John Heitinga has a rare perspective on the World Cup. He knows what it is like to exceed expectations as a nation and stand on the precipice of history, only to suffer the personal devastation of being sent off in a final.
Now, as head coach of Jong Ajax, the club’s under-23 team, he has an understanding of how current generation view the tournament, having coached Jurrien Timber and Kenneth Taylor, two members of the Dutch squad in Qatar.
He also has an understanding of the man once again trying to lead the Netherlands to the trophy for the first time.
Louis van Gaal has been at his idiosyncratic best during the competition so far. He has hugged a young journalist in response to some kind words, told other reporters to go home for some not-so-kind words, reflected on his mother’s rosy cheeks at her funeral to contextualise his tanned complexion, and picked a goalkeeper in Andries Noppert who only began playing regular first-team football in 2021.
Heitinga had a different kind of experience. Four years after being an important player in the Netherlands’ run to the final in South Africa in 2010, he was left out of the squad for 2014 in Brazil, when Van Gaal was manager for the second of his three stints. Rather than bitterness, there is respect.
“From 2004 ’til 2012, I played almost all the matches in the Dutch national team, especially the tournaments, and then he became the manager,” says Heitinga, sitting on a leather sofa at Ajax’s De Toekomst training ground. “Most of the qualification games for the World Cup 2014 I was playing, but I was in a situation with Everton that I didn’t extend, I didn’t sign a new contract.”
Heitinga eventually chose to stay at Goodison Park, but by not recommitting he had fallen down the pecking order.
“That’s one thing that I regret, it was better for me to sign a new deal with Everton. So I didn’t play that much.
“Van Gaal said, ‘You have to make a move’. That’s why in January I made the move to Fulham. But in the end he was just clear, he said I didn’t play enough. ‘I would choose for someone else’.
“But from the first moment he was so honest with me. So it was not a surprise.
“Of course I was not happy I was not selected for the World Cup. I was watching it in Greece on holiday and they beat Spain 5-1. So I was really happy for the boys, but I was not so happy for myself because I wanted to be there.
“But that’s something with Van Gaal — he’s always honest with the players.”
Eight years on, aged 71, Van Gaal remains straight-talking. He takes his country into the last-16 tie against the USA and will select the side he feels best equipped to progress, whatever anyone says about Dutch traditions for attacking football. Van Gaal guided the Netherlands to third in 2014, having lost on penalties to Argentina in the last four.
In 2010, the Netherlands made the final for only the third time in their history — after twice doing so in the 1970s — and had chances to win, notably through Arjen Robben. But Andres Iniesta scored the only goal in extra time, seven minutes after Heitinga had been shown a second yellow card for tugging back the Barcelona midfielder.
“I think it was good there was no VAR,” smiles Heitinga. “Otherwise there was some more red cards.”
Nigel de Jong infamously survived a studs-up challenge into Xabi Alonso’s chest, but Carles Puyol, on a caution, could also count himself fortunate to stay on after trying to take out Robben when the Dutch winger was clean through.
Heitinga has previously described how he had to be held back by manager Bert van Marwijk, such was his anger at referee Howard Webb over his sending off.
Heitinga had blocked a certain goal by David Villa late in the game and his absence for those final minutes proved crucial.
Reflecting now, it is curious what sticks in his mind. “For me personally, I preferred not to play the final in Johannesburg, but in Cape Town,” he says. The altitude of Johannesburg, which is nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, had a particular effect.
He adds: “I remember Shakira performing in the stadium. But that feeling I had warming up, and the walk from the dressing room to the pitch, the ambience, so special. There were so many cameras for the team picture after the line-up, just for 22 football players. It’s insane. Every time when it’s a Euro or a World Cup, you go back to the memories.”
He says he didn’t watch the match back until last year during a television programme alongside Wesley Sneijder, Mark van Bommel and Dirk Kuyt. “Spain were the better side. But then again, you saw the big chance for Arjen, one on one with Iker Casillas. So, you were so close.”
Afterwards there was a party at the team hotel. “We were not in the mood. You lost the biggest game on earth. But it was a good party. Then we met the Queen.”
Heitinga was pleasantly surprised at the scene that greeted him and his team-mates at home. “We were flying with the helicopter, arrived in Amsterdam, and it was crazy. It was like over a million people, and celebrating a second place. Can you imagine if we won the World Cup?”
There is something to be said for carrying a nation on a journey, even if it doesn’t end in a trophy.
