Doha: A draw that felt like a point won for both sides, and so naturally the players were more willing to talk.

This was a bruising game for the Netherlands, they’d been pummeled by waves and waves of Ecuador attacks but got out rather unscathed, with a 1-1 draw that means they only need a point against already-eliminated hosts Qatar in their final game to go through to the knockout rounds.

The game against Ecuador, however, was a chance for the Netherlands to show how far they’d come under their septuagenarian coach Louis van Gaal; an opportunity to show their credentials of going all the way.

Was it a chance missed perhaps?

“No, I don’t think we could’ve done anything differently,” Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk told Dawn in the mixed zone after the game at the Khalifa International Stadium when asked whether there was a problem with how the Dutch had been set up by Van Gaal.

For all his success, Van Gaal’s pragmatism has long been a dividing point for the Dutch, where the idealism of ‘Total Football’ remains ingrained. Netherlands were set up as 5-3-2 in defence, a formation that transitioned into 3-5-2 in attack. But they were unable to do much with the ball as the continuous Ecuadorian pressing and harrying didn’t allow them time. That’s how Ecuador’s equaliser came, their captain and talisman Enner Valencia pouncing after Cody Gakpo had given the Dutch a sixth-minute lead.

“It’s a point won for us,” said Van Dijk. “Ecuador came at us very quickly.”

Interest in the Group ‘A’ game was far lesser than the ones involving other European or South American teams so the press pack at the mixed zone wasn’t overwhelming.

Perhaps it was one of the reasons Liverpool centre-back Van Dijk spent quite some time there, answering questions from each reporter individually instead of it being a scrum. Superstar players like him usually rush out of here, onto the team bus, unwilling to talk to reporters who spend considerable time waiting for them.

Van Gaal and the Netherlands don’t have much time. This is the 71-year-old’s last tournament before he calls it a day and returns to being retired. Having won every trophy there is at club level, Van Gaal is looking to deliver a first World Cup title for the Dutch.

There is a personal side to his story too. The former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United gaffer is suffering from an aggressive prostate cancer. In their qualification campaign for the World Cup, he kept coming in and out of the hospital while undergoing radiation therapy. At times he was bound to the wheelchair.

Van Gaal knows he’s facing death. Eight years ago in Brazil, he led the Dutch to a third-place finish and was brought in to revitalise the side after they had failed to qualify for the last edition of the World Cup in Russia.

Van Dijk was asked whether it added pressure for them. Whether this was a race against time for this young side, which has a lot of promise for the future.

“It’s a World Cup so of course there is a lot of pressure,” he said. “But of course, that’s an added aspect for us. We want to keep giving our best and the aim is to go as far as we can.”

Van Dijk’s team-mate Nathan Ake, though, had a different assessment.

“No there is no extra pressure,” he told Dawn in the last question he answered before heading to the team bus. “We are trying our best and we want to get better from here in.”

Ecuador have a story of their own of their struggle to qualify for the World Cup. Having finished fourth to grab the last automatic qualifying spot for the tournament from South America, their right to participate in Qatar was fiercely contested by rivals Peru and Chile who alleged that they’d used an ineligible player on their road to the first World Cup in the Arab world.

Just 12 days before their opening game against Qatar, the match that opened the World Cup, did the Court of Arbitration for Sport pass a verdict in their favour that allowed them to participate.

Now, a draw against Senegal will be good enough to take them through.

“We’ve worked really hard for this,” Ecuador’s Gonzalo Plata told Dawn in Spanish, the interpretation done by a World Cup volunteer who knew five languages. “I think those in Peru and Chile would be watching us and enjoying how we’re faring at the World Cup.”

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2022

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