Clinical, technically gifted, quick, impressive to watch - the compliments have been coming thick and fast after the Netherlands' first two games of UEFA EURO 2008. And having put a combined seven goals past the two finalists from the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, the Dutch have rapidly assumed the mantle of tournament favourites. One of the stalwarts of this seemingly flawless unit is a player who may be lacking in flair but certainly not in heart: Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt.
Though Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart all help give the Dutch a razor-sharp cutting edge, the team's success so far owes just as much to Kuyt's less-heralded talents. Built like a pugilist, and with a style more akin to a manual labourer than a master craftsman, Kuyt has nevertheless grown into a vital cog in Marco van Basten's machine.
A born scrapper
The epitome of combativeness and indefatigability, he patrols the right-hand side, hustling and harrying, doggedly defending, snapping at opponents' heels and scrapping for every loose ball. Against Italy, he provided two assists. Against France, he scored with a header when he beat Florent Malouda to a corner which he had won himself. And above all, he prevented Patrice Evra from mounting raids down the left flank, thus ruining Les Bleus coach Raymond Domenech's plans for the adventurous Manchester United defender.
The son of a fisherman, he began his professional career at the age of 18 with Utrecht, where he had to work his socks off to gain a first-team place. But after claiming twenty goals in the 2002/03 season, as many again the following campaign in a Feyenoord shirt and an even more impressive tally of 29 in 2004/05, he was snapped up by the Reds, where he has fought tooth and nail to silence his detractors and become a key component in Rafael Benitez's side.
With his national team, he has faced a similar battle to convince. As recently as May, his place in the squad for EURO 2008 was by no means certain. Coach Van Basten may have had his doubts, but the player himself did not: "The coach said that he wanted to try other players in the friendlies, so I just had to prove him wrong."
It was indeed hard to see how a team blessed with such an
embarrassment of creative riches might accommodate Kuyt, despite
the 40 caps he has won since 2004. "He has players who can
change the course of a match at a stroke, and others who work for
the team," said Kuyt prior to the European showpiece.
"And I have no problem admitting that I come under the second
And while the flamboyant Arsenal star Van Persie was expected to start on the right, instead it was Kuyt who burst into the action. "I've worked hard to hit my best form at this tournament," he explained after the 4-1 win over France. "So I'm delighted to have started the first two games. And if I can chip in with goals and assists too, then I'm twice as happy."
"We're managing to defend well and, from this solid foundation, we're successfully launching attacks," was the verdict of Oranje coach Van Basten after watching his side torment the French. "We have intelligent players in the middle of the pitch and the spirit in the camp is good."
Top of his game
Soon to turn 28, the versatile Kuyt appears to be hitting his peak, as do the Dutch side as a whole. While he believes the Netherlands can go all the way, he is determined to keep a cool head. "We feel we can achieve something great here," he said.
"We've put in two fine performances, but now we have to prepare for the challenges to come. We want to go all the way and I believe we can, but it's important not to get ahead of ourselves."
A down-to-earth attitude that would surely have brought approval from Kuyt's father, who followed his son's career with fierce pride until passing away with stomach cancer on 29 June 2007. With the final of this summer's competition falling on the first anniversary of this sad event, there would be no greater tribute than Kuyt junior helping the Netherlands lift the trophy in Vienna.