The Netherlands is looking to make two statements in its opening World Cupgame on Monday against a Senegal team that has to quickly get over the loss of star forward Sadio Mané.
The first is strictly about soccer and establishing the team as a contender for the title in Qatar alongside the likes of top-ranked Brazil, defending champion France and Argentina. The Dutch have gained less attention in the buildup to the tournament after failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia four years ago, but arrive as one of the top form teams in Europe.
“We have a great chance of also becoming a world champion,” said Dutch coach Louis van Gaal, who is back for a third spell in charge. “There are few coaches who dare to speak out like that, but I say this.”
The second statement the Dutch want to make at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha centers around the long-running criticism of the World Cup host country’s laws and human rights record.
The Netherlands soccer federation is the leader of the “One Love” anti-discrimination movement and Dutch captain Virgil van Dijk is expected to wear an armband with a multi-colored heart-shaped logo in defiance of a FIFA order to keep politics out of the World Cup.
The “One Love” armbands are a criticism of Qatar’s laws criminalizing homosexuality. The England and Wales captains have said that they will also ignore FIFA’s directive and wear them when they open their World Cup play on Monday.
Among international coaches, Van Gaal has been one of the most outspoken critics of letting the small but wealthy emirate host the World Cup, a decision which he has called “ridiculous.” He toned down his criticism this week in his first press conference in Qatar but still made it clear he would have preferred the tournament go to a different country with more soccer “experience.”
The World Cup will likely be the last major coaching assignment for the 71-year-old van Gaal, who announced this year he has prostate cancer and has been receiving radiation treatment.
Netherlands has lost three World Cup finals — in 1974, 1978 and 2010 — and although there’s a long road ahead in Qatar, the Group A game against African champion Senegal is the biggest early challenge for the Dutch and a good indicator of how far they might go. Host nation Qatar and Ecuador are the other teams in Group A.
Netherlands is on a 15-match unbeaten run under Van Gaal, who also coached his country to the semifinals at the 2014 World Cup in one of his previous spells.
Striker Memphis Depay said he has recovered from a hamstring injury, alleviating the most serious concern for Van Gaal, who said he’ll still likely keep the Barcelona forward on the bench against Senegal.
Senegal coach Aliou Cissé doesn’t have that option for talisman Mané, who was ruled out of the World Cup on Thursday with injury. Mané, 30, underwent surgery for the right lower leg injury he sustained in a league game for Bayern Munich two weeks ago, removing Senegal’s most potent attacking threat and the heart of the team.
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