Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Bert van Marwijk had to see the man on everyone’s lips for himself, even if it meant undertaking a rare scouting mission outside of The Netherlands.
As his flight landed in Lisbon, he held in his hand a ticket for Sporting’s Europa League tie against Lazio at the Estádio José Alvalade. His subject was said to be oblivious to his arrival, though given what was about to happen, you could be forgiven for suspecting he’d been tipped off.
The man Van Marwijk had come to see was Ricky van Wolfswinkel, and it didn’t take long for the striker to justify the hype. The Dutchman produced a moment of brilliance twenty minutes in; a sumptuous – if not audacious – flick with his left foot guiding the ball into the bottom corner past the diving Federico Marchetti.
“I've been trying to score like that, and this time it worked out very well,” he explained modestly after his side’s 2-1 victory.
He couldn’t have chosen a better time to pull it off, under the watchful gaze of the national team manager, and a man who had in the past spoken of the importance of his players expressing themselves and showing ingenuity. If this was a test of that, Van Wolfswinkel passed with flying colours.
A tentative start to life in Portugal, as well as the form of his competitors, has resulted in the 22-year-old not receiving the call from Van Marwijk so far this season.
The striker made his Oranje début last August in a friendly away to Ukraine, though that is his only cap to date. Yet a recent rich vein of form in front of goal may have the national coach thumbing through a Lisbon phone directory.
His summer move from Utrecht raised a few eyebrows. Van Wolfswinkel ended last season as FC Utrecht’s highest scorer with twenty goals - his best return in senior football to date. No stranger to transfer speculation in his time at Stadion Galgenwaard, his name often appeared on the grapevine alongside those of top Premier League clubs - notably Liverpool, Newcastle United and Tottenham. Although he was widely expected to make a move for pastures new, few could have envisaging his chosen destination.
“I can’t describe how happy I am,” Van Wolfswinkel said after completing his €5.4 million move.
“I can’t think of anything that isn’t good about this club. It’s very good for me: a club with a great coach, a great team and great fans. The stadium is spectacular. It’s at the same level as the best ones in Holland.”
After what he himself called “a slow start to the season” in which he often found himself on the substitute’s bench, the departure of Hélder Postiga opened the door to a run of form that has got people back home on Holland talking.
His first goal came 20 minutes after entering the field as a substitute against Paços de Ferreira. It was the all-important winner that sealed a memorable first win of the season for Sporting, who had at one stage been two goals behind.
Given football is largely a meritocracy, he was rewarded with a place in the starting XI for their following match, a Europa League tie with FC Zurich in which he again found the net.
To those familiar with the player’s strengths, what was happening wasn’t a surprise. Van Wolfswinkel is the quintessential poacher - with the right service, he will find the back of the net more often than not. Former Dutch international Jan Wouters, who worked with Van Wolfswinkel at FC Utrecht, stating simply that; “His biggest quality is scoring goals.”
It is Wouters’ former team-mate Marco van Basten who Van Wolfswinkel cites as his biggest idol, though he also looks up to FC Schalke striker and friend Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
As with Huntelaar, there’s an unfair stigma attached to Van Wolfswinkel suggesting that ‘all he does is score goals’. As if that’s a bad thing. Goals win football matches and bring glory, keep managers in their jobs and send the fans home happy.
But Van Wolfswinkel works for his goals. He times his runs well and finishes crisply, thanks in no small part to the hard hours he puts in on the training pitch. He’s not afraid to remind his marker that he’s there. Blessed with blistering pace, his acceleration is one his key facets, along with his aerial prowess.
And he wasn’t alone in making the move from Holland to Portugal over the summer. Stijn Schaars, former captain of AZ, signed for the club after talks broke down with PSV.
Schaars, like his compatriot and new club-mate, has also made a swift impact, slowly regaining the form that had some observers proclaiming a potential future national team captain.
Both Dutchmen were on the scoresheet in Sporting’s recent wins over Rio Ave and Vitória Setúbal, the latter being an exclusively Dutch affair.
Goals came to Van Wolfswinkel during his time in Dutch football – he struck 36 times in 78 appearances for Utrecht in his two years with the club – and the story is similar in Portugal.
Six goals in his last six appearances have not only got Van Marwijk scrambling for his passport, but have also lead to favourable comparisons with former club great Mario Jardel, who has nothing but praise for the Dutch marksman.
"He started very well. I hope he has the same success I had at Sporting. If he scores as many goals as I did. Then no doubt that Sporting will be champions.”
Comparisons have also been made with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who also once plied his trade in Portugal with Boavista.
The former Chelsea man played in an era of great Dutch forward, and was therefore forced to battle against Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Ruud van Nistelrooy for his 23 caps.
The story is similar for Van Wolfswinkel, who was last week left out of the squad for Holland’s final Euro 2012 qualifiers against Moldova and Sweden despite his impressive recent form.
Robin van Persie, Huntelaar, Jeremain Lens and Luuk de Jong have been named ahead of him. But one thing’s for sure, the fact Van Marwijk made his way to Lisbon to see Van Wolfswinkel does suggest a bright future lies ahead - could it begin in Ukraine and Poland?
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