“Maybe it’s time for a defender to win it.”
There’s a glint in Virgil van Dijk’s eye as he delivers the killer line.
He knows that this is an unusual situation, an unusual achievement. Not many centre-backs get the better of Cristiano Ronaldo. Not many defenders outshine Lionel Messi or Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah or Kylian Mbappe.
Not many, though, are like Van Dijk.
The Dutchman is at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to receive his award for finishing as No.1 in the 12th annual Goal 50 list.
He’s the first Liverpool player to win it, the first defender, only the second Premier League player and only the second player from the Netherlands.
“Very proud,” Van Dijk says, examining his silver trophy. “Just to even be in that bracket, with so many great players, is something I am proud of.”
He’s getting used to this kind of recognition, of course.
In April, he was named PFA Player of the Year, while in August he picked up the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award ahead of Messi and Ronaldo. He is, at time of writing, the odds-on favourite to win the Ballon d’Or before the year is out, too.
That’s how good he is. Good enough to stand alongside, or even above, two of the greatest players of all-time. Good enough to be considered the world’s best. Good enough to be a European champion, captain of his country, a player respected and admired across the globe.
“Maybe now I don’t really understand how big it is,” he smiles, when asked about coping with such adulation. “It just comes at me and I am just absorbing everything.”
He pauses for a second. “But there will definitely be a time that I realise what is going on.”
Van Dijk’s modesty is endearing. He speaks of his team, of how individual awards are not possible without collective achievements. He is confident, but doesn’t enjoy talking himself up.
Fortunately, Goal‘s arranged for a few others to do that.
So, as Van Dijk sits down for his exclusive, in-depth interview, a number of clips play on the screen above him; ghosts of Christmas past, figures who have helped shape his career, from “a slow right-back” – his words – at Groningen to the Rolls Royce of a centre-half we have become used to at Celtic, Southampton and Liverpool.
“He’s the best in the world,” says Celtic boss Neil Lennon, drawing a smile. Lennon was the manager who brought Van Dijk to the UK from Groningen in 2013, and remembers his first ‘bounce game’ against Carlisle. He knew then that he was onto a winner.
“He went on this dribble,” the Irishman remembers. “He went past a couple and thought ‘I’m gonna hit this’. He was about 45 yards out, and it hit the bar and bounced out way beyond the box.
“I was like ‘that’s our centre-half there’, you know?”
Van Dijk would spend two seasons in Glasgow, making 115 appearances and winning two league titles.
“Celtic, what a time it was!” he smiles as a jokey message from Scott Brown, the Hoops captain, plays on the screen. Brown and Van Dijk became close pals at Parkhead, the firebrand Scot teaching the laid-back Dutchman the importance of a winning mentality, of never settling for second best.
“I had to get that in my system,” says Van Dijk. “Every game that we played, everyone expected us to win. And the way we played, most of the time we had 60 per cent ball possession, and we were just attacking all the time. That was something I’d never experienced in my previous career.”
Lennon remembers wondering “Where’s the catch?” after his scouting team had brought him a 15-minute compilation of Van Dijk’s best bits at Groningen. To this day, the Ulsterman still can’t believe Europe’s biggest clubs let him slip through their nets.
“Straight away, I was thinking ‘Rio Ferdinand’,” he says, though he goes on to reveal that, a few weeks into his Celtic career, Van Dijk was asked if he’d ever considered playing in midfield. “He was good enough,” Lennon adds. Van Dijk, though, was firm; he was a centre-back, nothing more.
By 2015, it was time to move to the Premier League – though again, the traditional ‘big boys’ were conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it was Southampton, managed by another ex-Groningen man, Ronald Koeman, who met Celtic’s £11 million ($14m) asking price.
“It was always a dream of mine to play in the Premier League,” says Van Dijk, watching a clip where Koeman refers to him as ‘The King’.
Van Dijk had got to know Koeman’s father, Martin, at Groningen. Ronald, he says, was a big factor in his decision to join the Saints.
“It was the right time, and I think it was the right club at the time too,” he explains. “The whole setup at the time was outstanding, and obviously the manager played a massive part in my decision to come to Southampton. I learned so much there, made massive steps there and will always be thankful for my time there.”
Jay Rodriguez, a team-mate at St Mary’s, remembers Van Dijk’s debut against West Brom.
“I knew then,” the Burnley striker tells Goal. “I said to my mates in the changing room that this guy was top class and could play anywhere.
“He could probably play anywhere on the pitch and be the best player. He’s an unbelievable talent.”
Van Dijk’s reputation soared on the south coast. He was Southampton’s player of the season in his debut campaign, and helped them to the League Cup final in his second year. By the time the summer of 2017 came around, the big clubs had woken up. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea were circling.
In the end, it was Liverpool who won the race, though only after a fractious few months in which relations with Southampton plummeted before being re-built. Van Dijk made it clear that Anfield was where he wanted to be and, in the end, he got his wish, the Reds paying £75m ($96.5m) – then a world-record fee for a defender.
