van Gaal’s Oranje quite like Dirk Kuyt. Ryan Ferguson explores his growing importance at the World Cup.

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kuyt nedmeWhen Dirk Kuyt pulls on a pair of football boots, his coach, teammates and fans know exactly what he’ll provide. The versatile Dutchman will run himself into the ground; commit blood, sweat and tears for the cause; and generally play with a heart on his sleeve. That is standard, classic Kuyt. The ultimate utilitarian. Yet, in the searing sun of Fortaleza, exactly seven years removed from the death of his father, and playing out-of-position in a World Cup knockout tie, he faced the greatest test of a distinguished career. Against all odds, Dirk rose to the occasion, authoring a performance for the ages. With courage, application and a warrior-like optimism, he inspired Oranje to victory from the jaws of despair. It was a joy to watch.

Mexico were smart and dangerous, but possessed nobody who yearned to win quite like Kuyt. The former Feyenoord and Liverpool man, playing nominally as a left wing-back in Louis van Gaal’s revolutionary system, won his 100th Netherlands cap, and seemed determined to cement a fine legacy on the international scene. Indeed, on Sunday Kuyt became just the seventh Dutch centurion, behind Edwin van der Sar, Phillip Cocu, Frank de Boer, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. To mark the occasion, he produced a display of heart, valor and quality of which any Dutchman would be proud, including the icons with whom he now shares a pantheon.

It’s fitting that Kuyt should play seemingly every position on the field in winning his 100th cap, because it proves again how no Dutch coach can resist the temptation to include him. A succession of top decision-makers, from Advocaat and van Basten to van Marwijk and van Gaal, have selected Kuyt with persistence, valuing his steadfast reliability over the fleeting dynamism of other, more stylish candidates. Wherever he is needed, and whatever he needs to do, selfless Dirk Kuyt will give it his all.

Accordingly, he’s been near-ubiquitous in Dutch international football for the best part of a decade, running the channels, chasing the ball, and doing all the little things which give a team balance and afford it a chance to win. For a nation of talented but frequently undisciplined stars, Kuyt’s attitude and work ethic is much more than a welcome departure. It’s an essential ingredient, as proved by the regularity with which every Oranje coach finds somewhere, anywhere, for him to play.

In the case of Louis van Gaal, that principle even extends to plugging Kuyt in at left wing-back, an alien position for the Fenerbahçe forward, yet one which matches succinctly his impressive brand of altruistic football. Many were initially puzzled by van Gaal’s selection of Kuyt in this role but, in retrospect, it’s ideal for all involved. For the team, it’s a neat way of including another offensive body, which has a positive effect as Oranje look to break in offensive transitions. For Kuyt, it’s a complimentary arrangement which allows him to continue an elite international career well into his 34th year. For van Gaal, it’s a licence to incorporate one more Totaalvoetballer into his system.

Kuyt is able to fit into almost any system at any time, which matches the stylistic idealism of his national coach. In van Gaal’s tactical Rubik’s Cube, Kuyt is a central pillar, providing ballast to any plan, security to any idea, and maximum dedication to all strategies on the road to victory. When deploying a 5-3-2 formation, van Gaal places great emphasis on flexible, roving defenders who engage space rather than players. Often, you’ll see Ron Vlaar or Stefan de Vrij, confident with the presence of an additional defender, break from their line to squeeze vacant room or track a runner. Here, we see again how van Gaal, perhaps more than any other manager, respects the intellect and cognitive decision-making of his players. He allows his players to take responsibility, trust their instincts and manage a game. With his accountable “wherever I’m needed” approach, Kuyt embodies these principles finely and, therefore, becomes a major weapon in van Gaal’s arsenal.

In the early stages against Mexico, Holland hoped to counter-attack as in the group stages, using either Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben as a direct outlet. However, Mexico, more accustomed to the oppressive afternoon heat, looked after the ball far better than expected and deployed a deep defence of their own. To a certain extent, this negated the threat posed by Robben’s pace, whilst the loss of Nigel de Jong in midfield saw Oranje win possession in less dangerous positions. Accordingly, the first period ended in stalemate, with Mexico making a majority of the play but quality suffering amid the stifling heat.

