It takes something special to achieve universal recognition from the footballing world as a defender. The ability to stop goals is certainly nowhere near as eye-catching as those who create chances or put the ball in the net themselves. For this reason, Virgil van Dijk’s monumental 2018/19 is up there with the very best campaigns for a defender in living memory.
In almost three decades of FIFA’s awards recognising the globe’s top player, the top three in the running to be named the outstanding men’s footballer on the planet has consisted of a defender just four times. Of those four, just two can be regarded as out-and-out defenders (Fabio Cannavaro, winner in 2006 and Paolo Maldini, second in 1995), as Lothar Matthaus (winner in 1991) was converted later in his career to a sweeper and Roberto Carlos (second in 1997) was certainly more focused on his attacking duties. It is needless to say then that number five, Van Dijk, is part of a rare breed.
FIFA.com sat down with the towering Liverpool and Netherlands defender, who is just as calm fielding questions as he is in the heat of a Premier League or UEFA Champions League battle against the world’s top forwards.
FIFA.com: It’s tough to make it to the final three of The Best as a defender. How would you persuade a youngster to be a defender, rather than an attacking player?
Virgil van Dijk: I think the most important thing when you’re young – eight years old or so – is to just enjoy the game. If you feel like you want to defend, go out there and do that and try not to let the opponents score any goals. The other message that I’d want to give is that not everyone has the perfect route to the top. Everyone has their own way of getting all the way to the top. Sometimes it’s a bit easier if you’re a bit more talented than others, but sometimes it’s with a lot of other things that come along as well – hard work, dedication – you need that little bit of luck as well. So, never give up and always follow and chase your dreams.
You reached the final three because of an outstanding 2018/19 campaign. What were the best moments for you from last season?
There were plenty of fantastic games throughout the season with some great goals, some great football. There were some personal awards for the season we had. We had the golden glove, the most clean sheets in the league, we had two golden boots, obviously Alisson won the Copa America and the golden glove there as well. There were so many fantastic things going on and it’s all credit to the hard work that we put into the way we play, defensively and in an attacking sense. I’m very happy that we had such a great season last year and we ended up winning the Champions League.
Your coach Jurgen Klopp [who was named The Best FIFA Men’s Coach] is so happy, cheery and positive all the time – he always has a laugh and a smile. Between us, he can’t be that happy all the time? Is there anything that’s annoying about him at all?
I’m never annoyed with him! But there are plenty of times when he’s shouting and he’s not happy, and telling everyone what to do. That’s him. That’s the boss. How everyone sees him on TV, that’s how he is. He’s that passionate. He wants to win every game. He wants to fight for every yard on the pitch if he were able to. He’s definitely not always smiling – and he’s definitely not always joking around! He’s shouting, and also giving us plenty of hard work to do, and some stick as well sometimes.
Three finalists [Messi, Cristiano and you]: three very different players and personalities. What do you think is common among the three of you that makes you the best three players in the world?
Well, the only thing I can say is that it’s the impact that all three of us had on our teams and the national team. I can only speak for my own situation in this case. I’m just very happy and proud to be amongst these players – some of the best that have ever played the game. Everybody has said that I deserve to be here after the season I had with Liverpool and Holland as well.
This season, along with trying to push for the Premier League title and defending your Champions League crown, you’ve got the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in December coming up too. The Copa Libertadores semi-finals are ongoing, Boca/River or Flamengo/Gremio – any preference to who you’d potentially want to face in Qatar?
They’re all fantastic teams. Everyone knows those clubs and everyone knows how passionate those fanbases are. It could be any one of those clubs, and whichever it is it will be a great atmosphere I think, plenty of fans travelling all the way out there. We’ll see what’s going to happen!