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Virgil van Dijk, the wall

Virgil van Dijk never dared to dream as a child that he would go to the World Cup as the captain of the Netherlands team. But it happened in Qatar, and now he has the chance to lead his teammates to the very performance that the whole nation is hoping for. The 31-year-old Liverpool defender’s role is growing exponentially, especially as he will be tasked with blocking the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, in the quarterfinals.

Virgil van Dijk takes part in his first major tournament

It seems surprising for a player regarded as one of the best centre-backs in the world for the past decade, but Virgil van Dijk is taking part in his first World Cup. And at his first career major tournament. In 2010, when Holland was playing the final in South Africa in Johannesburg, the player had signed his first major contract with Groningen a few days earlier. And it proved to be a crucial decision then, one that really launched his professional career.

In 2014 in Brazil, when the Netherlands reached the semi-finals and finished in 3rd place, Virgil was already on his first experience at a club abroad at Celtic Glasgow but had yet to make his debut for the national team. This was a year later after he had made the move to the Premier League at Southampton. He made his debut under the command of Danny Blind, in a match against Kazakhstan, won with a score of 2-1.

But Van Dijk has turned into a global star in 2018. At the start of the year, the centre-back made his Liverpool debut. The Dutchman was transferred for a record fee for a defender at the time, €84.65 million, according to transfermarkt. Around three months apart, he also received the armband of Netherlands captain from Ronald Koeman after the national team had already missed out on the World Cup. He became an undisputed leader. And then it was practically the start of a new reconstruction at the Dutch national team.

At the Anfield club it would become a steppingstone for the great successes, the Champions League in 2019 and the English title in 2020, the first in the “Premier League” era. In 2019, he was voted the best player in the Premier League and the best player in Europe a year later. Also in 2019, in the Ballon d’Or elections for the best player in the world, only Lionel Messi received a few more votes. His share had reached 100 million euros!

Virgil received all the international recognition for his unquestionable worth. But the player still lacked something to feel completely fulfilled as a player. Attendance at a major competition. Van Dijk also missed last year’s European Championship. A serious injury, torn ligaments, kept him on the sidelines for several months. Finally, fulfilment came in November – December 2022 when he finally made it to the World Cup. At 31, but it’s never too late.

The Liverpool defender, an example in the dressing room

His colleagues from Liverpool, but also from the Dutch national team, admire him a lot for what he is in the dressing room, for what he does on the field. “I like that, it makes me always set the right example. The boys must be able to hang on to me,” said Virgil van Dijk.

But what makes the Netherlands centre-back special? First, he is very strong from a physical point of view, he is like a wall, which is very difficult to pass. Very hard to skip it. Norway striker Erling Haaland, who was his opponent in the World Cup qualifiers in Qatar, characterized him at the start of the year as the strongest defender he played against.

“You know how tall he is, how strong he is and how fast he is, and also the timing is crazy. I don’t think I won one duel against him because he’s a physical monster,” said Haaland of Van Dijk in a interview to ESPN.

For a guy who is 1.95 meters tall, Virgil has very good speed, he has a vision of the game and you often see him appearing on attack, where he scoring. As a central defender, he has already scored 40 goals for the clubs and for the Dutch national team. He’s basically everything you could want if you could create a profile of the ideal centre-back,” said Celtic scout Neil McGuinness when he brought him to Scotland in 2013.

Soon, at the World Cup, the Netherlands-Argentina confrontation will take place, the first big challenge for both representative teams. But also the first big challenge for Virgil van Dijk, respectively Lionel Messi. The Dutch defender hasn’t had yet a player in front of the Argentinian forward, who he must block. And the starting Albiceleste hasn’t yet to meet a defender with all the qualities of Virgil van Dijk at the World Cup.

“He is a defender who knows how to judge his timing and wait for the right moment to block an opponent. He is very fast and big but has a lot of agility for his height. He is fast because of his big step and he is impressive both in defense and in attack because he scores a lot of goals,” Messi described him in an interview in 2019 to Marca.

So, Virgil van Dijk vs Lionel Messi is already shaping up to be a heavyweight five-star showdown. Whoever wins can take their dream further, to become the first ever world champion. Without a doubt, the Dutchman will be a hard wall for the Argentine star to break down.

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