“I made the decision based on many things,” Van Dijk says. “My [gut] feeling is always the most important thing, and the feeling I got from [Liverpool] was very good from the first second I heard they were interested.
“The other clubs that were interested as well, I was definitely happy and flattered as well, but Liverpool were the strongest in multiple factors, whether it was the coach, the players, the whole system we play, the fans, the culture of the club, the whole feeling that everyone has here, and the way we plan towards the future as well.
“That was always important for me to be a part of the coming years. I have been here almost two years now and so far, so good. I am just happy and glad that I made the decision to come here.”
‘So far, so good’ sums it up pretty well, actually. Since Van Dijk’s arrival, Liverpool have changed from a good team to a brilliant one.
There have been two Champions League finals, a record-breaking Premier League campaign – albeit one without the glorious finale – and a brilliant start to this one. That league title, elusive since 1990, has never felt closer.
“Did I expect it?” says Van Dijk. “I didn’t expect it to be as it is now, no. But I won’t take it for granted. I just want to keep it going.”
The video clips keep on coming. Messages from Rodriguez, from current team-mates Trent Alexander-Arnold and Gini Wijnaldum. A clip of Klopp speaking glowingly about his No.4.
One piece of footage, though, brings out the emotion. Van Dijk is shown a clip of Jamie Webster, the Liverpudlian musician, performing in front of 50,000 Reds in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, on the day of the Champions League final in June. The song he sings is Van Dijk’s.
“What a song!” says Van Dijk, his eyes glassy. “What a video, actually! A couple of my family members were in that crowd.
“I saw the video after lunch [ahead of the final]. We usually have a sleep, but I couldn’t. I was so excited, I wanted to just get out there. And I don’t have that too much!
“I was just ready to go, I wanted to go out there, get the trophy and party with them! I am very proud to get that song, and that video definitely gives me chills. It’s just outstanding, something amazing.”
Van Dijk remembers the moment he knew he was a European champion. He remembers Divock Origi’s shot hitting the back of the net, clinching Liverpool’s win over Tottenham at the Wanda Metropolitano. If only he could bottle it, he says.
“That’s the moment that plays in my mind,” he smiles. “I knew it was done, and I was lying flat down on the ground. The actual moment of the final whistle is just, you know, tears in my eyes from so much joy.
“It’s all the hard work we all put in. There are a lot of players in the team that didn’t have the easy road. Some players have to work for what they are, for example Robbo [Andy Robertson]. Where he came from and where he is right now is amazing to see.
“It should also give so much power to kids who are struggling at a young age, because you never know what might happen in the future.”
A year earlier, of course, Van Dijk, Robertson and Co. had been left heartbroken, beaten in the final by Real Madrid in Kiev. A chastening experience, but one which provided the steam for the following year’s success.
“What I felt before the final in Madrid was that I don’t want to walk through that guard of honour and get my silver medal,” Van Dijk says. “That feeling is the worst feeling you can have.
“I thought about it before the Tottenham game that we have to do it, we have to get the trophy no matter what. To actually win it, it’s something you will never forget.
“Not a lot of players in their career win the Champions League, but we actually did it. I think we will always be remembered in Liverpool history for that.”
He’s got that right. He only needs to listen on a matchday at Anfield to hear what Liverpool fans think of their heroes. Van Dijk’s song is a popular one, but Robertson, Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mo Salah – they all have their own.
“Proud, yeah!” grins Van Dijk. “That’s the only thing I can say.
“I’m just very proud that with the qualities we have we can make so many people happy, maybe sometimes angry as well! It’s something I just enjoy. As players, the only thing we can do is give everything on the pitch, and that’s what the fans do for us as well.”
What about the manager, then? What about the man who pushed for his signing at Liverpool, the man whose mix of man-management and tactical acumen has pushed the Reds to the summit? What about Jurgen Klopp?
“I definitely have a special connection with him,” Van Dijk says. “And I will always be grateful for him making sure I was going to come here.
“He’s just a fantastic, complete manager with a clear plan. He has fantastic player-management skills. He does it just on instinct, and he always says the right things.
“It just clicks at the moment, the whole philosophy of the club, with the staff, with him, with the players, it’s all one. I think that’s very important at a football club, and hopefully we can achieve more things all together.”
The signs look good, in that regard. Liverpool are top of the Premier League and progressing in Europe once more. Klopp’s side look the real deal.
Van Dijk’s mantelpiece, meanwhile, will need extending soon. He’s taken his time getting to the top, but his rise is no surprise to those who have seen him at close quarters.
“There’s no better player in the world right now,” says Scott Brown. Jay Rodriguez says that “this is what he was destined to do”. Pieter Huistra, who gave him his professional debut at Groningen, says his success has put Dutch football on the map.
Lennon, meanwhile, goes even further.
“I think he’s going to go on to be one of the greatest of all-time,” he says.
There can be no higher praise than that, surely?
Not bad for ‘just’ a centre-back.
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