After a 56-year absence from the Men's Olympic Football Tournament, the Netherlands will be back at Beijing 2008, and with an excellent crop of talented young players at their disposal. Among the gifted youngsters vying for a place in coach Foppe de Haan's line-up are Liverpool wide man Ryan Babel, Real Madrid utility player Royston Drenthe and Valencia's Hedwiges Maduro.
The latter, whose surname means 'mature' in Spanish, has
had to live up to his name since moving to
Los Chés in the January transfer window. Despite joining
the Primera Liga outfit in the midst of one of their most turbulent
seasons to date, which began with a UEFA Champions League campaign
and ended with a relegation dogfight, the 23-year-old deep-lying
midfielder has enhanced his reputation with a series of composed
displays. He also has a medal to show for his first half-season in
Spanish football, after helping his new side to victory in the Copa
"It's been a difficult year for the team and though our league campaign wasn't good we've got every right to be pleased with winning the Copa del Rey, which ensured we'll be in Europe again next season," said Maduro, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "On a personal note, every match I've played has been a bonus. The experience gained when playing against the top-quality players in this league can only help make me a better player," says the Dutch international, who has played in eleven league and four cup games since his transfer from Ajax.
After such a tumultuous season, the Almere-born player will shortly be off for a well-deserved holiday, before coming back with his batteries fully charged and ready for the Olympic Tournament in Beijing this August. "I'm very excited to have this opportunity because the Olympic Games are an amazing competition. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in fact, many great players have never had the chance to go. It's a very special tournament and I'm really pleased."
And nor will it be Maduro's first appearance at a major
international tournament. After breaking into the Ajax first-team
as a green 20-year-old back in February 2005, a club where he would
go on to win two Dutch Supercups and two Dutch Cups, within weeks
he had been given his full international debut by Netherlands
senior coach Marco Van Basten. To cap a remarkable season, Maduro
Oranje shirt with distinction at that summer's FIFA
U-20 World Cup on home soil, where the hosts made it to the
quarter-finals only to lose to eventual runners-up Nigeria.
Maduro continued to impress, becoming a regular in Van Basten's national squad in the qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™. However, his involvement at the world showpiece was restricted to a substitute appearance in the group clash against Argentina.
After a Klaas Jan Huntelaar-inspired victory at the UEFA European U-21 Championship in 2006, the class of 2007 successfully defended their crown on home soil to qualify for Beijing 2008. "We've got a very good squad, but we mustn't be complacent because many of our rivals also have very strong teams," says Maduro of August's showpiece on Chinese soil. "Argentina and Brazil for example will both be there. We might be very good in European terms but let's wait and see how we compare with the rest of the world."
The task ahead of the Netherlands certainly has a global flavour, after the finals' draw pitted them against the United States, Japan and Nigeria in Group B. "I think it's a difficult group with some very powerful opponents. We'll have to find our best form right from the start of the competition," warned Maduro. "Every game will be tough because we'll surely be considered the team to beat. They could well line up very defensively against us, so we need to be 100 per cent focused to produce our best football."
The Netherlands have three Olympic football bronze medals in their trophy cabinet, though all three were achieved in the early 20th century. Can De Haan's young charges add a new lustre to the Dutch Olympic story?
"It's difficult to say how far we can go before the competition gets underway," says a cautious Maduro. "But we've got a quality team, we get on really well and the mood in the camp is very positive. I think it will all depend on how we start the group phase and whether we have that slice of luck that you always need in football. If everything goes well, we can go very far."
"We've got some big-name players but this squad's
real strength is that the players are good friends," reveals
the classy midfield man. "We've known each other for a
long time and we've got a very good relationship. We're
prepared to work hard for each other on and off the pitch: the
squad has a really great vibe."
There to add his weight of experience to the Oranje cause will be Feyenoord's Roy Makaay, who has been pencilled in as one of three permitted overage players. "He's a very experienced striker who scores a lot of goals," is Maduro's verdict on the former Bayern Munich and Deportivo La Coruna hitman. "It'll be very good to have him with us. He'll make us stronger and more dangerous."
And after such a long spell away from the Olympic arena, Maduro believes this generation of Dutch stars must grasp their opportunity with both hands: "It's a huge honour to represent your country at an Olympic Games. We have to enjoy this experience to the full."