DOHA: It was at the sound of the ‘Azaan’ for Maghrib prayers at the Qatar University here on Wednesday evening that the Netherlands press conference came to a close; the sights and sounds of this World Cup in Qatar, the first Muslim country to host football’s showpiece, much different from any other host country.

The Dutch, though, are their usual self; much more open and engaging than other teams at major tournaments. Here was a second interaction with the reporters in two days ahead of their quarter-final clash with Argentina on Friday. Argentina, on the other hand, have been relatively quiet. Their only media interaction after their last-16 win over Australia will be on Thursday, at the official news conference on the eve of the quarter-final.

Naturally, there was a lot of Argentinean media present here. Once again, like on Tuesday, the focus was on how the Dutch plan to prevent Lionel Messi from inspiring Argentina to the semi-finals at their expense.

“Messi is one of the best players of all time,” said Netherlands’ defensive lynchpin and captain Virgil van Dijk. “He and Cristiano Ronaldo have been the standout players of the last two decades and achieved so much. But it’s not Messi against Argentina, it’s the Netherlands against Argentina. The target is to beat them. That’s what we’re focusing on. The togetherness we have in our team is special, everyone knows what their roles are, they’re here for each other and we want to keep that going.”

With the focus on Messi, Van Dijk pointed to the threat of the young Julian Alvarez, the Manchester City striker who got the second goal for Argentina in their win against Australia. “Alvarez is a great player, he has great speed and skill. He has a great future ahead of him but we hope he isn’t that good in two days,” joked Van Dijk.

There were smiles and laughter when Van Dijk was asked if Netherlands were facing an opponent that was possibly their strongest so far. “It’s disrespectful,” said Van Dijk, smiling, his team having overcome African champions Senegal and Asian champions Qatar in the group stage before overwhelming the United States, champions of North America, in the last 16. “It’s a quarter-final, and definitely, it has a lot riding on this,” said Van Dijk.

“This is a dream for us. It doesn’t bring extra pressure and we want to see our unity prevail.”

Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert, sitting alongside Van Dijk, was asked if he would be ready if he had to face Messi in a penalty shootout. “We’ve been practising penalties,” said Noppert. “There is a semi-final at stake. We try to do as much as possible to finish it in 90 minutes but if the time comes, we will be ready for that.”

When the two teams last met at the World Cup, in the semi-finals eight years ago in Brazil, Argentina prevailed in a penalty shootout. Louis van Gaal, who was the Dutch coach at that time, returned to take the Dutch to this World Cup despite battling with cancer. In his last ever tournament as coach, Van Gaal has spoken about taking revenge for that defeat.

“I don’t have the feeling of revenge,” said Van Dijk. “It’s a World Cup quarter-final and it’s special enough. We just want to get to the game and show our quality, our team spirit and try to progress to the next phase.”

The Dutch made their final preparations to do that in a training session after the press conference. But just like Argentina’s later in the evening, it was closed to the media.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2022

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