- Netherlands in FIFA U-17 World Cup semi-finals for first time since 2005
- Captain Kenneth Taylor playing a key role
- Mexico await them in the final four
The Netherlands are enjoying an excellent run at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Brazil 2019™, and the keys to their success are clear for all to see. Sontje Hansen up front scores the goals, Ki-Jana Hoever at the back marshals the defence and in between them, Kenneth Taylor is the fulcrum of the team.
"Kenneth is the captain and the right-hand man of our coach Peter van der Veen. The buck stops with him, he’s always the one driving us forward and everyone follows his example," team-mate Naci Unuvar told FIFA.com before the competition began, and as the tournament has progressed in Brazil, the Elftal’s later performances have certainly proved him right.
After two defeats to open their campaign, the European champions are hitting top form at just the right time – thanks in no small part to Taylor.
"I have a number of different tasks,” the captain explained. "I need to lead the team and dictate play. My performances weren’t up to much at the beginning but I’m very satisfied with the way we played against Paraguay in the quarter-finals. That was our best match to date in the tournament. And there are no excuses for our poor performances in the first two matches. We just weren’t good enough."
Indeed, Taylor’s play has been a microcosm of the team as a whole.
In the group phase, the Dutch suffered defeats to Japan (3-0) and Senegal (3-1) in their opening two matches, putting them on the brink of elimination. For the "virtual final" which saw them win 4-0 against USA, coach Van der Veen moved Hoever from the right into the centre of defence and Hansen from the wing into the centre-forward position, saying "when you lose two in a row, you have to change something... Kenneth is great in that respect.
"If we change tactics during the game or at half-time, he makes sure out on the pitch that it gets implemented. That’s why he’s incredibly important for us."
The coach does not see the alterations in positions as a problem.
"As far as this is concerned, you have to take your hat off to our youth academies," he said. "The players are trained there in such a way that they don’t get confined to one role. That was one of our focuses when we picked the squad for this tournament."
The Ajax youth system has certainly made a name for itself in recent years, producing the likes of Matthijs de Ligt (who now plays for Juventus) and Frenkie de Jong (now at Barcelona). And as early as the 1990s, the club with the most Dutch league titles to its name already had a reputation for churning out world-class players.
The next generation of diamonds in the rough are already beginning to shine, with seven Ajax youngsters in the starting line-up against the Albirroja including Taylor, Naci Unuvar and Devyne Rensch.
The No6 was again the stand-out Dutch player in the quarter-finals against Paraguay. He nipped any number of attacks from the South Americans in the bud in the middle of the park, and twice when he won back the ball, his team went on to score, although one of the two goals was ruled out due to a foul in the area.
"I play a little further forward for my club and tend to set up a few more goals, but for my country, my focus is first and foremost on defence," Taylor told FIFA.com. Despite this being his priority, he still managed to get forward into the opposing penalty area to support the attack against Paraguay. "I felt like I’d got a fair bit left in the tank so I thought I’d give it a go. And it almost got me a goal - but not quite, which was a shame!"
The Oranje are in the final four of a FIFA U-17 World Cup for the first time since 2005, when the team ended up finishing third. Here in Brazil they will face Mexico in the semis – the team who beat the Dutch at the same stage 14 years ago. "That’s not a problem," said a confident Taylor. "We’ve hit our stride here at the tournament and we’re up for winning the title."