“We were really connected with the fans, and that’s something special that we have with the Dutch national team,” he says. “There was no social media like there is now. So when I had my wife or my parents on the phone, they told me, ‘There are over 100,000 people here at Museum Square watching the game on a big screen’. Oh, serious? That’s something — it’s once in a lifetime.
“The community is bringing people together. We are an example for the young players, the girls, the boys. That’s why respect is so important.”
Netherlands have now reached the stage of the 2022 tournament when penalties come into play. They have a chequered record on spot kicks. Van Gaal brought on Tim Krul as a specialist in the quarter-final against Costa Rica in 2014 and won. In the next round Van Gaal didn’t make a change, leaving on Jasper Cillessen. They lost.
Heitinga says so much about shootouts is psychological. He laughs at the time during the 2004 European Championships when he volunteered to take one at the team meeting before the game, only to realise he was a substitute for the match against Sweden. He had detected a few players did not want to put their hand up but, aged just 20, felt emboldened himself. He actually replaced Edgar Davids on the hour, took Holland’s second penalty and scored to help his country progress.
“I have a lot of respect for players who take a penalty,” he says. “A lot don’t — they run away from it. When you take a penalty you can miss. For some, you get the blame.”
He remembers another shootout from 2011. “It was in the FA Cup against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. I took the penalty and on my way back Ashley Cole was coming towards me. I thought, ‘OK, let’s try to get him out of his concentration’. So with my shoulder I hit him with my shoulder. If you go back on the internet you’ll see. ‘What is this crazy guy doing?’ He missed. Then, after, Phil Neville scored the winner.
“So every time I’m in England and visiting Everton, they always remember me for this moment. You have to find a way to beat the opponent. Sometimes the opponent is stronger so you need to get in their heads to win the game. Man City, they play the best football in the world, but how many time they miss a penalty?”
Experiences in England aid Heitinga as a coach. A holder of the UEFA Pro Licence, he was put in charge of Ajax’s under-19s in 2017 and stepped up the the under-21s last year. Jong Ajax play in the league below the Eredivisie.
“When I played for Everton and Fulham, the FA Cup ties against the lower teams, sometimes, were a nightmare. They are willing to die to go to the next round. They fight for every metre on the pitch and it’s really a battle.
“This is the battle that we have (at Ajax). ‘OK, you’re good, but if you want to be one of the future stars, you have to step up’.”
The production line is important given how frequently Ajax sell major players. It’s a solid conveyor belt. As well as Timber and Taylor, Heitinga has also worked with Devyne Rensch and Brian Brobbey, who are playing in the first team this season. All Heintinga’s sessions are geared towards crafting players for Ajax’s system.
“When I was young I wanted to be a No 10 because he’s the playmaker, the guy,” Heitinga says. “But the No 10 is not the only playmaker anymore, especially when you play against a compact organisation. More often it’s the two centre-halves. Even now when you take a look at Ajax, the full-backs have to play in the midfield as well.
“That’s why if you see our training drills, we play more the defence against the attacking side. We play in the opponents’ half. But also, when you’re not good on the ball the opponents counter-attack, and you have to feel the pain because then you’re more aware from what’s happening when you’re losing the ball.”
Manchester United fans have seen the Ajax philosophy this season with full-backs moving into midfield, especially Diogo Dalot. Heitinga says he enjoyed working with Erik ten Hag.
“The season we reached the Champions League semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur we were unbelievable. We played on the opponents’ half, constantly there was switching between the winger and the full-back. Sometimes we played with three No 10s.
“Erik ten Hag and his staff changed, not the philosophy, but the way of playing here at Ajax. You need to find a solution to destroy the compact organisations. That’s something every day Erik was working on.
“He told me as well when you play against a compact organisation it’s really important we score the first goal, because when they score the first goal, they’re dropping even more to play from the transition.”
Heitinga has watched United scores fluctuate, but insists to find success using a new approach Ten Hag needs patience. “They have to give you a little bit more time to build up a new team, like Mikel Arteta at Arsenal.”
Arteta was under immense pressure at the start of last season but will be top of the Premier League table at Christmas. Heitinga was Arteta’s team-mate at Everton and the pair would discuss retirement plans in the dressing room. “He had a great mentor with Pep Guardiola, of course, and you see similar things coming back.”
The day after Arsenal beat Chelsea 1-0, Heitinga, who is 39, asked his video analyst to download the game so he could study it further. “The pressing of Arsenal was really good, especially with Gabriel Jesus and keeping a team on one side. Sometimes you can create the things by yourself, sometimes you have to take a look what others are doing, so you can steal it and make it better. Put your own sauce on it.”
(Top photo: Lars Baron via Getty Images)
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