Always attacking, always looking to penetrate down the flanks, to torture the opposition defence with his pace and trickery, young Eljero Elia is a throwback to the good old days of Dutch football. In a side built around patience, team defending and counter-attacks, Elia stands alone as the free-thinking maverick out left. “What I want is to get myself into good positions and make danger for the team,” the Hamburg winger, 23, told FIFA.com. “I feel like I have been doing a pretty good job when I get on the pitch and I want to stay hungry and keep going.”
Born in 1987 in the small Dutch village of Voorburg, Elia’s first name is a homage to his sister’s love of American singer Al Jarreau. She suggested her little brother should be named after the jazz crooner, and ‘Eljero’ was her way of saying his name. He is one of a small handful of players in the Oranje side with roots in Suriname, the tropical former Dutch holding in South America which produced such greats as Clarence Seedorf, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. He played with a succession of amateur sides before making a professional debut at just 17 with Ado den Haag in 2004. Three seasons later he was on the move again, to FC Twente, where he began to raise eyebrows, and in 2009, he picked up the Johan Cruyff Award for the best young player in the Lowlands.
“In Germany you don’t see many tricky wingers,” said Elia, who moved to Hamburg in the Bundesliga and picked up man of the match honours in his first two games for the club. “When they do, the fans go wild.” His first cap came in September 2009, and Elia – a favourite of current boss Bert van Marwijk – has become an explosive and improvisational element in a Dutch team built around solid contributions from the likes of Dirk Kuyt and Marc van Bommel and hit hard, in the opening phase of this tournament, by injury to Arjen Robben. He set up the second goal in the 2-0 win over Denmark in the group stage and has been a stinging presence up the flank, used primarily as a late-game injection of pace in place of Kuyt. Three of the Netherlands’ eight goals have come when the young man has been out on the pitch.
“Bah, we can play a lot better than we have,” the open and cheerful Elia told FIFA.com. It may sound like a strange assertion considering the Dutch have won their first four games, conceding only two goals in the bargain, but it is clear that the player is hoping for more from the Oranje, so often associated with panache and technical brilliance in the past. “We’ve been getting the results, but we’ve not yet shown the kind of team we are and the kind of football we can play,” he added. “We’ve been controlling all the matches, but I think we can still get a lot better and I am sure we will.”
Elia, whom team-mate Wesley Sneijder describes as “a true danger man," is hoping the side can turn on the style in their next game against Brazil, winners of five FIFA World Cups™ and as feared an opponent as any at these finals. Although another team associated historically with style and joyful football, Dunga’s A Seleção is a sturdier prospect entirely. “When we came here to South Africa we only had one thing in our minds: to reach the Final,” Elia said, clearly unimpressed with Brazil’s reputation or current status. “We’re not worried about Brazil or any other opponent because we just need to play our game.”
But the clash with South American royalty will be a meaningful one for young Elia, as the first time he ever saw the Oranje play was against Brazil. “At the World Cup in 1994,” he enthused, “I was six and watching the game with my family on holidays in Suriname, and they were all supporting Brazil!” With the dismissive bluster of a young man, Elia’s dreams are bigger than the next match, and how refreshing it is. “We came to South Africa to become world champions,” he concluded. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen.”