The Netherlands were one of two teams to reach the knockout phase having taken a maximum nine points. The Oranje’s reward was a Round of 16 meeting with a heavily unfancied Slovakia. FIFA caught up with attacking midfielder Rafael van der Vaart to discuss his and the Netherlands’ form so far, some of his country’s key players, their upcoming game and the Dutch chances of winning the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
FIFA.com: The Netherlands won three straight matches without playing their best football. Having had to work hard for those victories, can we say that the Dutch are mentally strong?
Rafael van der Vaart: Yes, for sure. I think we haven't been playing our best matches ever, but fortunately we didn't have to. But we won relatively easily and we are quite happy, because we played in a group with tough opponents. If you win three games and end up with nine points, you did a good job. Also, when you consider that we’re making progress, especially in the last match, then yes, it's starting to look good.
Were you happy with your personal performances in those matches?
The first two matches, not really. It was difficult for me because the spaces on the pitch were tight and I was playing in a position where I normally don't play. But in the last match it went very well. I played well and was on the ball a lot. I didn't misplace many passes, and that’s the way I like to play.
You have a lot of experience in other competitions. How different is it playing at a FIFA World Cup?
A World Cup is always something different. You play for your country and have the feeling that the whole world is watching. And as a country, you want to establish something that the whole world will talk about. At this moment the Netherlands have a strong team. The other teams are taking us into account, so I think that's a good thing for us. And of course there is a certain amount of pride because you’re playing at the highest level.
You are relatively young, but in the team you are the second-most experienced international. Do you feel that puts a special kind of pressure on your shoulders?
No, I think we’re all under the same amount of pressure. I already have 81 caps, that's a relevant amount and of course I'm very proud of it. You always want to be an important figure in the team, and I think with my experience I can be important. But we have a lot of really experienced players, because they all play with big clubs who play a lot of big matches, so that makes it easier to perform at a World Cup.
Slovakia are next up. Having eliminated Italy, you won’t be underestimating them?
No, definitely not. We were able to see the first half of the match between Slovakia and Italy, and I have to say I was impressed. They are physically very strong and they have a good team. So we have to take that into account for sure. But we have to be honest as well, and if we can play our own game and play a good match in which we all give one hundred per cent, we will win.
A team can lose a match in the group stage but still go through. Now, you lose and you’re out. Does that leave you under more pressure?
Well, you have to win every match now. In the group phase you also feel the pressure, but now the pressure is really on. One mistake can mean that you have to go home.
The Netherlands have quality, experienced players in every line: Stekelenburg in goal, Van Bronckhorst at the back, Sneijder in midfield, and Van Persie up front. How important is this?
Of course that is the most important thing. It all starts with the goalkeeper. He took over from [Edwin] Van der Sar, who was the best of the world. It's not easy to substitute a guy like that and if you succeed in doing that like he has, with only one conceded goal, which actually was my fault, that's great. He’s very good in one-on-one situations. Van Bronckhorst has already won 100 caps, is the captain, and is really important in the squad. Wesley [Sneijder] has had the best season of all our players. He's a fantastic player and has an incredible shot. Then there is Robin [van Persie], who came back from injury and has already been really important for us, especially in the last match when he scored a goal. He also gave an assist in the first match. He’s coming into form and is a fantastic player.
Finally, how far can the Netherlands go in this tournament?
It will be difficult. Of course, everybody thinks that we are one of the favourites. Everybody in the Netherlands wants us to finally become the world champions – we do too of course. It's something that we all really want and I think we have the quality to become champions – we are all convinced by this. But there are many strong countries in the competition. Now we have to play against Slovakia but if we win we will play Brazil or Chile. So, the further you get, the more fifty-fifty it will become.