When Giovani Dos Santos fired home the opener shortly after half-time, plunging Oranje into a deeply-uncomfortable position, van Gaal reacted by unleashing Memphis Depay from the substitutes bench and switching to a traditional 4-3-3 shape. This alteration, which galvanized the Netherlands and instantly increased the teams production, was again made possible by the versatility of Kuyt, who ambled across the pitch to cover at right-back.

In his second unconventional position of the day, Kuyt was calm, assured and accomplished in retrieving the ball and kick-starting Dutch attacks through Robben and Sneijder, who went close as Oranje redoubled the pressure on Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. As Kuyt grew into the game, raiding down the flank to aid continuity of play, Stefan de Vrij forced a stupendous save from the agile ‘keeper, who kept his nation ahead through sheer force of will.

With twenty-five minutes remaining, Kuyt, playing in direct exposure to the blazing sun which forced mere spectators from their seats, set about hauling his nation to victory. He ran even harder, further, and faster. He kept going, kept fighting, kept believing. He played as if inspired from deep within to honour his homeland and make proud his beloved father. I cheered Oranje with greater gusto, hoping that Dirk’s gargantuan effort would be rewarded.

The final ‘cooling break,’ after 75 minutes, provided van Gaal with one final opportunity to impart his tactical wisdom. Again, his iconoclastic plans involved sending Kuyt on a nomadic expedition; this time high up the field as a secondary striker off Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who replaced a tiring van Persie. With Georginio Wijnaldum now playing as a “False 2,” sliding back-and-forth between central midfield and right-back, Kuyt felt like the shackles were off. He left it all on the field.

All around, heads were bowed in frustration. Dejection reigned as Holland faced an early exit. The team was crying-out for leadership, and good old Dirk provided it. Sure, Sneijder, Huntelaar and Robben will receive wide acclaim for ultimately creating the goals which catapulted Oranje back from the brink but, in spirit, the nation owes a debt of gratitude to Kuyt, who chased and harried and hustled with gruesome determination.

He played an instrumental, nay intrinsic, role in the equalising goal. When Holland lost the ball deep in the Mexico half in the 88th minute, many players simply gave up, weary of body and mind. Yet Kuyt, endeavour personified, produced a game-changing sprint to close a ten yard disadvantage and beat an opposing defender to the ball, which spiraled near the corner flag. With strength and resolution, he swiveled and fashioned a corner out of absolutely nothing.

From said corner, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar peeled off to nod down into the path of an on-rushing Wesley Sneijder, who thumped away four years of mounting frustration with one heroic swipe of the right boot.


In a rather sagacious move, van Gaal again changed Kuyt’s position in accordance with the prevailing narrative of this absorbing encounter; the rubber-lunged saviour converting to a hybrid RW/RWB berth, from which he continued to recover possession and feed Robben.

Accordingly, Kuyt had an influential role in conserving and gradually intensifying the pressure which made Mexico crack in the depths of stoppage time. Of course, Robben was eventually tripped in the penalty area by a weary Rafa Márquez, and Huntelaar completed the monumental comeback by swiping home the resultant spot-kick.


Even in the remaining three minutes of additional time, Kuyt found it within himself to change position for a fifth time; the inspirational hero reverting to a deep-seated defensive role which saw him head and kick and boot away any growing Mexico momentum.

When finally the whistle was blown, confirming Holland’s progression to an exciting Quarter-Final, nobody deserved to shower in the glory quite like Kuyt. The guy was an absolute colossus.

It was left to Johan Cruyff, of all people, to speak for the entire Dutch nation in acknowledging Dirk’s importance. “You’re blessed as a team when you have somebody like him,” wrote Cruyff in his famous newspaper column. “Tactically, you can go in all directions with Kuyt.”

No higher praise can be accorded a Dutch footballer.

After one hundred games, this noble workhorse finally made it to the top of the mountain.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)