DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The Netherlands is looking to make two statements in its opening World Cup game on Monday against a Senegal team that has to quickly get over the loss of forward Sadio Mané.
The first is strictly about soccer and establishing the team as a contender for the title in Qatar alongside the likes of top-ranked Brazil, defending champion France and Argentina. The Dutch have gained less attention in the buildup to the tournament after failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia four years ago, but arrive as one of the top teams in Europe.
“I believe in this squad of players,” Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, who is back for a third spell in charge, said Sunday. “I think we could become world champion.”
The second statement the Dutch want to make at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha centers around the long-running criticism of the World Cup host country’s laws and human rights record.
The Dutch soccer federation is the leader of the “One Love” anti-discrimination movement and Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk is expected to wear an armband with a multi-colored heart-shaped logo in defiance of a FIFA order to keep politics out of the World Cup.
The “One Love” armbands are a criticism of Qatar’s laws criminalizing homosexuality. The England and Wales captains have said that they will also ignore FIFA’s directive and wear them when they open their World Cup play on Monday.
Among international coaches, Van Gaal has been one of the most outspoken critics of letting the small but wealthy emirate host the World Cup, a decision which he has called “ridiculous.” He toned down his criticism earlier this week in his first media conference in Qatar and then declined Sunday to answer any more questions on “political issues” at the World Cup.
“I’m no longer going to speak about political issues. I’m focusing on this match,” Van Gaal said. “And I’m asking all my players to do that and concentrate on the game.”
But while Van Gaal drew a line under his comments on the politics, the Dutch soccer federation reiterated that Van Dijk will still wear the “One Love” armband against Senegal.
The World Cup will likely be the last major coaching assignment for the 71-year-old Van Gaal, who announced this year he has prostate cancer and has been receiving radiation treatment. He rated this squad as better “on average” than the 2014 group he coached to the World Cup semifinals in Brazil.
Netherlands has lost three World Cup finals — in 1974, 1978 and 2010 — and although there’s a long road ahead in Qatar, the Group A game against African champion Senegal is the biggest early challenge for the Dutch and a good indicator of how far they might go. Host nation Qatar and Ecuador are the other teams in Group A.
Netherlands is on a 15-match unbeaten run under Van Gaal but will definitely not start with striker Memphis Depay against Senegal, Van Gaal said. The Barcelona forward should be available later in the World Cup though.
Senegal coach Aliou Cissé doesn’t have that option for Mané, who was ruled out of the World Cup on Thursday with an injury. The 30-year-old Mané underwent surgery for the right lower leg injury he sustained in a league game for Bayern Munich two weeks ago, removing Senegal’s most potent attacking threat and the heart of the team that won the African Cup of Nations in February for Senegal’s first major soccer title.
“It’s a great shame for Sadio Mané and it’s a shame for the team. And it’s a great challenge for us,” Cissé said. “All coaches build their team around its best player. But we have a strong team … and our status as African champion gives us a lot of confidence in our abilities.”
Mané’s absence also means no World Cup matchup with former Liverpool teammate Van Dijk, a defender who is playing at his first World Cup at the age of 31. Van Dijk said he phoned Mané the day after he was injured to console him.
“I feel sad for him,” Van Dijk said. “I know how hard he works for this and he wants to be important for Senegal and he has been important the last couple of years. It’s tough.
“Obviously he’s going to be a big miss for them … hopefully we can benefit a little bit from that.”